A Shabbat talk in a Tel Aviv Synagogue.
(photo credit: COURTESY UNITED HATZALAH,COURTESY US EMBASSY TEL AVIV,COURTESY US NAVY PHOTO ARCHIVE)
Ten years ago, the overflow crowd during the height of the summer season at Rabbi Marc Schneier’s synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York, was so large it had to be housed in tents on the lawn outside.
Acoustics were terrible, if not nonexistent, and many congregants decided to cease attending services because they felt disconnected from the activity inside.
Turning to then-Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and former Haifa Chief Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, Schneier was referred to Yisrael Rozen, a national-religious rabbi whose Zomet Institute in Alon Shvut had developed a Halacha- friendly sound system.
Microphones, like the issue of separation of the sexes during prayers, had long been one of the dividing lines between Orthodox and Conservative congregations, with traditionalists shunning the technology as a violation of the legal norms regulating Shabbat observance.
The use of electricity on Shabbat, especially when completing a circuit or causing an element to heat up, potentially violates several biblical prohibitions. When Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading light of modern Orthodoxy during the mid-20th century, came out against the use of microphones in synagogues during a meeting of the Rabbinical Council of America he was expressing what had become the consensus among the rabbinate.
“In the ’50s and ’60s the true dividing line between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues was the issue of mehitza. Microphones, while an issue, were more a halachic concern and were addressed separately,” explained RCA head Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky. “Zomet’s microphone is a halachically valid option and, therefore, not a concern for an Orthodox synagogue.”
According to Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna, who studies American Jewish history, when Soloveitchik came out against the use of microphones, it was “no doubt as part of his effort to distinguish Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism.”
“Nowadays, the threat from Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy is much reduced – everybody knows the difference – and there is much more sensitivity to the hearing impaired, as well as more pressure for larger synagogues in communities with large Orthodox populations.”
Relying upon rulings by decision makers such as Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Isser Yehuda Unterman and Rav Haim David HaLevi, the Zomet microphone uses only transistors “without any glowing [or ‘burning’] elements;” is turned on by an automatic “Shabbat timer;” and, once turned on, “current flows continuously in the system,” according to technical notes on the setup released on the group’s website.
According to Zomet executive director Rabbi Dan Marans, the system has come into use in 15 synagogues in Baltimore, Montreal, West Stamford and other locations, as well as in 18 old-age homes. Leading American poskim, or decidors of Halacha, have even “stipulated in contracts with synagogues that they change the system to our system so that the RCA [will be] able to send rabbis.”
In many aging congregations, as the Rabbi’s voice weakens and his listeners find themselves with decreasing auditory capacities, such technology can enable people to be a part of the service, he added.
Asked about the possible stigma of using the system, Marans said Zomet usually recommends that synagogues post signs stating that it is rabbinically approved, adding that innovations such as the automatic Shabbat timer and Shabbat elevator took time to be accepted but eventually became mainstream.
“I’ve not heard comments [against it]. If anything, people find the service more enjoyable and more elevating,” agreed Schneier, adding that “We must get a dozen calls a year from rabbis contemplating putting this system into their synagogues.
“I believe within 25 years it will be commonplace in Orthodox synagogues here in the Northeast.”