Friday, November 27th, 2020

Polemics and the Orthodox Prohibition Against Microphones on Shabbat by Shlomo Brody

January 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts

What does Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, the engineer who runs the Tzomet Institute and who frequently speaks on behalf of religious Zionist causes, have in common with the Satmar Rebbe? 

  1.  They both care tremendously about halakha
  2. They both believe that Orthodox opposition to microphones stemmed primarily from polemical considerations against the Reform movement.

The Satmar Rebbe’s argument is found here (Nishmat Shabbat vol. 6), where he explains to a deaf man why he does not need to take out his hearing aid before Shabbat.  Rabbi Rozen’s argument is made in Techumin 15 (= Crossroads 5), in which he seeks to argue that pre-set microphones should be just as mutar as hearing aids.1

A similar point is more or less made as well by Rav Yitzchak Weiss.  In defense of his heter allowing the use of hearing aids on Shabbat, he noted that the same law should seemingly apply to microphones.  However, he concluded that since there was both a safek in the law, as well as a safek in the technological reality of microphones, he would be mekil with hearing aids but machmir regarding microphones to prevent “pirtzot be-chomot beit Yisrael.”

שו”ת מנחת יצחק חלק ב סימן יז

וזה ספיקא במציאות וגם יש ספיקא דדינא כנ”ל וכיב”ז, ובזה בנוגע לאיסור השתמשות במיקרופון הבאתי להלכה כדברי המחמירין שלא להביא פרצות בחומות בית ישראל, אבל בנוגע להמכונת שמיעה, כיון דאין עושין זאת משום פרצה רק להשמר מסכנת דרכים, סמכתי על המקילים בזה, בהחשבי שבודאי בררו שגם במציאות אין כאן חשש כמו במיקרופון ושרי היכא שהמכונה ערוכה מע”ש

And then, there is Rav Moshe Sternbuch’s diatribe, which speaks for itself.  I must admit, I do not care for the expression muktzah machmat mi’us de-Reformim, but that is beside the point.  The immediate negative reaction to anything that smells of reform is clear. 

The teshuva is in response to Prof. Zev Lev’s proposal for a Shabbat microphone.  At the end of the responsum, Rav Sternbuch seems to state that he could understand why a rabbi would propose such a thing to minimize the issur already being performed, but he would never publicize such a heter.  This is presumably a reference to Rabbi Unterman (the editors omit his name), who we previously noted had allowed this microphone to be used, at least in places where one was already employed. (See the extensive documentation in Shevat Me-Yehudah II:34.  See also our previous post about Tradition articles discussing the ideas of Prof. Lev and Rav Unterman.) 

I think that these 4 statements, put in writing, make clear that polemics played at least some role in rabbinic opposition to microphones arranged to work on Shabbat

The Historical Debate within Orthodoxy

It is difficult to know how and why use of microphones on Shabbat came to signify the battle between the Conservative and Orthodox in America.  As opposed to the case of mechitza, in which Orthodox opposition to its removal was universal, the microphone, as we have documented previously, had some early Orthodox rabbinic support.  Besides the lenient position of the RCA rabbinic council, under the lead of Rabbi Simcha Levy (see HaPardes, Choveret 8, Siman 64), Rabbi Louis Bernstein further documents that Rabbi Dov Leventhal of Philadelphia and Rabbi Eliezer Silver both asserted that there was no halakhic problem with them.2   Interestingly enough, toward the end of his followup teshuva on the topic, Rabbi Levy entirely rejects the notion that one has to be machmir because of the “orphaned” state of his generation.  That is to say, the weakness of Shabbat observance and the threat of Reform is not a reason to be machmir.

Nonetheless, following the proscriptive declaration of Agudat Harabbonim in 1951, and particularly after Rav Soloveitchik’s statement against them in the 1954 RCA convention,3, the Orthodox consensus against microphones on Shabbat became crystallized. The later permissive psakim of Rav Shaul Yisraeli and Rav Chayim David Halevi, which formed the basis of the Tzomet microphone, and the similar psak of Rav Unterman, which formed the basis for Prof. Lev’s shabbat microphone, clearly represented definitive exceptions to the rule.4  

That, of course, is not to say that Orthodox synagogues didn’t continue to use them (just as many continued not to have a mechitza).  In fact, it is precisely for that reason why Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff defended microphones in his Tradition article, and why Rav Unterman attempted to develop a “shabbat microphone” to help those rabbis in congregations where, willy nilly, a microphone was going to be used.  Nonetheless, opposition to microphones became identified with Orthodoxy, sometimes, ironically, in ways that worked against Orthodox interests.  In a court case in New Orleans involving a synagogue that wanted to remove a mechitza, despite its Orthodox charter, the Conservative defendants claimed that the fact that it used a microphone proved that it was not Orthodox!5

In my next post on this topic, I hope to further elaborate on how we can move beyond polemics to make sure that the legacy of the debate regarding microphones does not come to haunt us in our subsequent treatment of other issues relating to Shabbat and technology.

  1. Just to be clear:  I am sure that they have many other similarities.  I was just making a rhetorical point. []
  2. See Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission, p. 39. []
  3. His first convention after becoming head of the halakha commission, at which he also spoke toward the preservation of the mekhita []
  4. Rav Soloveitchik’s position on the matter of microphones on Shabbat is complex.  This is how Rav Herschel Schachter described it, both in Nefesh Ha-Rav and in a recent interview with the YU Commentator: 

    “Rabbi Soloveitchik once spoke at an RCA convention, and dealt with the issue of shuls that permitted the use of a microphone on Shabbos.  He said that, with regard to those who permitted the use of a microphone, he wondered whether they understood the Halakha well enough to permit this; with regard to those who prohibited the use of a microphone, he wondered whether they understood physics well enough to prohibit this.”

    My impression from a number of rabbis who asked the Rav about taking shul positions with microphones was that the Rav was against their use on Shabbat, but felt that the mekil position was legitimate, and could be relied upon in cases of need.   This is consistent with the fact that he refused to comment on Rabbi Unterman’s heter for the Shabbat microphone developed by Prof. Zev Lev, as documented by Julius Berman in Mentor of Generations, p. 141. This is in contrast with Rav Moshe Feinstein, who concluded his teshuva on microphones (Igrot Moshe OC 4:84) by prohibiting a rabbi from taking a position in such a shul.  If anyone has further insight on the Rav’s position, I would be most appreciative. []

  5. Benstein, Mission and Challenge, p. 140.  The Orthodox won the court case, but the synagogue eventually changed its charter and became Conservative. []
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