Techno Halacha

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Estimated Time: 45 minutes

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Resource Goal

Goal: To discuss some of the issues and value conflicts that may arise when expanding traditional halachic categories to address modern technology.

Resource Contents

Modern technology has changed, and continues to change, our lives in innumerable ways and it is impossible to relegate these changes to our secular lives alone. Over the course of the past century, modern technology has come head to head with the theory and practice of halakha, and Poskim have struggled to fit contemporary technological and scientific innovations into traditional halachic categories.

Some areas of halacha that have been affected by technology:

Shabbat how does electricity compare to eish? How does the concept of gramma come into play when setting timers, etc.?

Electricity vs. or haner for Shabbat and/or Chanukah

Medicine and medical ethics

Modern extra-long-lasting inks in the writing of sifrei torah, tfillin, and mezuzot

Microwaves and bishul acum or when cooking meats that are halakhically required to be broiled

Teleconferencing in place of physical presence at a beit din, in instances such as the granting of a get

More examples which participants in this sicha might suggest

(All of these issues have been written up within the past ten years in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society published by the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and similar such publications. To get a copy of specific articles, call Barry at (212) 568-1126)

In many of these instances, expanding halachic categories to include modern technology results in changing the face of a traditional ritual. One timely example of such an adjustment involves bdikat chametz:

Bdikat chametz, the search for the last, remaining crumbs of chametz that might be hidden in the cracks and crevices of our homes on the night before the first seder, is traditionally conducted by candlelight. The traditional use of a candle for bdikat chametz is not incidental, but is actually integral to the ritual. In the Shulkhan Aruch (Hilkhot Pesach, siman 433) it is written:

The bdika must be conducted by the light of a candle and not by the light of the moon [We] do not do the bdika by the light of a torch, but rather by the light of a candle

The Mishnah Berura adds:

And they [the rabbis] established the bdika specifically by the light of a candle, since in that manner they will be able to check in the cracks and crevices as well

In our day and age, flashlights have, in many instances, replaced the candle of yesteryear. Is it halachically permissible to substitute a flashlight for a candle when it comes to bdikat chametz?

Aside from the intricacies of the halachic discussion to determine whether a heated filament qualifies as a wick, the arguments that can be (and have been) made for and against the use of a flashlight for bdikat chametz represent the different approaches that one could adopt regarding all technology vs. halacha debates.

Before proceeding, ask the participants in this sicha come up with a few rationales of their own, pro and con, for modernizing halakha.

When pondering this question, what are some of the conflicting values that come into play?

When the issue of using flashlights for bdikat chametz was actually brought to contemporary Poskim, nearly all (including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, and others) ruled that the use of a flashlight for bdikat chametz was technically permissible. However, not all poskim agreed that a flashlight was the best way (lchatchila) to perform the bdika. Their responses fit into two basic categories:

1) PREFERABLE (as represented by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, cited in Rabbi Shimon Eiders compendium Halachos of Pesach) because flashlights allow one to be even more scrupulous about fulfilling the purpose of the bdika, to search thoroughly in all cracks and crevices, without fear of starting a fire.

2) NOT PREFERABLE (as represented by Rabbi Salomon Braun, cited in the following paragraph) because tradition, which means holding onto the ways of our forefathers, dictates using a candle, not a flashlight.

Rabbi Salomon Braun wrote in his Shearim Metzuyanim Behalacha 111:4 :

Thus there is no reason or rationale to prohibit the use of electric lights for bdikat chametz. Nonetheless, the Jews are holy and a mitzvah that comes only once a year, it is best to do in the tradition of our parents, with a wax candle. Rabbi Aharon Kotler ztl when he saw this statement in the first edition [of this work] stated that this is correct and the halacha is like it.

These two approaches are summarized in the following concluding remarks by the authors of an article that appeared in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society:

Merely because something is permissible according to halacha does not mean that it ought to be immediately implemented and adopted in observant homes. On the other hand, when an advance in technology allows one to upgrade ones ability to fulfil a commandment, one should not freely turn away that opportunity simply because such an opportunity was not available to previous generations. There is a balance. Halacha prefers ritual observance performed in a manner similar to that done in previous generations and in other observant homes. On the other hand, technical improvements in ritual can and do occur and many of them are driven by advances of technology.

Rabbi Jachter, Rabbi Howard and Rabbi Michael Broyde. Electrically Produced Fire or Light in Positive Commandments. Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. Ed. Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen. Number XXV (Spring 1993). 124.

Which approach should we adopt in anticipating the halachic issues that may arise in response to technological advances of the 21st century?

How is it possible to maintain the values represented by the alternate approach (i.e. the one which has just been rejected)?

Can any one blanket approach be adopted for all issues?

Unlike most sichot, this one ends in a question to emphasize that this is still a developing issue.

Resource Comments

Sicha (for Chevraya Bet) :

Note-This sicha contains much information. Before you give it over, it is a good idea to make yourself a more concise outline which simply lists all the questions you wish to raise.

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