Halacha » The Great Mask Debate

The Great Mask Debate

At a certain synagogue in the city, the board met for one of their usual meetings. Amidst the discussion, the question was raised as to the requirement of wearing a mask in the synagogue. Some of the representatives were extremely careful to wear a mask in public, and they demanded that others in the synagogue do the same. However, there were others who refused to wear a mask under any circumstances, citing their individual rights to make decisions about their bodies. How would we deliberate on the matter?

Where a majority of the congregation has agreed to adopt a certain mode of conduct in the synagogue (or other places), the Torah requires the minority to cooperate.

The Rosh[1] writes, “Due to the principle of ‘Follow the Majority’ we are obligated to do whatever the majority of the congregation decides—the individuals must obey whatever the majority has decided. After all, no public decisions could ever be made if individuals had the power to ignore said decisions. If, however, no decision can be made by the public and it is causing dispute, the matter is thus turned over to community representatives or the communal Rabbi, as the Maharam wrote.”

The Darkei Moshe[2] quotes the Hagahot Maimoni[3], who states that whenever a decision cannot be reached by the community, a meeting of all the people is called (only those who pay dues if it is a monetary matter and the Chazon Ish[4] explicitly rules regarding non-monetary matters, even those who do not pay are included in the decision-making). At this meeting, each person speaks his mind – for the sake of Heaven – and then, the majority must be followed.

However, our case is actually a different type of decision. It is more similar to that which is brought up in various sefarim, such as what to do if some are hot and want to open a window, but others are cold and wish to keep it closed.

The poskim have two approaches to this question. Some say that even in this case, we follow the majority. So, for example, if most of the people are cold, the window should stay closed. The opinion of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach[5] is that it depends on what the majority would want during that time of year. For instance, in a public place such as a bus, it is forbidden for people who are warm to open a window when the weather is such that most would be cold. This is because most people would want the window closed in such weather. Similarly, the Shevet Halevi[6] states: “It is common today to use fans to cool the air in the summer. Particularly when most people want this, I am of the opinion that the minority may not prevent their use. In this situation, I believe that the delicate person (who feels that he will become ill from the use of the fan) must move himself away [rather than enforcing his needs on others].” Other poskim rule that we will even go with the minority opinion if what they are asking is normal for that period. For example, in the winter, those that wish to close the windows are asking for something reasonable. As such, the request should be granted even if it is only the opinion of one versus many.

Thus, it is said in the name of the Chofetz Chaim[7], “One should act in accordance with what it says in the Mishna in Pe’ah, [which states] that we listen to one who asks properly. So, if one asks to open a window in the summer, or close it in the winter, we do so.”

The Mishnah in Pe’ah[8] in reference states that even if ninety nine of the poor people ask the owner to distribute the Pe’ah (allowing them greater dignity), and only one person wants to pick it himself in accordance with the Torah’s Law, we follow the correct opinion of the one who asked that they all pick it themselves. Thus, we see that even where only one person is asking in accordance with the halacha, we follow his request, even against the majority.

This is the source for the opinion of the Griz[9], who states that regardless of the majority, we go according to the season. In the winter, for instance, an individual can prevent even a hundred others from opening the window. Rav Chaim Kanievsky on the other hand[10] questions this. After all, the Mishnah refers to a case in which the Torah itself has set the law. The poor are supposed to collect the Pe’ah from the field themselves! In contrast, there is no set law of how the window must be. Therefore, Rav Chaim rules that we should follow the majority if there is a reason why they want the window open or closed. Still, none of the explicit cases refer to the possibility of illness as an outcome of the decision. In our case, the mask in question is intended to prevent illness. In such a case, it is possible that the individual’s needs can be considered valid, even against the majority.

An example of such a case is brought by the Rivevot Efraim[11], who discusses the case of a classroom in which one person is extremely cold, but the rest of the class wants to open the window. Because no harm will befall them by being a bit warm, the individual’s potential illness takes precedence, for it is forbidden to harm anyone. This opinion is also that of the Divrei Malkiel[12] in matters which are vital to the community, even the minority can force the majority to accede.

Shevet Halevi[13] discusses if a congregation can install air conditioning when the majority wishes to do so, but the minority feels that it will cause them to become ill. He notes that where illness is a factor, the halacha states[14] that even a chazaka (established legal control) does not apply. The Rama himself states[15] that one who would cause physical illness to another is required to stop himself from doing so and cannot force the other person to avoid the illness by leaving. Thus, in our case, we cannot ask the elderly or those at risk, to go pray elsewhere. In contrast, it is normal today to have air conditioning in the synagogue, and it is also to the beneficial to the prayer and learning of most of the congregation. Thus, those few cannot prevent its installation. Still, it is forbidden to abrogate the right of the scholar or the ill person who feels that the air conditioning will be harmful. When they are members of the synagogue, a compromise must be found in which the majority may be slightly discomforted, but the few are not harmed.

There are several major points from the above:

  1. What is considered “normal” nowadays has halachic validity. This applies to wearing a mask, which is what the general public does at this time.
  2. In these matters, we generally follow the majority.
  3. Although we generally follow the majority, in a place where their opinion would harm or cause illness to others, even an individual’s opinion must be taken into consideration.
  4. Also, although we generally follow the majority, particularly where it would affect prayer or learning, one who is a regular member of the synagogue cannot be dismissed and told to go elsewhere, even if he wants everyone to wear a mask.

The Pitchei Choshen[16] seems to disagree with the Shevet Halevi, saying that it would be better for a person who may become ill to stay away from prayer and not trouble the majority. Still, it appears that the Pitchei Choshen is referring to a case in which the individual is not a regular in the synagogue. Furthermore, he adds: “If it is possible to have part of the synagogue open and another part closed, that would be best. However, this is even more difficult to accomplish in a place such as public transportation. However, when we understand and consider everyone’s points of view, it should be possible to find a solution that works for all.”

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein[17] quotes Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv regarding the case of a classroom which is warm, making it difficult for the class to learn. Even if one of the students is ill and wishes to have the window closed, the classroom is intended to be a place for in-depth study and closing the window will interfere with everyone else’s abilities to do so. As such, it would not be right for the ill student to coerce the others to close the window; he should study at home. Rav Elyashiv proves this from the Gemara[18] “Rebbi said, ‘Whoever ate garlic should leave the study hall.” Rebbi was disturbed by the smell of the garlic, and he was ruling that one cannot interfere with the studies of others. Rav Elyashiv also brings the Chatam Sofer’s ruling[19] that someone suffering from epilepsy cannot be appointed as chazzan if there are people who will be adversely affected by seeing him fall in the middle of prayer.

We have seen two opinions: some say that an individual who is a regular member of a place can enforce his needs on the majority, but others say that the benefits to the majority cannot be diminished for the sake of the individual, no matter how pressing his needs are.

Our case is unique, though. The communal representatives all agree: if not wearing a mask posed a clear and present danger, they certainly would wear one. However, they do not accept that it does bring a clear and present danger, and it appears that no one will change their minds on the matter. This is why I was asked how such a case is decided. The Divrei Malkiel[20] writes that when a community is divided regarding if something is for their benefit or not, it is similar to a court sitting in judgement, and we follow the majority. In such a case, we ignore the minority – provided that everyone has had the opportunity to explain their opinion for the sake of Heaven, with no ulterior motives. Even so, it is clear that those who do not wish to wear a mask cannot coerce others to also not wear a mask, as another wearing a mask will not trouble them in any way.

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that the most important thing is to calm the quarrel (if the issue has reached that level). Once disagreement has reached the point of machloket, it is clear that even after the decision has been made, those who disagree will continue to argue and the fire of dispute will rage. Regarding this, our sages said, “Quarrel is like a channel coming out of a river: once it begins, it expands.” Rashi explains that if it is not closed off in the beginning, it is impossible to close off past a certain point, as it says[21] “The opening of an argument is like an opening of water.” The Gemara states[22] that one may not pray “in levity or lightheadedness, or while conversing or quarreling or angry.” It says that Rebbe Chanina would not pray on a day that he was angry.

The Radvaz[23] writes “It is preferable to pray alone in one’s house rather than to pray in a synagogue where there is quarreling. Regarding those who have enmity, hatred, anger or are in a fight with the congregation, their prayer is not accepted, and they are forbidden from praying there because their thoughts are burdened, and they will not be able to concentrate on their prayers. This is certainly true if they are aggravating him! If I were not afraid to state so, I would say that it was better for someone to pray by himself rather than in the presence of those he feels uncomfortable with.” For this reason, the Rabbis and other heads of the community must do everything to ensure that truth and peace unite.

[1] שו”ת, כלל שישי אות ה

[2] חו”מ סי’ קסג

[3] פי”א מהל’ תפילה אות ב

[4] ב”ב סי’ ה ס”ק א

[5] חובל ומזיק ושמירת הגוף שיצא לאור על ידי כולל אברכים ברחובות

[6] ח”ט סי’ רח”צ

[7] עיין ספר ממון כשר בשם החפץ חיים

[8] פ”ד משנה א

[9] שערי אמונה פאה פ”ד דף רלו

[10] שם

[11] ח”ד סי’ ריט

[12] ח”א סי’ לה

[13] ח”ח סי’ שז

[14] רמ“א חו“מ קנו סעיף ב

[15] סי’ קנה סט”ו

[16] הלכ’ גניבה והונאה פרק טו הערה ג, ח

[17] חשוקי חמד ב”ב כ

[18] סנהדרין י”א

[19] יו”ד סי’ ז

[20] ח”א סי’ לה אות א

[21] שם

[22] פרק אין עומדין ע“פ גירסת הרדב“ז תשובה תתקי

[23] תשובה תתקי