Rabbi Efraim Zalmonovich, shlita, who serves as the rabbi of Mazkeret Batya, claimed that one should not pray in public spaces, and he justified his statements based on Torah law. In my opinion, his words are not accurate, and I would like to ask several questions about his conclusion:
1. The Talmud in Megillah 26a brings up that during fasts and public gatherings, people used to pray in the streets of the city. Therefore, the Talmud considers whether the street might become sanctified for prayer.
2. Maimonides, in "Hilchot Tefillah u'Nesi'at Kappayim", Chapter 11, Halacha 21, states: "The street of a city, although the people pray in it during fasts and gatherings, because the congregation is large, and there are no synagogues that can contain them, it does not have sanctity because it is temporary and not designated solely for prayer. Similarly, houses and courtyards in which people gather for prayer do not have sanctity, because they have not designated them solely for prayer, but people pray in them temporarily, like a person praying in his home."
Is explanation provided by Maimonides not clear enough to permit public prayer outdoors when there is a large congregation? Is the Rabbi familiar with synagogues that can contain thousands of people?
3. The assertion made by the Rabbi that he prohibited praying outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed perplexing and seemingly contradicts the views of many other rabbis worldwide. He should explain the source for his ruling, as it appears to differ from the Talmudic source that deals with praying in a valley, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and the opinions of earlier authorities. It is evident from historical sources that as long as there is a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain prayers) gathered, there shouldn't be an issue with outdoor prayer. Therefore, some may question why Yitzhak prayed in an open field?
4. In the entire world, people prayed in open spaces with minyanim (prayer quorums) during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seems appropriate to do so.
5. This is not about a protest or using religion, but about the desire to include more and more Jewish people.
6. Furthermore, the Zohar in Parashat of Beshalach (not Shalach, as mentioned in the article by Rabbi Zalmonovich) is written about the greatness of the synagogue and the importance of its construction. This serves as a rebuke against those who allowed praying in a public square during the pandemic to the extreme. It is clear that every Torah scholar knows how to distinguish and prioritize when it is possible or impossible.
7. This halacha, as is known, is not mentioned in the Rif and the Rambam.
8. It seems that Rabbi Zalmanovich rushed to fulfill the commandment of rebuke, and we all have something to repent for. However, he did not prove that it is forbidden to pray in public outdoors when necessary. It is clear that no one thought that prayer would be disrupted so blatantly and distressingly.
9. Truth and peace, they loved.
Rabbi Yitzhak Neria is the head of Yeshivat Torah B'Zion