Zooming in on Leil HaSeder’s Zoom Controversy

The global Coronavirus crisis and its unprecedented implications present many challenges to the poskim. One of the polemics that has arisen recently is the option of utilizing the Zoom application for the Seder to include elderly family members who will spend the Seder alone, due to the demand for social distancing in particular from adults in this at-risk group. This might have serious mental and emotional consequences.

A group of Sephardi Israeli rabbis “Chachmei Ha’Maarav”, among them some chief rabbis of cities, have ruled that it is permissible to use the Zoom app in these cases, assuming that the session will start before the beginning of Yom Tov, and considering the fact that specifically due the current extreme situation, it is possible to rely on some of the Sephardic poskim who allowed to use electricity on Yom Tov. On the other hand, many rabbis, including Tzohar Halakhic Committee, have come out against that psak and have banned any use of technological means for the Seder. As an alternative, they offered various options such as a Zoom meeting before the chag with songs and recitation of some of the traditional texts. In the United States, Rabbi Schechter, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, has allowed the use of Zoom in extreme cases of concern that the isolation might lead to mortal danger due to mental illness.

“Zooming out” on this controversy, it is fascinating to see how the current polemic corresponds with how Halakhah has evolved throughout history. In my forthcoming book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge“, I devote an entire chapter to discuss the issue of technology and Halakhah and demonstrate how embracing and disapproving approaches have always characterized the response of the poskim to technology innovations.

The invention of different kinds of transportation radically changed the amount of time it took people to cover long distances. Distance is an important element in numerous halakhot such as the laws of mourning.[1] Someone whose relative dies who lives further away than ten parasangs (‘parsaot,’ approximately 45 km) counts the days of shiv’ah and sheloshim differently than the other mourners, starting from the moment that he hears about the death.[2] Ten parasangs represents a day’s journey, and therefore, one who lives so far away is not able to begin the shiv’ah with other mourners. What should the ruling be when a person can use a train to travel even farther than that in the same day? Will the Halakhah change accordingly?

The author of the responsa Sho’el u’Meshiv, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Natanson, claims that Halakhah cannot be influenced by technological changes: “Although nowadays there are train tracks and one can travel many parasangs in one day, nevertheless, this is not called ‘a day’s journey’ . . . because we only evaluate based on the natural way to travel, not based on methods that were invented in our time. For if that were not the case, the Torah’s ways would change on a daily basis . . .”[3]

Rabbi Natanson argues that Halakhah cannot possibly react to technological developments, because every day there are new inventions that would force the Halakhah to be constantly changing. On the other hand, the author of the Arukh HaShulchan ruled that we follow our logic, and therefore, since methods of transportation now allow one to arrive much more quickly at their destination, the factor that the Halakhah should consider is the potential time of arrival, rather than the distance:

“Now that there are many train tracks and we travel at higher speeds, any place that can be reached by train in one day is considered a ‘close location,’ for we follow the reasoning [of the Halakhah].”[4]

The invention of the microscope and other methods of enhanced observation allow us to discover bacteria and microbes that we had previously not had the ability to see. Should then, foods now be ruled as forbidden, because they contain tiny creatures that are invisible to the naked eye? In this case, the Arukh HaShulchan rules that Halakhah overrules technology, and that we should ignore the existence of invisible microbes even if they can be seen under a microscope:

“The truth is that the Torah did not prohibit that which the eye cannot perceive because the Torah was not given to the angels, for if this were not so many researchers say that the air is full of minuscule creatures and when a person opens his mouth he swallows some of them.”[5]

The pragmatic approach that the Torah was not given to angels is what tips the scales in this case. The delicate navigating between pragmatism and absolute truth, and between intellectual honesty and the fear of change, characterizes these rulings of the Arukh HaShulchan, who, in one case, sides with technology, and in the other, prefers the halakhic assumptions over scientific findings.

Many families use an electric time switch (“Shabbat clock”) which has become an integral part of Shabbat. It would seem that there should not be any halakhic problems with using an automatic mechanism that is independent of human intervention on Shabbat itself. However, the Shabbat clock was fiercely opposed by none other than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was concerned that its use would lead to the total breakdown of the framework of Shabbat:

“In my humble opinion, it is clear to me that we cannot permit this, because based on a clock like this you can do all activities on Shabbat in all the factories, and there is no greater degradation of Shabbat than this. It is obvious that during the times of the Tanna’im and Amora’im they would forbid this since they forbade asking a non-Jew to do a melakhah (forbidden act) for this reason.”[6]

Rabbi Feinstein’s final conclusion is to give an extremely limited allowance for use of a Shabbat clock only for turning lights on and off but not for electronic devices. Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg prohibited riding a trolley on Shabbat for similar reasons even if the card was purchased ahead of time, not because of a clear halakhic prohibition but out of a concern for a general breakdown of the framework of Shabbat:

“Riding the trolley should be forbidden because it is no different than those permitted things that others treat as forbidden, which you are not allowed to permit; [this is] certainly [applicable] in this case where most rabbis forbade it for several reasons that we will not elaborate on here.”[7]

Another example is computerization. Computers can offer halakhic solutions to many questions in many areas, for instance, by inspecting the kashrut of a Torah scroll or mezuzah. The fact that the computer is able to provide more reliable inspection than a person should be an advantage, but nonetheless, there are those who opposed it. Rabbi Menashe Klein strongly opposed this for a number of reasons, the primary one being that technology should not replace people:

“The Torah attested to us of its existence without gadgets. And what will be of those who do not have computers . . . God gave wisdom . . . in a natural way from God and not from machines . . . To say that they can replace a sofer (scribe) who intends and desires to bring pleasure to his Maker by writing and checking a holy Torah scroll since he makes mistakes, and that the computer knows better, God forbid! The Torah was not given to them, but to us, flesh and blood, with feelings and natural senses.”[8]

These examples, of course, are but a few from a great sea of halakhic discussions about the use of technology and its conflicts with Halakhah. What is common to all of these cases is the careful treading of the poskim along the narrow bridge of Halakhah, at once sensitive and respondent to technological changes, but also careful to ensure that these changes not sever the chain of tradition. Technology could easily destroy the spirit of Shabbat, turning it into another regular day. A number of years ago, there was an attempt to distribute an application that would allow one to use their smartphone on Shabbat in order to read messages and the like. Even if from a purely technical halakhic perspective this does not involve a violation of Shabbat, it is liable to destroy the Shabbat spirit and atmosphere, and it was therefore met with fierce rabbinic opposition.

I think what’s behind the Zoom polemic is a direct continuation of this line. From a pure halakhic perspective, it is easy to find reasons to permit the use of Zoom on the Seder night, when the session starts before Yom Tov, especially during such exceptional times when Leil HaSeder becomes “Leil HaSeger” (the lock-down night). On the other hand, there is great concern that this precedent will disrupt the framework of Shabbat and Yom Tov as a day of rest from electronic communication, which is what has led many rabbis to find reasons to ban this option. This concern is not detached from reality. Personally, I have heard from several people who are planning to use the Zoom app to hook the whole family together for the Seder, with no real concern for older relatives being at risk. Their excuse for allowing this is that if rabbis have already permitted the use of Zoom, there is no real problem using it, even in cases of ‘discomfort’ when the family cannot celebrate together.

These disputes are important and their existence maintains the system of checks and balances in the evolution process of Halakhah. It is fascinating to see this happening in real-time. The Shabbat clock has now become part of the Shabbat routine, while the Shabbat app has been completely rejected. What will be determined in the future about the usage of the Zoom app on Shabbat and a Yom Tov? Time will tell…

With prayers for health – refuah – and peace to Am Israel and the entire world.

[1]. See, for example, the issue of traveling four mil (approximately four km) when needing to wash hands prior to consuming bread. The Chafetz Chayim rules that someone traveling in a vehicle measures the distance for washing hands based on travel time equivalent to the time it takes to walk four mil, that is, seventy two minutes (Be’ur Halakhah 163, s.v. “BeRichuk yoter me’arba’ah milin”).

[2]. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 375:8.

[3]. Rabbi Yosef Shaul Natanson (Ukraine, 19th century), Responsa Sho’el u’Meshiv, first ed., 3:103.

[4]. Arukh HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 375:17.

[5]. Arukh HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 84:36.

[6]. Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:60.

[7]. Seridei Eish 1:38.

[8]. Mishneh Halakhot 11:114.