Thursday, March 30, 2023

Beloved Shaarei Orah member Joe Negari called with a cutting-edge halachic question—does the halacha permit performing melacha on Shabbat via voice commands? Perhaps the prohibition is to perform melacha, as it is written in the Aseret HaDibrot, “Lo ta’aseh kol melacha b’yom haShabbat,” do not perform any work on Shabbat. Would we be able to discover the temperature via “OK, Google,” or turn on lights via voice command on Shabbat?

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 90b), believe it or not, provides a precedent to resolve this issue. The Gemara queries as to whether one who muzzles his work animal and prevents it from eating during the work violates “Lo tahsom shor b’disho,” do not muzzle an ox during its threshing. Rav Yohanan believes that muzzling by voice command falls within the parameters of this prohibition while Reish Lakish disagrees. The Gemara explains that the root of the dispute is whether voice command is regarded as an action.

The Rambam and Shulhan Aruch not surprisingly follow the opinion of Rav Yohanan. This is hardly surprising since the halacha normally follows Rav Yohanan in his disputes with Reish Lakish (Rav Yohanan was the rav and Reish Lakish was the talmid; Reish Lakish was a superlative talmid, but nonetheless the talmid). Accordingly, normative halacha regards voice messaging as an action and included in the prohibition of “lo ta’aseh kol melacha.” OK, Google is OK for weekdays but not OK for Shabbat and Yom Tov when we, generally speaking, detach from technology.

It is striking that the Talmud provides a precedent for this new technology. What is even more startling is that the Gemara provides a precedent for virtually every new phenomenon that arises. There are hundreds, nay thousands, of such examples of contemporary halachic decisors finding a basis in the Gemara for every new change that has emerged in modern times.

In the last hundred years, the world in general and specifically the Jewish people have undergone a dramatic and unprecedented degree of change in all areas ranging from technology to sociology and political reality. Nonetheless, great halachic authorities have readily applied the venerated concepts of the Gemara to modern circumstances.

Amazingly, poskim find a precedent in the Gemara for virtually every new phenomenon that emerges in society. The Halacha is a fully functional and sophisticated system of law despite the general inability to create new rules. This is because of the miraculous existence of a model in the Tanach or Gemara for every new situation that emerges.

For example, precedents exist in the Gemara for electricity, in vitro fertilization and Jews who deviate from halacha who are psychologically unable to grasp their error. A perusal of every issue of the Israeli Torah journal Techumin and the American-based Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society demonstrates Halacha’s unique ability to be applied to the contemporary situation in Medinat Yisrael despite the fact that we had not enjoyed political independence for nearly 2,000 years.

A comparison with the United States Constitution, an extraordinary document created by human hands, is interesting. Undoubtedly, it has succeeded far beyond the expectations of its authors; however, critics have recently noted its shortcomings in that the document does not adequately address the technological and social phenomena that could not have possibly been anticipated by its human authors. The Constitution does allow for amendments, but this is an acknowledgement that America’s Founding Fathers could not have foreseen every eventuality. The fact that the Torah contains precedents for every new phenomenon leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the Torah is of Divine origin and that the Talmud and its commentaries are the result of pronounced Divine assistance. There exists no parallel in any other culture in the world. Natural occurrences as a rule are not singular; they reoccur throughout history. A unique occurrence points to a supernatural wonder.

OK, Google—bring on any new technology and phenomenon. One thing we can be sure is that we will find a basis in the Gemara to address any new challenge with which we will be confronted.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

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