The “Virtual Minyan”

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Virtual Minyan

The “Virtual Minyan”
Daniel Z. Feldman

[In light of the many people spending their days in quarantine, we present this survey of positions on “Virtual Minyanim” by Rabbi Feldman, a member of TRADITION’s editorial board. This material was prepared a number of years ago and has not been revised in light of the current coronavirus situation. Obviously, each individual should consult with their own halakhic authority.]

Virtual Minyan1. The Talmud (Sota 38) states that even an iron curtain cannot separate the Jewish people from their Father in Heaven. The Tosafot (Rosh HaShana 27b, Pesahim 85b) understand this to say that if one is in a different room (behind a curtain) and hears the congregation reciting Kaddish or kedusha, he should answer. There is a debate among the Rishonim as to whether this means that a minyan can be made of people in different rooms (Rashi to Pesahim, others), or only that once there is a minyan in one room, someone outside the room can answer (Tosafot, ibid., s.v. vi-khein l’tefilah and others; this is the view of Shulhan Arukh, OC 55:13 and 20).

While the contemporary convention is that the halakha does not consider the sound transferred through a microphone or a radio to be the voice of the speaker, and is thus ineffective for fulfilling speech based obligations (prayer, megilla, etc.) in actuality there is much debate about the question. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe O.C. II, 108, and IV, 91) was unsure about the matter, and recommended the usage of such technology when there are no other options, and ruled that “Amen” should be recited out of a “safek” that the sound might be valid. 

Posekim who were lenient on this issue include Responsa Minhat Elazar, II, 72; R. Yosef Engel (Gilyonei HaShas, Berakhot 24a); R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, Mikraei Kodesh: Purim, 11; and Responsa Sha’arei De’ah (#2). See also Resp. P’nei Meivin, O.C. 33 and Resp. Yerushat Ha-Pleita, 10.

Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo 1:9), by contrast, was convinced that these sounds were not considered to be the original voice, and that anyone who studied the relevant principles of physics would understand this. Thus, one does not fulfill any obligations this way, nor should he answer Amen. R. Yehoshua Mordechai Feigenbaum brings support for a similar stringent position in an article in the journal HaDarom.

This is also the view adopted by R. Ovadiah Yosef (Resp. Yehave Da’at, III, 54; Resp. Yabbia Omer V, O.C.11:4), as far as fulfilling obligations; although he differs from r. Auerbach in that he allows the answering of “Amen” to berakhot heard this way. In Yehave Da’at, R. Yosef does distinguish between one who cannot hear at all without a microphone, who is not in fulfillment, and one who is close enough to hear, who does fulfill the obligation, even though the microphone amplification is mixed in. He also allows one to respond to selihot heard over the radio (Yehave Da’at III, 88).

The stringent position could be challenged by the statement of the Gemara (Sukka 51b) that the synagogue in Alexandria was so vast and crowded that some members of the congregation only answered Amen when prompted to by the waving of silk flags. However, as understood by R. Auerbach and others, this is only effective for people who are essentially present in a contiguous physical space, not for those who are actually elsewhere. 

Further, it might be argued that the Alexandria passage is referring only to answering “Amen,” and not to fulfilling obligations through hearing. This is the implication of Tosafot (ibid., vi-kheivan), who write that the reference is only to Kri’at HaTorah, and not for prayer. R. David Taharani (Responsa Divrei David, II, Orah Chaim 40) adopts this view in asserting that hearing through a microphone is not called “hearing” but rather serves only to create awareness that the activity is taking place, as in Alexandria. 

In a footnote, R. Auerbach notes that the Chazon Ish was not convinced that the voices of technology were invalid as human voices. The thrust of the stringent position is that a sound from a microphone or radio is not the original sound waves created by the human, but signals created by the machine as a result of the original voice. However, in normal speech, the sounds also go through a process before being interpreted by the brain; thus, it is not necessarily the case that a microphone sound is substantially different, especially since it is created as a result of the speech of the person, and is heard by the listener “immediately”. [Similarly, the Harerei Kodesh glosses to Mikraei Kodesh, in explaining the lenient position focuses on the fact that the sound only continues as long as the person is talking, and should thus be attributed to the human being.] The Chazon Ish’s lenient position is expanded on and adopted by R. Gedaliah Orenstein in an article in the journal Tehumin (vol. 26, pp. 457-462). 

2. One of the major challenges for the lenient view is the Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah that states that if a shofar is blown from a pit, one is only in fulfillment if they hear the sound of the shofar itself, not the echo (“Kol havarah”). This would seem to explicitly state that a secondary sound created by the original sound, like a microphone sound, is not effective. 

Perhaps (as R. Auerbach suggests) the Chazon Ish would be untroubled by this because he would understand the exclusion of “kol havarah” to apply to a sound that comes after a delay (thus his usage of the term “immediate”). R. Gedaliah Orenstein suggests that the “kol havarah” is a sound that is not identical to the original sound, but rather is not clear, and mixed in with other noises (a similar approach is suggested by the Kozhalglover Rav, Responsa Eretz Tzvi, I, 23, in an inconclusive responsum on the subject*).

[*In this responsum, the Kozhaglover Rav also considers a novel approach toward leniency: there is a discussion among posekim concerning the question of ketivah k’dibbur, suggesting the possibility that bringing words into the word in other ways can be equated with speech. If so, maybe this can be said about causing a microphone to transmit a sound. See the discussion in Responsa Yashiv Yitzchak XIX, 4.] 

Rav Kook (Responsa Orah Mishpat, 48) suggests that “kol havarah” is not a general problem because it is only an issue in regard to shofar, where it is necessary to hear the actual sound of the shofar. This view is also held by others who allow microphones for other mitzvot but not for shofar, such as the Minchat Elazar and R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (ibid.).

This answer may also be relevant to a concern raised by R. Menachem M. Kasher in the journal HaDarom. He notes that the mishna (Rosh Hashana 27b) disqualifies any shofar where the sound is altered. Thus, one would need to be concerned that the electronic intermediaries may vary the sound. However, here it seems as well that this may be an issue particular to shofar. 

3. Because of the above concerns, some authorities feel that at weddings, care must be taken that the sheva berakhot, which require a minyan, are heard by at least ten men who hear without the use of a microphone (see for example, R. Moshe Shternbuch, Responsa Teshuvot V’Hanhagot, 1:743). Others, such as R. Yechezkel Roth, in his Responsa Emek HaTeshuvah, are lenient about this. 

4. Even if one maintains that microphones and radios produce valid “voices,” there may be other issues. One is that the Shulhan Arukh rules (O.C. 55:20) that one can answer prayers, even if he is not in the same place as the minyan; but, according to one opinion, they cannot do so if either unclean matter or idolatry (or possibly an idolator) are in between. If the sound is being transmitted over a distance, it is inevitable that there will be such things in between. 

One possible relief for this problem is the possibility that this opinion is not accepted as halakha. R. Kook acknowledges that this problem is a reason to avoid this situation, but nonetheless feels that one may answer if one does hear such a sound, suggesting that in the case of telephone waves, the area in between is not counted as the sound is not actually perceived in that space (as well as in the case of radio waves, where the sounds are only heard by those with machines appropriately tuned). A similar but slightly different approach toward leniency on this issue is found in the Minchat Elazar.

5. Aside from the technical issues, there were authorities who considered the entire idea to be an unacceptable breach in propriety and tradition. The author of the Tzitz Eliezer, R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, in a responsa printed in Mishpetei Uziel (vol. 3, O.C. 34), in addition to agreeing with all the other reasons to be stringent, emphatically adopts this approach, speaking harshly of his perception that the recitation of prayers over the radio or similar devices is incredibly inappropriate. (See also Rav Uri Langer, in the journal HaMa’or). 

As the editor of Tehumin, R. Uri Dasberg, notes (vol. 26, p. 462. Fn. 19), this is presumably a subjective factor that is heavily dependent on the culture, the time, and the place. 

6. R. Yitzchak Shmuel Schechter, Responsa Yashiv Yitzchak, XIX, 4, discusses the situation of an elderly man who is hospitalized, and for whom not participating in a minyan would be a source of great distress. He recommends that while the weight of halakhic opinion is that he would not be able to fulfill obligations through the phone, etc., he may still answer Amen, and that would be worth doing to allow him to participate, especially considering the various opinions on the matter. 

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman is a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, a member of the TRADITION editorial board, and rabbi of Ohr Saadya of Teaneck, NJ.

[Published on March 9, 2020]

1 Comment

  1. Michael Taubes says:

    Yasher Kochachah Rabbi Feldman; enjoyable as usual. I would just add that after a Shiur which I gave this year before Purim about hearing the Megillah live-streamed or via FsceTime, Zoom, etc., in which I cited many of these same Mekoros, someone with a background in computers noted that the way things work with the computer today, the sound is actually digitized, i.e., converted into a series of numbers and symbols and then in effect recreated so that what the listener ultimately hears is not the actual voice of the reader at all, but just a mechanical reproduction. As such, even some of the meikilim by microphones and telephones might not agree here, where it may be more similar to a recording, completely detached from the original voice of the speaker. It may be worth investigating the metzius.

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