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Hurricanes and Shabbat

September 8, 2017

Hurricanes have certainly been in the news lately. Hurricane Harvey, of course. And now Hurricane Irma. And … Hurricanes Jose and Katia. And . . . it looks like Hurricane Irma might hit Miami ON SHABBAT. That points to an interesting question: For traditional Jews, are there special rules to follow during a hurricane?

The answer: OF COURSE!

The primary ruling is the obvious one, the concept of “Pikuach Nefesh” – loosely translated as “Saving a life.” The rabbis of antiquity tell us that any of the laws of the Torah, and therefore any of the laws of Shabbat may be broken on the Sabbath in order to save a life. The “O.U.” – the Union of Orthodox Congregations – even has guidelines for Sabbath observance during a hurricane!

So, for example, there is a Jewish legal concept of “Eiruv” – an artificial wall or fence around an area that allows an observant Jew to carry things outside the house (carrying outside the home is forbidden on Shabbat.) It must be assumed that the eiruv is broken during a hurricane, so carrying is forbidden. However, what if it’s a matter of life or death? Obviously if you need to carry someone away from a damaged area, or to first aid care, or you need to carry equipment to save a life, carrying is permitted.

What about lighting lights? Electricity frequently goes out during a hurricane. (In fact, it almost always goes out during a hurricane.) Can someone light a flashlight or a candle on Shabbat – something that’s generally forbidden for observant Jews? The rabbinic advice is to light seven day candles or 24 hour candles in advance so they will remain lit during the Sabbath. Or, alternatively, the contemporary rabbis tell us, turn flashlights on and hang them (lit) around the house for easy access. In the case of grave danger caused by the darkness, however, a person is permitted to turn a flashlight on during Shabbat or even to light a candle.

What about going to the synagogue on Shabbat – particularly to hear the Torah read with the required minyan of ten men? “DON’T GO!” Say the rabbis. If it’s too dangerous to walk to the synagogue, one must stay at home rather than risk one’s life. Furthermore, the rabbis tell us, if you miss the Torah reading for the week because you couldn’t get to the synagogue, you can ask that they read the missed portion the following week!

Can you listen to the radio for news and storm warnings (something that observant Jews don’t do on the Sabbath)? Well . . . yes. But you should turn the radio on before the Sabbath and turn the volume down. Then, when you need to listen, turn the volume up rather than simply turning the radio on.

We here in Milwaukee all have friends or relatives who are already in Florida. Some have moved there. Some are simply snowbirds. We are all thinking about those in the path of the storm. May they be safe and sit out the storm in Peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

For the OU guidelines for Jewish practice during hurricanes, CLICK HERE.