Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner's project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled "Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu," in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not "kosher."

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner's published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn't attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner's teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner's congregation, there was never a question about a "virtual participant" reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner's conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that "a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted." He goes on to explain, "Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner's Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that "a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner's Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner's Kaddish on their own." Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner's Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. "Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype." He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, "This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.


MiriyaB said...

Could you post the link or other relevant information for taking part in the minyan via Skype, for others who might wish to do so?

MiriyaB said...

Very interesting -- thanks for sharing: could you post a link or relevant contact information so that others who might wish to take part in the minyan via Skype might be able to do so?

Joel Ungar said...

Very interesting. I well remember how hard it was for me to arrange my schedule around minyan times, especially when travelling.

But that raises another question: Can one say the Shacharit Kaddish with a Skype minyan that is in California, but while the person saying Kaddish is in Amsterdam - it would likely be too late for Shacharit there.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Hi MiriyaB: Rabbi Reisner's teshuva can be accessed here. If you're looking for the technical means for broadcasting a minyan using Skype, you'll just need a computer with an Internet connection, camera and microphone (and a Skype account).

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Joel: The Time Zone issue is an interesting issue. Rabbi Reisner addresses it in his teshuva (see below). Remember, the key desire is for a mourner (or yahrzeit observer) to be able to recite the Mourner's Kaddish with a minyan. As you know, it is not permissible from the standpoint of Halacha to recite the Mourner's Kaddish without a minyan.

So, in the case of the minyan taking place in Massachusetts that allows a woman in the Hague to Skype in to participate is for the sake of her saying Kaddish. Therefore the time zone issue shouldn't be a factor. While there are timeframes within which one must say the Shema for instance, most mourners are just looking to be able to recite Kaddish each day (in each of the three daily services is ideal of course).

Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner:

The Issue of Time Zones

"It was pointed out to me that distant participation in the minyan might entail the attempt to fulfill an obligation outside of its proper time, for instance, to hear the reading of the Megillah that is being done in Israel on Purim night while it is yet the previous afternoon in the location wherein the listener resides, or to fulfill the requirement of reciting the Shema and its blessings in shaharit while it is yet dark. It is apparent to me that to fulfill any time-bound obligation this way, the listener would need to do so by connecting to a minyan functioning within the relevant time-frame of the one wishing to fulfill the obligation.

Another corollary flows from this
concern. There are many who attempt to say kaddish at every opportunity during their months of mourning.
Nor is kaddish limited to specific times. Rather, a mourner says kaddish whenever the opportunity presents
itself. Allowing global access to minyanim at various locations might suggest that a mourner should be perpetually prowling the internet or telephone links for minyanim with which to say kaddish. This is clearly untenable.

It needs only to be noted that even now one could say kaddish more often if one moved from synagogue to
synagogue catching different minyanim (or even within one synagogue if they hold multiple minyanim), or if one
tacked on numerous psalms, saying kaddish after each. Wisely, our sources worried about the tendency to
multiply kaddeshim and regularly advised against it.

It is sufficient to say kaddish, as far as possible, at the statutory times of prayer. There is no need to do more, and such practice is to be discouraged."

Rabbi Andy Sacks said...

We are considering doing something similar here in Israel.

In the article it mentions that it allows a person in Holland to join with the Minyan. This, of course, raises the issue of daveing, let's say, Shacharit, long after the morning hours.

Another question was asked. Might some who wish to say Kaddish just stay home rather than making the effort to get to shul?

However, all in all, the good outweighs the problems.

Karen Reiss Medwed said...

Perhaps the notion of "making an effort" to "go" will rapidly be redefined in a new and vibrant but different way.

Menachem Lifshitz said...

Is it limited to 10 people only? I think if they will subscribe to a Professional account, the number of people that can chat and converse will be doubled. Not so sure about this. Will double check.

Rabbi Ruven Spolter said...

Do you really want no one to ever come to shul?

Stuart Wiston said...

Or, do you really want more people to attend minyan?

Rick Dorfman said...

R' Moshe discusses the telephone (and microphones) in Igrot Moshe, in Orach Chayim, in Perek Dalet, p.174.

My understanding is that you cannot be yotzeh a mitzvah that is d'Oraitah (e.g. Shemah) via these means, but that rabbinical commandments may be fulfilled this way if there are no better means. The specific examples he says mentions that might be fulfilled virtually (if you extend microphone to telephone to skype) would be havdalah and megilat esther. He does not mention kaddish.

MiriyaB said...

I think it would be a real mitzvah if any minyanim that would make themselves available for Skype participants could post information here! (For example: my mother is currently saying kaddish for her mother, but next month she will be in an area with no synagogue -- but at least some internet connectivity--for about a week...)

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Reuven and Stuart,

You're both right. Any rabbi who implements Skype capabilities in the minyan must ensure that it doesn't detract from the real time minyan in the bricks and mortar synagogue. Stuart's right too that it could lead to more participation in the minyan (virtually) on the part of people who really couldn't be there in person (shut ins, handicapped, travelers, stay at home parents, etc.)

Aaron Schwartz said...

If I can bring up a halachic question here... would there be some issue with her saying kaddish in the wrong time zone? Presumably she's catching an EST shacharit in the middle of the afternoon and mincha/ma'ariv around midnight.

BTW, there is a Chabad in The Hague and at least two other Orthodox minyans listed on

Yiftah Shapir said...

It is interesting - and I guess some sociologist would find it interesting to research - that the motive for looking for new ways to define a minyan is the mourner's Kaddish - in itself a relatively new phenomenon in Judaism...

Stuart Wiston said...

I'm confused as to why the Mourner's Kaddish would be considered 'relatively new'? I had learned that it started in the Babylonian Exile. A quick search taught me that the Amran Gaon (circa 900) is recorded as having a copy in his Siddur and that by the 13th century, it had make it's way into Halachic writings.
I know we're an old people, but calling something that's 800 or more years old 'recent' ?

I think the idea has merit, if it were not for Yiftah's excellent point. Judaism has a very wel balanced mix of private and communal prayer. When a family member has died, the desire to be alone is strong, but the need to be with others is great. I'm not sure that being with others via Skype can fulfill the human need for interaction that the rabbis built into our requirement to come together for minyan.

Personally, I would attend minyan much much more often if I could participate via Skype. It would obviate the need to go to a building 20 minutes out of my way to anywhere and still let me feel as though I was praying in a community. But if I had to say Mourner's Kaddish (chas v'chalilah) I would not feel that Skype minyan would work for me.

Yiftah Shapir said...

You are right about the antiquity of the Kaddish itself.. but the "mourner's Kaddish" is relatively new: the custom that a mourner says Kaddish over a deceased relative was not known to Rambam. neither it appears in the Shulkhan Arukh. The custom spread probably during the late 18th - early 19th centuries...
Interestingly - during the 19th century it was mandatory that only one person says Kaddish. (I heard of places where this custom still exists). The Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh (mid 19th century) dedicates 3 pages to rules of precedence: who says Kaddish when there are several mourners in shul - one is sitting Shiva, another one has a jahrzeit etc. (That was the reason to introduce so many Kaddishim at the end of Shaharit).
More to our point of discussion: the effort to find ways to let people say the mourner's Kaddish over the internet points to the importance given by the average Shul - goer to the ritual of the dead. I had some somber thoughts about it last Yom Kippur - when I counted the number of people who were in shul during "Yizkor" - and compared it to the number of people who remained there during Mussaf....

Stuart Wiston said...

Thanks for educating me. I guess I had ne er stopped to realize that the Mourners Kaddish was so much more recent than the Kaddish. I thnk the Skype Kaddish question is a great one.

Unknown said...

My father died 2 weeks ago and I have been saying kaddish for him. I need to travel for work next week and have not been able to find minyan there. Is there a minyan anywhere that is accomodating participants via Skype?


Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Deborah, I am so sorry for your loss. My condolences. There are many congregations that steam prayer services, but not many that live stream daily minyan. You should try a web search.

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