HALAKHA: A WEEKLY SHIUR IN HALAKHIC TOPICS
CHALLENGES OF ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTIONS.
Rav Mordechai Friedman
The rapidly developing technologies that are involved in the electronic
reproduction of audio and visual stimuli present us with an array of new
tools. Their implementation brings
us abilities, opportunities, and experiences never imagined before. Some of the applications of these tools
require serious halakhic consideration.
fundamental concepts relevant to these halakhic challenges have been dealt with
by poskim of the past century and are partially rooted in the Talmud. Our task is to extract these concepts
from the Talmud and poskim; to clarify, conceptualize and categorize the various
positions; and to explore their possible applications to new areas of
The proper fulfillment of many mitzvot requires the use or stimulation of
one or more of our senses. (This
would not be the case for all mitzvot — for example, the commandment "You shall
love the Lord your God," in Devarim 6:5.)
These sensory mitzvot have a natural or original form of action that
results in the normal stimulation. Our question would then be: are the
artificially produced experiences of electronic media considered halakhically
We must limit the scope of this question. If one were to create, with the proper
visual and sensory equipment, a virtual etrog to hold on the first day of
Sukkot, we would still undoubtedly object to using it to fulfill the
mitzva. The halakha has specific
requirements for size, weight, and ownership, all of which point to a formal
physical (and therefore "real") object.
There are many mitzvot, however, that are centered around sensory
experiences and not a particular object, such as hearing the shofar, megilla
reading, or communal prayers; seeing the new moon for kiddush levana; observing
the cities of Yehuda and the Temple Mount in their state of destruction; as well
as a long list of berakhot required when witnessing various natural
phenomena. Could the sensory
prerequisites of these mitzvot be provided via electronic
An understanding of the essential central issues involved will bring us
to a better grasp of the Talmudic sources and a clearer view of the direction of
the poskim. A priori, one might suggest three positions regarding the halakhic
validity of these reproductions. We will examine each in
All reproductions are invalid
This approach posits that the original, natural form of a mitzva — be it
of Torah or rabbinic origin — is the only acceptable form of fulfillment. Any deviation from the pure
configuration would then invalidate one's performance of a given
The posek (halakhic authority) who best represents this approach is Rav
Shelomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l in his Minchat Shelomo, responsum 9. In this responsum, Rav Shelomo Zalman
explains at great length the exact electronic workings of the basic
microphone-speaker setup. He
the entire description above, it is apparent that by hearing the sound of a
shofar or the reading of the megilla via a telephone or loudspeaker (even if we
do not hold that the sound was changed a bit, which would give the blast the
[invalid] status of blowing into a pit or cistern), one has not fulfilled his
obligation at all. When the
auditory impression is effected by the sound of the shofar, which vibrates the
air and creates sound waves, it is considered hearing the sound of a
shofar. This is not the case when
the ear hears only the vibrations of a membrane; even though those vibrations
create sound waves in the air which are exactly like those of the shofar, it
stands to reason that it is only the sound of the vibration of a membrane that
one hears and not the sound of a shofar...
Therefore, I am very perplexed by some of the great poskim who permitted
listening to the megilla reading via sound amplifiers. How is it that they did not realize this
fact, that [the listeners] only hear the sound of the vibration of a membrane,
and not the sound of the megilla being read by a human being? (I am sorry that according to this,
those people who are hard of hearing and use a hearing aid in order to pick up
sound do not fulfill the obligation of shofar, megilla reading, or similar
[mitzvot] at all....)
There are two basic assumptions behind Rav Auerbach's position, the
rejection of which would thus produce two basic directions that would lead us to
permit an artificial reproduction of the main stimulus of the mitzva. The first
supposition of the above approach is that halakha differentiates between an
original, authentic stimulation and a virtual one. The second is that all mitzvot have a
natural process of stimulation that is part of the essential definition of each
mitzva. However, one may accept the
first and reject the second assumption.
Rather than invalidating all simulations across the board, one would
determine the requirements of individual areas of halakha. This would give rise to a second
approach, which we will now examine.
Reproductions are valid in specific areas
To illustrate this point, let us first examine two examples at opposite
extremes: etrog and tzedaka. As
mentioned above, a virtual etrog would clearly be invalid since there are
specific requirements for the object used.
On the other hand, if one were to make a money transfer from his account
to that of a needy family, one would clearly have fulfilled the mitzva of
tzedaka, even though the transfer was entirely "virtual."
The essential difference is that in the case of tzedaka, we are concerned
solely with the END RESULT, as opposed to the etrog, where the PROCESS is
equally significant in the fulfillment of the mitzva. This process, consequently, has specific
physical requirements which are included in the essential definition of the
Thus, according to this second approach, before invalidating a
reproduction or artificial stimulation we must first examine each individual
area of halakha, to determine a) if there exists a significant process within
the mitzva's parameters, and b) if there are specific physical halakhic
requirements inherent in this process of the mitzva.
Another telling example is answering "Amen" without hearing the natural
voice of the speaker. The gemara in
Sukka 51b relates that the synagogue of Alexandria, Egypt was so large that they
had to wave flags so that the people in the back knew when to answer
"amen." This appears to be an
excellent example of a simulated or virtual form of communicating a berakha
(blessing) which is considered valid.
However, interestingly, Rav Ovadya Yosef (in his Yechaveh Da'at II, chap.
68) rules like Rav S.Z. Auerbach zt"l that for megilla and kiddush, in order to
fulfill one's obligation one must hear the actual voice of the person, thus
disqualifying the use of a microphone.
Yet, in the issue of answering amen to a berakha, he rules against Rav
Auerbach (who disallowed answering to a live berakha heard over a radio) and
holds that one may answer.
Rav Ovadya seems to agree with the first basic supposition that the
halakha differentiates between the original authentic stimulation and a virtual
one. However, he disagrees with Rav
Auerbach's second assumption that the original authentic stimulation is required
in all halakhot across the board.
It would seem that Rav Ovadya feels that the requirement to answer "amen"
to a berakha is fulfilled via live radio because the process of communication is
of little importance; what matters is the end knowledge that at a given moment,
a valid berakha was recited. As he
himself points out, this would be the straightforward understanding of the
gemara about the synagogue in Alexandria.
Shofar is another mitzva whose reproduction is discussed. The mishna on Rosh Ha-shana 27b states:
who blows [a shofar] into a pit, a cistern, or a cask: if he hears the sound of
the shofar, he has fulfilled his requirement; if he hears the sound of the echo
(havara), he has not fulfilled his requirement."
obvious conclusion is that no audio reproduction of the shofar blast is
valid. This could be in line either
with the first approach — that reproduction is invalid in any and all halakhot —
or with the second position which we have raised, that the Rabbis specifically
disqualified a reproduced shofar blast because the process of producing the
sound is part of the definition of the mitzva of shofar.
Megilla is an example that shows a practical halakhic difference between
the two approaches. Rav S.Z.
Auerbach, as well as Rav Yitzchak Weiss in his Minchat Yitzchak (vol. 2,
responsum 113; see also responsum 84 and Rav Ovadya Yosef's Yabi'a Omer, vol. 1,
responsum 1), disqualifies hearing the megilla reading via speakers. The opposing view allows it on the
grounds that the process of conveying the reading of the text is less
significant than the end result of hearing, learning and pirsumei nisa
(publicizing the miracle of Purim).
This is the position of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (as quoted in the Minchat
Yitzchak ibid.) and the Minchat Eliezer (vol. 2, responsum
Yet another example is witnessing the new moon for kiddush ha-chodesh,
bet din's sanctification of the new month.
Does one need to view it with the naked eye? Can some form of reliable reproduction
suffice? This too seems to hinge on
whether the very act of viewing the phenomenon of the new moon is part of the
essential definition of this form of testimony.
The gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 24a) quotes a beraita which states: "[Witnesses
who say,] 'We saw it as a reflection in the water,' [or] 'We saw it be-ashashit [in or via
glass],' [or] 'We saw it in the clouds,' cannot testify." The Shevut Yaakov (vol. 1,
responsum 126) quotes the Devar Shmu'el as stating, on the basis of the above
beraita, that one cannot view the moon via eyeglasses for the purpose of kiddush
ha-chodesh or birkat ha-levana, the blessing recited on the new moon. The Shevut Yaakov explains that the
Devar Shemu'el interpreted be-ashashit to mean "through glass." He then disagrees with the Devar
Shemu'el and says the correct meaning is "[reflection] via a glass mirror." The reason behind this is that the
person viewing the moon out of its place is seeing only a virtual moon, a
reproduction, and thus his observation is invalid. On the other hand, to view the moon via
a window or lens would be perfectly acceptable.
However, it is possible that the Shevut Yaakov did not have the text of
the Devar Shemu'el before him, because a basic reading of the responsum (242),
reveals that the latter quite clearly interprets be-ashashit to be a reflection
(and even describes a mirror!); furthermore, on the basis of connecting the tail
end of the above gemara with this beraita, he concludes that the grounds for the
invalidation of this form of observation is the fear of an inaccurate impression
on the part of the witness.
This is very relevant to our discussion. While the Shevut Yaakov disqualifies a
reflection solely on the grounds of it not being the original true moon, the
Devar Shemu'el, quoting the gemara, holds that the reason is possible
inaccuracy. Theoretically, a
super-accurate, foolproof instrument would be valid to transmit the sight of the
new moon to the witness; only the end result of the knowledge of the witness is
understanding would be that because of the potential inaccuracy, the Rabbis
disqualified any viewing other than with the naked eye. They did this by defining the act of
witnessing to include the process.
This is clearly not the direction of the Devar Shemu'el himself, who
concludes that a person can recite the blessing on a new moon seen via a mirror
if he has "spotters" viewing the same sight at the same time with their unaided
eyes, thus belying any doubt that what he sees in the mirror is indeed the new
Re'iya via Television:
Finally, we must consider the case of birkhot re'iya. The mishna in Berakhot 54a is the source
for this category, a type of blessing or praise of God which is triggered by
observing a particular scene or phenomenon. The long list of the mishna includes
berakhot said upon seeing the place where a miracle occurred for the sake of the
Jewish people, shooting stars, comets, lightning, mountains, rivers and
oceans. One particular
berakha is recited upon hearing good news ("hatov ve-hametiv"), another on bad
news ("barukh dayan ha-emet"). It
would stand to reason that even Rav Auerbach would require a berakha when
hearing such news over the telephone or even via mail. The end result of receiving the
information seems to be the sole criterion to trigger the obligation of the
If we now address the beginning of the mishna, regarding birkhot re'iya,
we must ask ourselves: did the Rabbis institute these blessings purely based
upon the end result of receiving information, or did they include the process by
which we witness these phenomena as an essential part of the berakha's
trigger? Do we allow for electronic
reproduction such as television, or will only the real natural phenomenon
While I am unable to quote a primary or secondary source to come to our
aid in this issue, I do believe that our general discussion and specifically the
above-mentioned Devar Shemu'el helps us see the crux of the
In his responsum, the Devar Shemu'el assumes that the halakha concerning
a "virtual" moon seen via a reflection (with regard to witnesses for kiddush
ha-chodesh) may be applied to the separate issue of kiddush levana, even though
the former is the accumulation of testimony concerning the appearance of the new
moon, while the latter is merely a blessing said upon viewing it. Yet the Devar Shemu'el understands that
kiddush levana, which is a birkat re'iya, has the same criteria as gathering
testimony, both being solely result-oriented.
Even if we accept this assumption, it is possible that the berakha is not
based solely on the visual or auditory affirmation that a particular phenomenon
is occurring or exists, but also the total experience of being present at an
unusual sight or event. This
definition would invalidate a television viewing of lightning or a mountain or
an elephant, even if they were being transmitted live.
A support for this understanding could be seen in the halakhic
requirement of a thirty-day interval between sightings that is found by certain
berakhot. Only after a thirty-day hiatus does one feel the proper emotion of
awe in the face of these phenomena.
The emotion of the individual, thereafter, is as much a trigger to the
berakha as is the act of viewing.
We have seen two reasons to invalidate a "virtual viewing" as a trigger
for birkhat re'iya: first, the possibility that the Rabbis required the natural
process of viewing the reality as well as the result of receiving the visual
information; second, that the criterion of "result" might include an emotional
response that only happens when the person is present at an unusual sight or
It is quite possible that television and later developments do affect
birkhot re'iya in a related way.
Even if one cannot make a berakha upon seeing an elephant on television,
the very sighting may invalidate a berakha when seeing an elephant in the zoo
within thirty days. This might seem
strange. Television viewing is not
a valid act to trigger a berakha, yet it is valid enough to give one the status
of having viewed the phenomenon in order to exempt him for the next thirty
days. This could be understood if
the required trigger of the birkhot re'iya includes both a valid physical
sighting as well as a certain level of emotional response. Television viewing brings a sense of
familiarity to the phenomenon, e.g. seeing an elephant. This familiarity waters down the
physical visual experience (e.g. seeing a live elephant at the zoo), thus
robbing us of the required emotional level and so the
Reproductions are generally valid
Until now, we have seen two approaches to the basic question of the
validity of a stimulation of our senses that is produced artificially. The first
opinion invalidates all reproductions.
The second maintains that it depends on the varying requirements of each
area of halakha: namely, whether there is a process of creating those stimuli
which is essential to the definition of the mitzva.
However, a third possibility exists. It is possible to say that generally,
there is no difference between reality and a reproduction as long as the
reproduction has a real, physical origin.
(This would still exclude a totally synthetic creation, such as
computer-generated graphics or sound.)
This approach is indeed voiced by a few halakhic authorities of the past
In his Gilyonei Ha-shas (Berakhot 25b), Rav Yosef Engel, challenged by a
new invention of his time called the telephone, raises a possibility that shofar
and megilla via phone would be valid since:
remember seeing in nature textbooks that a person's voice does not reach the
listener's ear, but rather the voice vibrates the air molecules near his mouth,
and they in turn do the same to the adjacent air molecules, and so on, until the
air molecules in the listener's ear vibrate. According to this, all hearing is
produced by gerama (indirect action)... and not the actual voice of the
He later rejects this approach, saying that telephones are nonetheless
not a natural form of communication and therefore may not be considered halakhic
hearing. The initial idea he
presents, however, is fascinating.
Since all audio communication is via a chain reaction and thus indirect,
placing an electronic device at the beginning of this domino effect not only
achieves the same result as the natural form, but essentially is the same as any
natural process. This would be
limited to sound, as light is actually composed of photons coming from an object
and entering our eyes.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l (Igrot Moshe, O.C. vol. I, responsum 108)
clearly describes the exact same idea as Rav Yosef Engel's initial position and
adds that this approach is "more logical" than the opinion that it is like
hearing the megilla from a non-obligated person and therefore invalid. The latter is basically the opinion we
saw in Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach's responsum.
have thus isolated and illustrated three approaches:
1. All stimuli that are not from a natural
origin, are not in their natural form, or do not originate from a natural
process are invalid for the fulfillment of almost any halakhic
2. The essential definition of each mitzva
must be individually examined. If
the process and result are essential, we must disqualify an artificial process
which produces the stimulus. If the
mitzva is solely result-oriented, then we disregard the fact that the result was
3. The end result of sound, in its nature,
is received via a process which is indirect. Thus, there is no such thing as an
"original" or "authentic" natural sound stimulus, and any and all sound
reproductions are valid. Even this
approach is limited to reproductions, as opposed to a production of a synthetic
sound without an original natual source.
It also would not apply to visual stimuli.
The future undoubtly holds a fantastic combination of applications of the
unfolding new technologies. Virtual
reality is a perfect illustration of this.
Combining computer generated audio and video stimulation, it is capable
of simulating real-life experiences.
Under present development is a minute light sensitive computer chip that
can be implanted into the retina of the eye, directly sending signals to the
three approaches discussed deal with the fundamentals upon which rests the
question of the halakhic validity of any artificial stimuli.
Rav Auerbach is forced to explain the gemara differently. He says that "amen" may be answered
because there is a minyan of people hearing the berakha directly. The people who are too far away to hear
it become eligible to answer because they are somehow annexed to the hearing
The mishna on Berakhot 54a lists:
shooting stars, on comets, on thunder, on high winds, and on lightning, one
says: 'Blessed [...] Whose power and strength fill the world.' On mountains, on hills, on seas, on
rivers, and on deserts, one says: 'Blessed [...] Who performs the act of
creation.' Rabbi Yehuda says: One
who sees the Great Sea says: 'Blessed [...] Who made the Great Sea,' [but only]
when he sees it infrequently."
Yerushalmi interprets "infrequently" to be once in thirty days. On this basis, Tosafot (ad loc.) rule
that this applies not only to seeing the Mediterranean ("the Great Sea") but to
all cases of the mishna. The Rambam
(Hilkhot Berakhot 10:15) cites this thirty-day limit in connection with the
blessings for mountains, seas, deserts, rivers, and the Great Sea, seemingly
excluding all the other phenomena of the mishna. A possible understanding of the Rambam
is that he differentiates between static phenomena (such as mountains) and
dynamic occurrences (such as lightning).
Both require a special, emotional, awe-inspiring experience for the
individual, but while the uniqueness is supplied to the former by the thirty-day
lapse, it is lent to the latter by the spontaneity of
A possible indication against this approach is the responsum of Halakhot
Ketanot, vol. I, chap. 220:
his friend saw him and then left the city, but within thirty days [the
individual who remained] received a letter from him; should he recite
"She-hechiyanu" [said when seeing a close friend one has not seen for thirty
days or more] or "Mechayei meitim" [said if his absence was more than twelve
It is possible that "Mechayei meitim" should not be recited, since there is no
forgetting [after twelve months, the basis of the obligation of the blessing] as
one forgets a deceased [since he has heard from him]. But "She-hechiyanu" which was instituted
on the seeing of his face, he should say.
would appear that the assumption of the question was our very point, that an
element of emotion is headed off by the letter. The author of the Halakhot Ketanot,
however, overturns this assumption, saying that for "She-hechiyanu" the only
element that is of relevance is seeing the face of one's friend for the first
time in thirty days.