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From Our Archives: May One Use a Microphone on Shabbat?

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under From Our Archives, Halakha

From Our Archives:  Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff and The Use of Microphones on Shabbat 

 If a microphone is turned on before Shabbat, or pre-set on a timer, may one use it on Shabbat? 

 As is well known, many American Orthodox congregations used a microphone in the middle of the 20th century, with some continuing to use them into the 80s.  Today, it is very rare to find an Orthodox synagogue that uses one, and the very few that do employ the microphone developed by the Tzomet Institute for synagogue use. 

When someone writes a history of the halakhic treatment of electricity, it remains clear that Tradition will be cited as in important source for information on the microphone controversy.  The most prolific advocate for the permissibility of using microphones on Shabbat was Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff of Baltimore, MD. (You might have recently heard of Rabbi Poliakoff for his recently published book, Minhagei Lita.) In a series of letters to the editor, spanning more than a decade, he defended the heter originally issued by Rabbi Simcha Levy on behalf of the Halakhic Commission of the Rabbinical Council.  His most explicit statement on the topic can be found in the communications section of Tradition 14:3, the current feature article in our “From Our Archives” section.1

This was in response to Rabbi J. David Bleich’s article (Summer 1971, 12:1) in which he discussed and criticized Israeli Chief Rabbi Isser Unterman’s attempt to create a “Shabbat microphone,” apparently at the behest of South African rabbis whose congregations were, already using a microphone.  Rabbi Poliakoff’s letter, in turn, led to spirited defenses of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s proscriptive psak by Rabbi Tovia Basser and Rabbi Edward Burns, which led in turn to an equally spirited rebuttal by Rabbi Poliakoff.

However, Rabbi Poliakoff first began writing to Tradition about this issue in 1962, in response to two articles written by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and Rabbi Hyman Tuchman that had reviewed the recent halakhic periodicals on this topic. 

-          Shlomo Brody

* Thanks to Rabbi Mayer Waxman for first drawing my attention to these letters to the editor.



  1. As was made clear in a book reviewed in this article, certain Baltimore synagogues clearly introduced microphones based on these permissive arguments. []
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