The propriety of using microphones during synagogue Shabbat services generated major disputes within and between the Orthodox and Conservative movements. While this debate has partially abated, its larger implications, both for hearing aids and the halachic process as a whole, remain poignantly relevant.
A microphone operates by converting sound waves into electric signals. In earlier generations, some decisors raised concerns that microphones heat metal and cause sparks, thereby violating the prohibition of lighting a fire (Minhat Yitzhak 3:38). These concerns, which at times were based on misinformation, might have applied to old amplifiers like the radio tube, but have no bearing on contemporary systems. Further concerns might apply to lights created on panel displays that indicate volume and create an entertaining sound-and-light effect. While rabbinic restrictions might forbid illuminating LCD or LED displays, one can easily purchase microphones that do not have such panels. As such, the use of microphones relates directly to the permissibility of creating or increasing electric currents on Shabbat.
Categorizing electricity in legal terms was one of the 20th century's great halachic quandaries. On the one hand, electric power, which revolutionized modern culture, clearly facilitates creative activity. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to define this action under any of the usual activities categorically prohibited on the Sabbath (melachot). One prominent scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzhak 2:31, addendum) contended that creating an electric current violates the talmudic prohibition of producing new entities (molid), such as creating a new fragrant scent in one's clothing (Beitza 23a).
Rabbi Abraham I. Karelitz alternatively asserted that the completion of a live circuit violates Shabbat proscription of building (boneh), since it transforms something completely useless into a functioning wire, much like completing a wall (Hazon Ish OC 50:9). Others suggested a third potential prohibition of makeh bepatish (lit. "the final blow of the hammer"), the biblical proscription of completing any item in a way that now renders it beneficial (Heichal Yitzhak OC 43).
The consensus of rabbinic opinion, however, deems these theories as legitimate yet not entirely compelling (Encyclopedia Talmudit XVIII). While many poked holes in these theories, the most strident critic was the eminent decisor Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (b. 1910), who constantly researched and published on this topic from 1935 until his 1995 passing. In addition to a number of more specific points, Rabbi Auerbach generally claimed that none of the aforementioned prohibitions apply to activities, like opening circuits, which are regularly done and undone throughout the day (Minhat Shlomo 1:11). Nonetheless, he himself adopted the rabbinic consensus that opening or closing electric circuits, even without the involvement of light, remains prohibited, for one reason or another.
This entire discussion, however, would seemingly only apply to turning on or off a microphone. Using a microphone left on before Shabbat, or initiated by a timer, would only increase or decrease the existing current. While Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:84) believed that increasing current remains prohibited, the preponderance of scholars agreed that merely changing the current violates no Sabbath restrictions (Minhat Shlomo 1:9). Possibly based on this understanding, several mid-20th-century American synagogues, Orthodox and Conservative alike, used microphones on Shabbat.
Most Orthodox decisors, however, believe that microphones violate other Sabbath restrictions, unrelated to electricity per se. The major concern stems from a rabbinic decree forbidding that activities that cause excessive noise (hashma'at kol), even if the action was initiated before Shabbat (Shabbat 18a). These actions were prohibited either because they denigrate the spirit of the day, or alternatively lead to the wrong impression that a prohibited action occurred (OC 252:5). Lesser concerns included the fear of people unwittingly fixing a broken amplifier (Tzitz Eliezer 4:26).
While hearing aids amplify sound in a similar manner to microphones, they obviously do not create excessive noise and operate quite smoothly. As such, it remains permissible to wear them and speak directly into them, especially given the need to preserve a safe and dignified lifestyle for the hearing-impaired (Shmirat Shabbat 34:28).
Over time, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox synagogues came to ban all microphone use, drawing a distinct line from the Conservative movement, whose leaders frequently adopted a more lenient position regarding all electric appliances to facilitate greater synagogue participation.
However, one prominent Orthodox rabbi, Yisrael Rozen, has argued that interdenominational polemics led to excessive stringency, with potential problems surmountable through clearly labeled, automated condenser microphone systems installed with precautionary tools (Techumin 15). Supported by the permissive rulings of Rabbis Shaul Yisraeli and Haim D. Halevi, and following a similar mechanism previously advocated by Israeli chief rabbi Isser Unterman (Shevet Meyehuda II), the Tzomet Institute continues to arrange such amplification systems for synagogues, highlighting the complex interaction between technology, Shabbat and denominational divides.
The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its Text and Texture blog (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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