Rabbinic authorities of the twentieth century have rigorously debated the issue of whether a voice or sound heard through a microphone or hearing aid (which functions essentially like a microphone) is considered to have the same status as the actual sound or voice that the microphone is amplifying. The Halachic ramifications of this question are numerous. Primarily, the question is whether one fulfills the Mitzvah of Torah or Megillah reading or Shofar blowing by hearing it through a microphone, hearing aid or radio. Another important question is whether one is permitted to answer "Amen" to a bracha that one heard on the telephone or radio or via microphone or hearing aid. We shall review these issues in this essay.
How does a microphone work?
Before Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l addresses this issue in his Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo (no 9) he presents a detailed explanation of how a microphone works (Rav Shlomo Zalman attained a very sophisticated understanding of how electricity works by reading and by consulting experts in the field such as professor Zev Lev). The main point that is essential for an understanding of our issue is that a microphone accepts sound waves (of the original voice or sound) and converts them to electrical signals. An amplifier / speaker system then reconverts the electrical signals into an amplified replica of the original voice or sound introduced into the microphone. This is essentially what also occurs in a hearing aid, telephone, and radio.
The argument that a Mitzvah can be fulfilled
A number of mostly early - 20th Century authorities (see Encyclopedia Talmudit 81:947) believed, or at least thought it was possible, to fulfill the Mitzvah of hearing Shofar or Megillah reading reproduced through a microphone.
Some authorities, especially those of the early 20th Century, ruled that one can fulfill these Mitzvot via a microphone due to a mistaken belief that a microphone, telephone or radio merely broadcasts the human voice without first transforming it into electric current. However, a number of prominent authorities believed that it was possible to fulfill the Mitzvah this way, despite the fact that it is not the actual voice being broadcast, but instead an electronic reproduction of the voice. The Chazon Ish (in an oral communication to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited in Minchat Shlomo, page 66, note 4) suggested that perhaps "since the voice that is heard via microphone was created [at first] by the [human] speaker and the voice is heard immediately just as it is heard in a regular conversation, that this is also defined as actually 'hearing' the Shofar blower or the reader." A similar line of reasoning is suggested by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim II: 801; it should be noted that even Rav Feinstein discouraged the use of a microphone even for a Megillah reading both in this responsum and in Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:621). Rav Shlomo Zalman immediately asks on this suggestion of the Chazon Ish and Rav Moshe, "Doesn't the Mishna in Rosh HaShana (3:7) state that if one blows a Shofar into a pit that if he hears the sound of the Shofar itself he fulfills the Mitzvah but if he only hears the echo of the Shofar sound he does not fulfill the Mitzvah? Why is hearing something through a microphone different than hearing an echo - they're both mere replications of the original sound!?" Rav Shlomo Zalman suggests that an echo differs from the actual voice because when hearing an echo there is a slight time delay. Despite this answer, Rav Shlomo Zalman writes that the suggestion of the Chazon Ish and Rav Moshe is highly questionable "and I do not comprehend it."
Argument That The Mitzvah Cannot Be Fulfilled
The majority of authorities believe that one does not fulfill the Mitzvah of hearing either the Shofar or Megillah reading via a microphone. This is especially true in the case of the later twentieth century authorities (who had a greater understanding of how a microphone functions). These authorities include Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (who is undoubtedly the most authoritative voice in Halacha regarding issues of electricity and halacha), Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Kitvei Harav Henkin I:221), Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Moadim Uzmanim 6:501), Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 8:11 "every effort should be made to avoid having to use a microphone for Megillah reading"), Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer I:91), Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin (one of today's leading authorities on halacha and electricity, Teshuvot Maaseh Choshev 1) and Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:83:61).
The central argument of those who rule strictly is that one does not hear the sound of the Shofar or the reader of the Megillah via a microphone. Instead, one is hearing a reproduced sound of the Shofar or reader. They argue cogently that this is substantially inferior to hearing an echo of the Shofar because there isn't a trace of the original sound present. Instead one hears a new sound created by the amplifier, and this artificial sound cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing Shofar or Megillah reading. Rav Shlomo Zalman compares blowing the Shofar over a sound system to pressing a button on computer which produces a sound of Shofar blowing. Just as it is intuitive that one does not fulfill the mitzvah thereby, so too one does not fulfill the mitzvah by hearing on electronically reproduced sound, even through it was created because someone spoke or blew Shofar into a microphone.
Rav Shlomo Zalman writes that he is pained to rule that one does not fulfill the Mitzvah of Shofar or Megillah reading if one hears them through a hearing-aid. Hearing - disabled individuals should remove their hearing-aids during Tekiat Shofar and Megillah reading. If they cannot otherwise hear the Shofar or Megillah without their hearing-aid, then they may not recite the Beracha on either Mitzvah.
It is still worthwhile hearing the Shofar and Megillah with a hearing-aid because of the possibility raised by the Chazon Ish and Rav Moshe that one does fulfill these mitzvot by listening through a sound system. Similarly, Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 8:11) rules that a rav who permits Megillah reading to be broadcast throughout a hospital so as to enable patients to hear the Megillah who would otherwise not be able to hear the Megillah reading, should not be denigrated, for he would be ruling according to the reasoning of the Chazon Ish and Rav Moshe in a case of very great need. Rav Moshe also rules (Igrot Moshe O.C. IV:19:4) that one may recite Havdala on the telephone on behalf of the listener if there is no other way for the listener to hear Havdala, such as a patient in a hospital.
Reciting אמן on a Bracha Heard Through a Microphone or Telephone
Rav Shlomo Zalman also provides guidance as to when it is permitted or forbidden to answer אמן to a Bracha that one heard being recited through a sound system or telephone. Since one has not actually "heard" the Bracha in such cases, it is considered that one merely knows that a Bracha has been recited at that moment.
This situation is analogous to the case described in Sukkah 15b. The Talmud describes the Great Synagogue of Alexandria which was very large, and there were so many people that many people could not hear the Chazan recite prayers. The practice in that synagogue was to wave banners to indicate that a Bracha was being recited by the Chazan.
Tosafot both in Sukkah 25a (s.v. )וכיון and in Brachot 74a (s.v. )אמן as well as Rashi in Berachot) ask how this practice was permissible if the Talmud (Berachot 74a) forbids answering אמן if he did not hear the actual Beracha that was recited (the Gemara refers to this as an אמן יתומה). Rashi and Tosafot in Berachot both explain that it was not an אמן יתומה since the people in Alexandria knew which Bracha was being recited, despite the fact that they did not hear the Beracha. Tosafot in Sukkah cite Rabbeinu Nissim who answers that the prohibition to recite a אמן יתומה applies only when answering אמן to a Beracha that one is obligated to recite such as the Beracha on Tekiat Shofar or Megillah reading. The people in the Great Synagogue of Alexandria were answering אמן to Brachot the congregation were not obligated to recite such as the blessings recited on the Torah reading. Both of these opinions are presented as normative in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 421:8 and Mishna Berura 421:33).
Accordingly, Rav Shlomo Zalman rules as follows: If one hears a Bracha recited via a microphone and he is not obligated to recite that Bracha, he is permitted to answer אמן. A common example of this is a member of the audience hearing as bracha recited through a microphone at a wedding (for the reason why the Bracha is recited via a microphone does not constitute a problem for the Chatan and Kallah who must hear the Berachot that are recited, see Yechave Da'at 3:45 - since they hear the actual Bracha being recited they can ignore the sound produced by the amplifier).
Rav Shlomo Zalman then presents an interesting ruling. He writes that it is forbidden to recite אמן on a bracha that one heard while listening to the radio (even if it is a live broadcast or telephone). Rav Shlomo Zalman argues that only if one is present in the place where a bracha is being recited can one be considered eligible to answer אמן to a bracha that he did not actually hear, but knows was recited (only then are the circumstances analogous to what took place in the Great Synagogue of Alexandria). However, if he is not present in the place where the blessing is recited, he is forbidden to answer אמן even if he is not obligated to recite bracha and knows which bracha is being recited. Hence, Rav Shlomo Zalman concludes that it is forbidden to say אמן to a bracha one hears on the telephone or radio.
Not all halachic authorities agree with this assertion of Rav Auerbach. Rav Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim IV: 19:4) rules that one should answer אמן to a bracha recited on the radio (if it is a live broadcast) or on the telephone because of doubt. The possibility is as we quoted earlier - perhaps the halacha does consider hearing the sound heard on the telephone, radio, or loudspeaker is considered to have the status of hearing the person's voice speaking into these instruments.
It is well known among students of halacha, that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is the unparalleled authority in matters of electricity and halacha. His opinions regarding microphones should be followed because of his mastery of the science as well as the halacha regarding this issue, his persuasive reasoning, and the fact that so many authorities subscribe to his views.
Rav Moshe concludes his responsum (O.C. 2:801) where he rules that a microphone should not be used for Mitzvot because of a consideration that we have not yet discussed. He writes "in general, we should forbid the introduction of microphones into synagogues to discourage people from being obsessed with things new as exemplified by the regrettable obsession in American society with everything new."
A similar sentiment is expressed by Maran Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook (Ohr Haemuna, Chophesh Hamachshava Vihaemuna): "So many spiritual problems which befall individuals and the world in general whose complexities prevent people from enjoying the grandeur of life in all its facets, can be attributed to disregarding all that is old for those who are obsessed with everything new."
Of course, we should not reject positive new phenomena. What Rav Moshe and Rav Kook are teaching us is to view the new with a critical eye while being anchored in our glorious past and promising future!
כתיבה וחתימה טובה לכל בית ישראל!