Question: The Covid-19 pandemic has put an end to almost all public gatherings; hence, much of Jewish congregational ritual has come to a halt. Is there a way to make up for everything we missed?
Answer: The advantage of tefillah b’tzibbur cannot be made up. But since we’re not davening in shul due to matters beyond our control, we must rely on the rule of “anus Rachmona patrei” – Heaven absolves us from not having performed a mitzvah if we were prevented from fulfilling it due to matters beyond our control.
In addition to not being able to daven with a minyan, most of us were unable to take a haircut before Pesach as is customary. The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 531:1, based on Moed Katan 14a) writes: It’s a mitzvah to cut one’s hair on the eve of the Yom Tov. We know this from the Gemara (Moed Katan ad loc.), which states that a person may not cut his hair on Chol HaMoed since he should have done so before Yom Tov and not entered it in an unkempt state.
This year, it was impossible for most people to get haircuts before Passover since barbershops were closed. So what should we do now that we are past Passover and in the Sefirah period during which we’re not supposed to take haircuts?
The Mechaber (infra 531:3) writes that a person may not cut his hair on Chol HaMoed even if he was precluded from getting a haircut before Passover due to matters beyond his control. The Mishna Berurah (sk 5) explains that people who see him after the haircut won’t know about his circumstances and will assume that one is allowed to take haircuts on Chol HaMoed. So he can’t take a haircut on Chol HaMoed even though it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t take one before Yom Tov.
The Mechaber (infra 531:4, citing Moed Katan 13b), however, notes that the following people are exceptions to the rule: a person released from captivity who had no time to cut his hair before Yom Tov, a person who was excommunicated and then released from his ban on Yom Tov, a person who vowed not to cut his hair and was released from his vow on Yom Tov, and a person who came from overseas on Chol HaMoed or on the eve of Yom Tov but had no time before Yom Tov to cut his hair.
The Mishnah Berurah (531:14) explains regarding the last exception that there’s a difference between one who traveled abroad for his livelihood and one who traveled abroad for pleasure. We offer more leniencies to the former.
The Torah tells us regarding Joseph (Genesis 41:14): “Vayishlach Paroh, vayikra et Yosef, va’yeritzuhu min ha’bor va’yegalach va’yechalef simlotav va’ yavo el Paroh – Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and with haste they brought him up from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothing and he came to Pharaoh.” Even though Joseph was only appearing before a king of flesh and blood, he took a haircut and put on a clean set of clothes. How much more so should we do the same when we appear on Yom Tov before Hashem, the king of kings.
But what should all of us do now that it’s Sefirah and we haven’t cut our hair in quite some time?
Not cutting one’s hair during Sefirah is a minhag that isn’t found in the Talmud. And since we’re all living under the same pandemic, no one who sees his fellow taking a haircut will think that taking a haircut during Sefirah is fine. He will understand that unusual circumstances are at play. So there’s room theoretically to be meikel.
On the other hand, perhaps we should be stringent. We’re not supposed to appear before Hashem on Yom Tov as “menuvalim” (in a state of disgrace), but Yom Tov is over, and our Sages proscribed cutting one’s hair during Sefirah.
There is room for leniency, though. Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the chief rabbi of Israel (in Yalkut Yosef, Hilchot Sefirat Ha’Omer no. 36, p. 430) differentiates between cutting one’s hair and shaving; there are various leniencies if a person finds it very difficult not to cut his hair. He notes that among Sefardim there is a tendency to be more lenient.
Even if we would be lenient this year, though, that leniency would only extend to one haircut. Surely, one would not be allowed to take another haircut until Sefirah (i.e., the part of Sefirah during which one observes mourning practices) is over.
(To be continued)