Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and a member of an expert panel advising the government, warned Thursday that allowing prayers in synagogues on Yom Kippur next week could lead to mass transmission.
The warning came after Israel on Thursday moved to further tighten its second countrywide lockdown as coronavirus cases continued to soar, ordering all nonessential businesses to close and requiring people to stay within 1,000 meters of their homes.
The government ordered synagogues to close for the lockdown, which is expected to last for at least two weeks, but said they could open with limitations for prayers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Levine, a professor at the prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem, went so far as to compare the decision to the 1973 war, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during Yom Kippur, the holiest point of the Jewish calendar when Jews traditionally spend the day fasting and in prayer.
"Now, it's no surprise. We are going to have a massive problem and massive transmission on Yom Kippur in a few days," Levine said.
He said the government should instead impose a complete lockdown for a short period to underscore the seriousness of the situation, followed by the gradual easing of restrictions on essential but low-risk activities.
The tightened measures are set to go into force on Friday afternoon, as the country shuts down for the weekly Sabbath ahead of Yom Kippur on Sunday and Monday.
Prayers during the ongoing Jewish High Holidays, as well as political demonstrations, would be limited to open spaces and no more than 20 people, and participants would have to remain within the restricted distance from home.
The politically influential ultra-Orthodox community has objected to limits on public prayer during the ongoing Jewish High Holidays, and opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have accused the government of using the lockdown as a cover to end weekly demonstrations against his handling of the crisis.
Even during normal times, Israel completely shuts down for Yom Kippur, with businesses and airports closed, roads empty, and even radio and television stations going silent.
The restrictions on demonstrations are subject to approval by the entire Knesset, which began meeting at 2pm Thursday. The limits on both prayers and protests could spark a backlash and an anti-lockdown demonstration was planned for later Thursday in front of the Knesset.