Thursday, March 30th, 2017

The Legacy of Polemics: Microphones on Shabbat, Metzitzah, and the Rabbah Ordination by Shlomo Brody

March 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, Jewish Culture, New Posts


I personally have no gripes with polemics playing a role in socio-legal discourse within the Jewish community.  I think it is inevitable, given the sociological reality of Jewish history, and occasionally it is appropriate, given larger religious goals. 1 I do believe, however, that one has to be very careful with the terminology used, and to also make sure that the halakhic arguments garnered toward one’s position does not come to later haunt you (or your followers).

Metzitzah Ba-Peh

Take, for example, the 19th century polemics regarding metzitzah ba-peh.  [I wrote a basic summary of the halakhic debate on this issue for this JPost Ask the Rabbi column.  See here for one of the many detailed articles written on the topic.]  Let us recall that the requirement to perform metzitzah is explicitly noted by the gemara as stemming from medicinal purposes.  Yet in the famous rebuttals of Reform attempts to abolish it (and milah altogether), Rabbi Yehuda Asad, the Maharam Shik, and others claimed, with tremendous polemical rhetoric, that not only the requirement for metzitzah ba-peh reflects a halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai requirement, thereby making it an essential component of milah.

שו”ת יהודה יעלה חלק א – יו”ד סימן רנח

ע”ד המציצה במצות מילה אשר בעו”ה קצת רועים רעים קשר רשעים רצו לבטל ולהפר ברית המציצה באמרם שאינו מגוף המצוה כ”א משום סכנה וזה באקלים החם אבל במדינת אלו אין שום סכנה במניעותה ואני בעניי בקנאי קנאת ד’ צבאות כתבתי מאז באגרת הקנאות יום י”ב טבת תר”ה לפ”ק שנדפס באמש”ד נגד האספסף שהרעימו סוד וזה לשוני. לנצח יאבדו מבלי משים כי הנה המציצה מפרק הדם והיא אב מלאכה ודוחה לשבת החמורה וליוה”כ. ואי לאו דמעכב המציצה לגוף המצוה לא היה דוחה שבת ויוה”כ ויו”ט. אלא ודאי כך ניתנה הלכה למשה מסיני מלבד טעם הסכנה כנאמר בגמרא.                                          

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century.  A group of Orthodox rabbis and doctors raise flags that those elements of the community that have not adopted alternative methods for metzitzah (pipette, sponge) – such as those suggested by the Hatam Sofer, the Maharatz Chajes, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, and others – might be, unintentionally and tragically, endangering new born baby boys.  Yet those who were trained on the notion that metzitzah ba-peh was halakha le-Moshe me-Sinai could not emerge out of this mindset, thereby pegging themselves within a halakhic position that was truly not necessary.  This is despite the fact that Rav Moshe Feinstein himself (Igrot Moshe YD 1:223) asserted that the claim that metzitzah represents an essential part of milah was entirely incorrect.

חושב אני שהוא רק פליטת הקולמוס שפשוט שמציצה אינו עכוב בהמצוה דהוא רק משום רפואה   

Why Did Poskim Oppose Microphones?

With the polemics over the micropone controversy now over, I think that one has to be extremely careful with the arguments that one adopts as the reason for a prohibitive position. To a certain extent, the community of scholars chooses which argumentation becomes the lasting legacy of the proscriptive opinion.  The consequence of this decision has great implications, and therefore we should contemplate it carefully.2

Why did poskim oppose microphones?  While the statements previously quoted here indicate a clear influence of polemical factors, I think it is overly simplistic to state that poskim simply stated that a microphone was assur because they feared that it would look like a Reform invention or lead to Reform-like activity.  It is very clear from various teshuvot that 4 perfectly legitimate factors were also at play here, two quite explicitly, and the other two more implicitly:

1)       Concern that adjusting the electricity (i.e. raising or lowering the current) itself was an issur.3

2)       Independent of larger concerns with technology and electricity on Shabbat, there were specific problems caused by microphones, like hashma’at kol.

3)       Concern that such technologies would irrevocably harm the atmosphere of Shabbat.

4)       Concern that this would lead to confusion and other issurim.

(I briefly summarized the major positions on this issue in this JPost Ask the Rabbi column.)

Regarding #1:  It is very clear from Rav Moshe’s teshuvot on both microphones (Siman 84) and hearing aids (Siman 85) that he is concerned that there is an issur involved, although he fully admits that he doesn’t know what the issur is!  As Rav Moshe states, he thinks that this concern is enough to be machmir on microphones, but is inclined (at least initially, but not in his conclusion) to be mekil on hearing aids for this reason. 

שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק ד סימן פד

ואבאר בקיצור את הטעמים שהם שנים שיש בהם חשש איסור מדאורייתא ושנים שהם איסורים ודאים מדרבנן, (א) דיש לידע שקול הנשמע מהמייקראפאן איננו קול האדם עצמו אלא כשמדבר נעשה רושם של הברותיו שם ומה שנשמע הוא קול ההברה, וזהו חשש איסור דאורייתא במה שבדבורו נעשה רושם באיזה מקום בהמייקראפאן, ואף שאין זה כתיבה שאינם אותיות יש עכ”פ איזה חשש מלאכה מאחר שנתחדש איזה דבר שעי”ז נשמע קול רם ומרחוק אולי מכה בפטיש ואולי בונה, וצריך לעיין בברור איזו מלאכה, עכ”פ טעם זה הוא לחוש לאיסור דאורייתא, אף שלא ברור האיסור.

(ב) שלפי מדת הקול נגדל הוצאת כח העלעקטרי /החשמלי/ ונמצא שבדבורו הוא מגדיל ומקטין את העלעקטרי, ורואין זה בחוש כשמחברין עוד מכונה בחשמל המודדת הדבור בהמייקראפאן למי שרוצה להשוות את קולו, שלכן אף כשלא מחברין מכונה כזו יודעין אנחנו שמשתמש בדבורו בהעלעקטרי יותר ממה שהמייקראפאן בחבורו משתמש בעצמו בלא דבורו, וכשמדבר בקול רם משתמש בעוד יותר, והשתמשות בכחות העלעקטרי יש חשש איסור דאורייתא אף בלא הבערה ויש לעיין בזה טובא למעשה.

… ולכן ברור שהמייקראפאן אסור להשתמש בו בשבת ויו”ט ואין להקל אף לצורך גדול ולכן אסור למע”כ לקבל משרה כזו שיצטרך לדבר ע”י מייקראפאן בשבת ויו”ט. ידידו, משה פיינשטיין.

 שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק ד סימן פה

… והחששות שהם מענין מלאכה שהאחד הוא בזה שקול הנשמע מהמייקראפאן אינו קול האדם המדבר עצמו אלא שנעשה שם רושם של הברותיו ומה שנשמע הוא קול ההברה שנעשה שם, הנה אף אם נימא שגם במכונת שמיעה זו נעשה כן, הא מכיון שלא ברור לן האיסור בזה דלאיזו מלאכה נדמה זה שלכן אין בידנו לאסור לחולה ולצורך גדול כזה מאחר שלא ברור לן האיסור, ובפרט שלכאורה במכונה זו לא מסתבר שהוא קול אחר הנעשה שם דהא לא נעשה הקול יותר רם מכפי שנשמע מהאדם ומה שנשמע להחרש ע”י זה הוא משום משיכת הקול לתוך האזן ממש וליכא הפסק בינתים או שמגדיל כח שמיעתו שיש לו מעט, ואין לידע דבר ברור גם מהמומחים בזה, ונמצא שיתוסף עוד ספק בזה.

וחשש השני שמשתמש בכח העלעקטרי בדבורו /כדחזינן/ כדחזנין מהא שאיכא חלוק בין מדבר בקול רם למדבר בקול נמוך שאיכא אולי חשש מלאכה בהשתמשות בכחות העלעקטרי אף בלא הבערה, נמי אינו איסור ברור ואף לא ספק ברור, וכמדומני שבמכונה ליכא חלוק בהדבורים וממילא ליכא חשש זה כלל, ולכן גם בשביל חשש זה שאינו ברור אין לאסור לחולה ולצורך גדול כזה כדלעיל.

 Others were concerned that sparks and other clearer violations of melachot occurred with microphones.  Here, again, technology changes, but it is clear that even in those times, many types of microphones did not produce sparks, fire, or anything of that nature (as Rabbi Simcha Levy documented in his follow-up teshuva, cited previously).

 In contrast, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Kovetz Ma’amarim Be-Inyanei Chashmal Be-Shabbat, p. 35-38, and Minhat Shlomo 1:9) and his intellectual followers were very thorough in their research and determined:  a) there are many microphones in which there is concern for sparks other melachot, and b) more significantly, there is no issur for increasing or decreasing current.

Here is one formulation of Rav Shlomo Zalman, written in 5706:4

These prohibitions apply only to creating or breaking a circuit in a fan, refrigerator, etc…  However, when one speaks into the microphone of a radio, no sparks are created… Thus when one speaks into a [broadcast] microphone on Shabbat, he does no cause an act of lighting or extinguishing [a flame], or any other forbidden melacha.  Rather, the speaker merely causes a change in current which affects the radio waves being broadcast, such that the membrane of the radio receiver vibrates in accordance with the sound waves of the speaker. It would therefore seem that there is no need whatsoever to be concerned with the problems of makeh b’patish, tikkun mana, or molid, since his speech does not cause any Shabbat prohibition to be violated.  

Concern #2:  Technical concerns specific to microphones –

Ultimately, Rav Shlomo Zalman, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg, and others prohibited microphones because of particular concerns with this appliance.  Mashmia Kol, avsha de-milta, uvdin de-chol, and general denigration of Shabbat were cited by numberous poskim as factors in prohibiting the microphone.  That is to say, the mechanics were not a problem – but the resulting impact of the technology led to problems relating to, broadly speaking, the laws dictating the proper atmosphere of Shabbat.

These points were countered by Rav Shaul Yisraeli, which led him to develop with Tzomet a halakhic “Shabbat microphone.”

Regarding Concern #3:  Fear of technology and automation and its potentially deleterious impact on Shabbat was great (see Rav Moshe’s teshuva regarding Shabbat clocks, for example).  Time has shown that automation has been allowed for many circumstances (although not without dispute), but without destroying the sanctity of the day.  Each case and technology was handled differently, but in short, things were deemed as tremendously necessary on an individual (lights, refrigerators) or communal (milking cows on Shabbat, metal detectors at the Kotel) have been allowed, while things not deemed as urgent were not allowed.  Microphones seemingly fell into the latter category, with the implicit argument being that since we have survived until just fine without microphones, we can continue to do so (as, indeed, history has proven).5 

Concern #4:  Concern that a lenient ruling might lead to other mistakes in the realm of electricity and halakha. 

In a related context, Rav Shlomo Zalman expressed concern for this factor.

 שו”ת מנחת שלמה חלק א סימן ט

… נתבאר לפי זה דלענ”ד נראה דבכה”ג דלא עשה כלל שום הדלקה או כיבוי כי אם מחבר רק את הטלפון עם הזרם אין לאסור בשבת ויו”ט לא משום מכה בפטיש ולא משום מוליד. (אך חושבני שהמון העם אינו יודע כלל להבחין בכך ויכול לטעות ע”י זה לומר שמותר גם להדליק ולכבות את החשמל בשבת, ולכן אף לדידן אין להתיר דבר זה כי אם במקום צורך גדול…

 Generally speaking, this concern that the masses will misunderstand is perfectly reasonable.  For example, the difference between opening and shutting a circuit, as opposed to altering or adjusting the strength of an open circuit, can easily lead to confusion and misunderstanding.  Nonetheless, as Rav Shlomo Zalman argued, this should not prevent us from being mekil in situations where there is a pressing need or larger communal good.

 The Legacy We Choose to Inherit:  Taking a Stand

Which of these factors ultimately came to underscore the Orthodox prohibition of microphones?

One approach adopts the position that any use of electricity – including the altering of an open electric current – is assur, for one or all of the above stated concerns.

This approach was ultimately adopted in Rav Moshe’s machmir stance regarding speaking to someone wearing hearing aids – as emphasized and ruled in the 39 Melachos - and was apparently adopted by Rav Elyashiv, at least as reported in Sefer Orchot Shabbat, Vol 3, the hottest new Israeli halakhic handwork on the laws of Shabbat.   In this work, the author simply reports that Rav Elyashiv believes that speech increases the electric current and is therefore assur to speak alone to some wearing a hearing aide – although the book does not give any reasoning for why increasing the current should be forbidden!  (Add this as an additional example of the phenomenon I documented in my earlier post about halakhic handbooks and hearing aids).

A different approach, however, recognizes that the use of electricity (at least in terms of increasing or decreasing a current) can be permitted on Shabbat, when there is some form of need.  This, of course, was the approach of Rav Shlomo Zalman, as cited above.

I think that it is essential to adopt Rav Shlomo Zalman’s argument, for the following reasons:

1)        It is intellectual compelling.  It is difficult to understand, on a theoretical level, what is the definitive issur of using electricity on Shabbat, and certainly in terms of altering a current. 6  Rav Shlomo Zalman’s basic approach adopts the general position of poskim, as observed by the minhag ha-olam, to be machmir, but recognizes the fact there is perfectly good reason, on an intellectual level, to believe that we can be mekil, especially when there is a compelling ethical/sociological/halakhic reason to do so. 

2)       Significantly, Rav Shlomo Zalman’s writings on the topic are not tinged by polemical considerations.  It is very clear that over the decades in which he wrote about this topic, he was determined to understand the mechanics and the relevant halakha, independent of other considerations.  Perhaps this was because as an Israeli scholar, beginning his research in the early 20th century, he did not feel the polemical threat of non-Orthodox movements.  Be that as it may, generally speaking, once we have emerged out of a polemical context, it behooves us to examine the sources afresh, and to begin that examination through the eyes of those who did not examine the issue from a polemical standpoint.

3)        Rav Shlomo Zalman was clearly very sensitive to the implications of his rulings on an ethical level.  This was evidenced by his disbelief that the mere alteration of a current might constitute an issur, thereby making it assur to speak to someone wearing a hearing aid. 

שו”ת מנחת שלמה חלק א סימן ט

… אך א”כ לא ידעתי בעניי שום טעם לכך. כי נלענ”ד דמה שהוא סובר שם שיש איסור מוליד אינו אלא תחלת ההתקשרות שהוא עושה מעגל חשמלי ומוליד זרם, אבל לא מה שמדברים אח”כ לאחר שהמעגל נשלם וכבר יש ביניהם קשר), ומיהו אם ננקוט כדבריו שאסור משום השמעת קול, נמצא שאסור לדבר בשבת עם אלה אשר אזנם כבדה משמוע ומשתמשים במכשיר שמיעה, כיון שהמדבר אליו מכוין להשמיע קול בשבת ע”י המכשיר, ויהא אסור לפי”ז לקרוא לאנשים כאלה לעלות לתורה בשבת ויו”ט מפני שהקורא בתורה ודאי מכוין להשמיע קול קריאתו לאזני העולה, ואף הוא עצמו כשמברך או קורא ק”ש בשבת צריך לכוין לא להשמיע את קולו לאזניו ע”י המכשיר, והוא פלאי.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in a eulogy for Rav Shlomo Zalman, tells a story that makes the point more poignantly. 

Once I visited Rav Shlomo Zalman and I asked him about the issue of wearing a hearing aid on Shabbat. He permitted it. At the same time he told me, “You know – I can’t believe it. Someone sent me a letter from the States, saying that Rav Kotler zt”l was careful not to talk to a person wearing a hearing aid on Shabbat for fear of speaking into the hearing aid and thereby performing a melakhah.” He told me that he didn’t believe this. He said, “Imagine – as if it’s not enough that this person has been punished by Heaven in that he’s deaf! The Gemara states that if someone is wounded in such a way that he becomes deaf, he is paid full damages, as though he has ceased to function altogether, as if he has died. This punishment isn’t sufficient,” he said. “Imagine – you meet him in the street, and instead of greeting him, you say m..m..m..”. For him this was completely out of place. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that this is what the situation required.

 4)       Rav Shlomo Zalman’s position – intellectually sound as it is, and coming from the great gadlut that he represents – also allows for dealing with other pressing cases related to Shabbat and electricity.   His understanding is the basic premise for much of the technology that allows for use of close-circuit television cameras, Shabbat wheelchairs, and many other important technologies. (See here for a relevant article by Rav Yisrael Rozen regarding the recent technological developments, many of which were based on the rulings of Rav Shlomo Zalman and his students like Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth).  Moreover, it allows us to deal with the many challenges that an increasingly electronic world present to the observant Jew.  This goes well beyond issues of convenience, like opening a hotel room door with a swipe card.  We are speaking of basic issues of security, health care, and economics.  Using the more machmir position – which is less intellectually compelling and partly inspired by polemics – will haunt us for many years to come. 

Concluding Thoughts

 Whenever challenged by a new cultural development – in this case electricity and Shabbat – one must first examine the sources to understand, on a theoretical level, the halakhic perspective on this new phenomenon.  Then, and only then, must considerations of psak policy (confusion to the masses, non-Orthodox movements, ethical considerations, pragmatic concerns) come into play.

 In the mid 20th century, it is clear that a conflation of the factors mentioned above – halakhic speculations, questions of the atmosphere of Shabbat, polemical considerations, and concerns that fine distinctions might cause confusion amongst the masses – led to a generally prohibitive approach regarding electricity and Shabbat.  This might have been the appropriate approach in terms of psak for that time period – it is not my place to judge – yet we must be very careful that this approach does not shackle us to a position which is neither intellectual compelling or sociologically beneficial.    

I have already documented how this generally prohibitive attitude has led to contemporary halakhic handbooks (which easily lend themselves to concise, non-nuanced prohibitive stances) to forbade speaking to people wearing aids on Shabbat, despite the fact that this goes against the vast majority of poskim.  I continue to remain concerned that unless we re-examine the halakhic sources on this issue from a non-polemical perspective, we will end up with other forms of deleterious psak halakha.  We have the basis to act wisely on this issue in the writings of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, one of the greatest poskim of the 20th century, who spent decades writing on this topic.  If we act wisely – and in a non-polemical manner – we will succeed in dealing with the growing challenges of electricity and Shabbat.

Afterward:  Polemics over the Maharat/Rabbah Ordination

 Given the recent brouhaha over ordination of women rabbis, allow me to make one comment on the importance of keeping polemics out of the Orthodox dialogue on this issue.

I have heard a lot of calls for a teshuvot to be written on this issue, in particularly from those who condemn the recent “rabbah” ordination.  This, I presume, will also be seen as a response to the short responsa written in favor of the Maharat confirmation. 

As the rhetoric heats up, we run the risk of entering into polemical dialogue, which runs the risk of causing considerable long-term damage.

Two simple examples: 

1)       In a teshuva against the Maharat ordination, one might cite the problem of “serara.”  This is an issue which defenders of the ordination must properly address, but opponents should be careful that in their promotion of this issue, they don’t overly exaggerate the issue to the point of a) distorting the historical practice on an issue, and b) harming other people restricted by “serara” issues, such as gerim.  Has the halakhic consensus really emerged over the centuries that gerim cannot be rabbis?  Does any rabbinic organization prohibit gerim from membership?  When one group, in an attempt to ban female shul presidents, also banned gerim for that position, was that the intellectually compelling position or ethically correct approach? See here for an interesting historical example of a ger who served a major communal role in Amsterdam.

2)                   I have seen articles that have simply stated that since one cannot find a halakhic issur to women being rabbis, it must therefore be mutar.  Leaving aside whether or not the technical halakhic claim is true:  Is this the precedent that we want to set for halakhic process – that we do not take into consideration values or policy issues, especially on controversial matters?  Don’t values matter to us?  For a community that celebrates the Ramban’s classic statement about naval be-reshut ha-Torah and kedoshim tehiyu, it seems that values should impact our behavior and psak.   And don’t we have a responsibility to think beyond a specific issue to larger issues of the halakhic process?  Do we really believe that since some talmid chocham can write an article defending a certain position, we therefore should act upon it, without the haskamah of any gadol and rabbinic organization?

I am not taking a side,7 and whether or not one agrees with these specific examples, I hope that we can see how polemics can drive people to positions which a) are not defendable, or b) cause unintended long-term damage.

Looking to the examples of metzitzah be-peh and electricity, we should learn the lessons of history and be careful about the arguments we make.  The most responsible approach is to write an essay which documents the arguments of both sides, taking into consideration different perspectives, and then taking a stand.  Polemics might at times be legitimate, but especially with regard to intra-Orthodox battles, they do little service to the community, halakha, or Torah.        


  1. We have always had sectarian fights:  Tzedukim, Karaites, Sabbateans, Reform, to name just a few example. For more on this phenomenon, see, for example, Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics, ed. Daniel Frank and Matt Goldish. []
  2. This post ends what has turned out to be a series of posts relating to the issues of microphones, hearing aids, and psak halakha.  See here – hearing aids and halakhic handbooks – , here – the microphone debate in Tradition- , and here – polemics in Orthodox writings on microphones.  I will make passing referrence to these earlier posts, but one should be able to understand the piece without having read the earlier articles. []
  3. Let’s be perfectly clear:  We are not dealing with here the questions of opening or shutting a current.  We are dealing with a microphone that is already on, and therefore this is a question of increasing or decreasing the current.  Of course, one might state that this whole distinction is too difficult for the masses to accurately follow, but that is a practical consideration – a question of judicial policy. []
  4. as translated in an article by Rav Yisrael Rozen that appeared in Crossroads Volume 5, p. 13 []
  5. I suspect that the part of the push for microphones in shuls stemmed from a desire for décor, decorum, and certain pride in the use of modern technology in the synagogue. []
  6. See, for example, the thorough article on this topic by Rabbis Michael Broyde and Howard Jachter. []
  7. I happen to be opposed to the recent ordination, but that is besides the point []
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