Contact Us

Will the Synagogue Ever Go Virtual?

Will the Synagogue Ever Go Virtual?

Why a skype minyan is not okay

 Email
Photo: Enzo Forciniti
Photo: Enzo Forciniti

Dear Rabbi,

Is it possible to create an online synagogue where everyone would join for prayer through webcam? Could this be a legitimate replacement for group prayer at the synagogue?

Answer:

Judaism has had a strong presence on the internet since the earliest days of the World Wide Web, beginning with the pioneer efforts of Rabbi Yosef Kazen (1954-1998), founder of the first Judaism website, Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace, the forerunner of Chabad.org. With practically everything in the world going online and becoming mobile, the idea of the online synagogue is the obvious next step.

Of course, prayer via webcam could only be considered for weekday services. On Shabbat and major Jewish holidays we refrain from actively turning on or off electric devices, so computer use is obviously out.

Having said that, synagogues are places of community, where people connect, learn, discuss, question and build relationships. Much of this can be done on the internet, and chabad.org has in fact created a virtual Jewish community. However, the central and primary function of any synagogue is to facilitate communal prayer, with the accompanying Torah readings. This, the Code of Jewish Law specifies, requires a minyan, a quorum of ten men.1

Can those ten people be gathered via webcam?

Apparently not. Jewish Law specifies that the constitution of a minyan is when “all ten are in one place.”2 Even if they are geographically close but separated by a wall, the ten people cannot be considered a minyan.

Nevertheless, in a situation where some of the ten are outside but “their faces are seen by the others,”3 the Code of Jewish Law states that they may indeed be considered a minyan. One might argue that when using a group chat with webcam, all members of the quorum can indeed see each other’s faces. But from the wording in the Code of Jewish Law it seems that close physical proximity is actually the vital component of the minyan. The clause about their faces being seen only accommodates a situation where there is technically a wall in the way. When it comes to a virtual minyan, the participants are certainly not in close proximity.4

We must also question if a virtual view of someone is considered actually seeing the person. It is most likely no better than seeing a picture of the person. The webcam image is nothing more than a picture being transmitted electronically on a screen.

I would add, that the idea of the ten people being physically present is also implicit in the Talmudic text which teaches the value of a minyan, “wherever ten Jews are gathered the Shechinah (Divine Presence) rests.”5 The word used, “bei asarah,” more literally translates as “a house of ten.” This implies that the ten men must share an actual physical space, not just the shared recitation of the prayer.

From another perspective, in the infancy of the World Wide Web, Rabbi Kazen was asked about virtual prayer. He responded:

Can I have a virtual meal? How long is it going to hold me for? I can read a recipe, but I still have to go out there and buy the eggs, buy the sugar.

Yes, the prayer itself can be read off the Net. But the actual act needs to be done by a physical person. The concept of Judaism in general is using the material - the animal cowhide, the hair of the lamb created into wool - so that there's actual participation in all the different four levels: the inanimate, the flora, the fauna, and the human being - all into one aspect.

The quorum of ten people requires ten physical bodies [in the same room]. Each individual person has a spark of G‑dliness within them, which is the soul. We don't necessarily see the spiritual reality of what is happening at the time, but certain things have to be done with physical people, just as food has to be eaten by physical people.6

Genuine human interaction requires physical presence, not just voices or words. We are physical bodies and those bodies are part of our spiritual makeup. We interact entirely only when we are in close physical proximity, face to face. In fact, we probably interact best when technology is turned off!

So while in some senses the internet has raised the degree of materialism in our society, in the sense of a minyan, it seems that the internet is too spiritual!

Search for the prayer times at the synagogue closest to you, and make a point to physically attend as often as possible (and leave your cellphone on silent or at home).

See Who Invented the Synagogue? from our Synagogue Guide.

Footnotes
1.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chayim 55:2.

2.

Ibid, 55:15

3.

Ibid, 55:16

4.

There is even a minority opinion that there should not be a full 4 amot (approximately 6 feet) between one person and the next (Shaalot Veteshuvot Dvar Yehoshua).

5.

Sanhedrin 39a.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
8 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous philadelphia September 30, 2017

Hi what if someone has a issue such as agoraphobia that prevents them from leaving the home but still would like to watch a service
would it be fine then as the person has no other options Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org October 29, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Though there is nothing wrong with watching a service during a weekday service, this would not be permitted on a Shabbat or Holiday, as we cannot operate electrical devices then.

It is important to note, that as important as Synagogue participation is, Judaism and its practices are primarily focused on the home. The Kosher kitchen, the Mezuzah on the door, Shabbat candles, Kiddush, and the hospitality we offer to those who need our help are all home-based. Even prayer or the donning of Tefillin and Tallit are not limited to the Synagogue - and should be done at home if Synagogue attendance is not possible. Please see here for more on the home being a miniature temple. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org via chabadnm.org June 19, 2015

I understand your dilemma, and it's a tough one. Driving is one of the creative labors forbidden on Shabbat, and yet you wish you could celebrate Shabbat along with the community. However, by not driving on Shabbat, you are sanctifying the holy day, and fulfilling G-d's will - observing Shabbat as G-d desires.

Bring the Shabbat atmosphere into your home. Light Shabbat candles, prepare special foods and wear special clothes, spend time in prayer, and Torah study, sing Shabbat songs. Can you invite friends or family to celebrate along with you? You can also look into the possibility of staying over nearer to the synagogue on some Shabbats, and find out about weekday events and classes that you can attend. Reply

Anonymous Albuquerque, NM via chabadnm.org March 5, 2015

What if you do not live within walking distance to s shul? We live 6 miles from the nearest Chabad shul. Considering that we are no longer young, and I need a cane to walk, I couldnt even make it 1 mile to a shul.

So, that means that we will never be able to attend Shabbat services at a shul as long as we live in our home. And, we live where there are not many Jews, too. It is a trick to go shopping for Pesach every year trying to find items. Looking for a oamb shank bone, the supermarket person showed me pork bones!

At least, we were able to join the Chabad Purim celebration, but not for Shabbat services or meals, etc.

I would like to live in a more Jewish area, but it is not feasible for us to move. Any suggestions? Praying at home is all we can do for now. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA March 22, 2012

In my dreams, Do relationships form in a synagogue. People come, pray, eat and leave. Period. Reply

BZ Morristown, NJ March 18, 2012

It is better not to pray @Susan,
the reason your argument doesn't work is that it is forbidden to do certain things unless you have a minyan, so if you, let's say, respond to the minyan using Hashem's name, you have taken His name in vain. As for normally permitted things, it is probably ok to daven with such a minyan, but is it better than davening by yourself? That's debatable. Reply

Dina USA February 26, 2012

Kaddish The prayer of an individual is certainly powerful. One should pray alone if he or she cannot pray with others, and the prayer accomplishes many spiritual things.

It is, however, not a minyan, and as you point out does not allow for Kaddish.

Jewish law has provisions for those who cannot say Kaddish personally, and allows one to fulfill his obligation by delegating the recital to another. There are many organizations that will find someone to recite the Kaddish for one who cannot make it daily to Shul.

To make him feel more a part of it, perhaps he could hook up via webcam or just over the phone to hear the Kaddish being recited and answer Amen.

Because the physical presence is necessary, but the "virtual" connection is something serious as well. It does not obviate the need for a physical minyan, but it doesn't mean it is meaningless. (I have heard advice for one who is out of town to at least pray at the time the minyan prays, to connect to it in some way.) Reply

Susan Levitsky February 26, 2012

Is it better not to pray? Your argument is logical but isn't it better to pray in a virtual minyan than not at all? An example would be a soldier who is stationed in an area without ten Jews, who wants to say Kaddish. If he could pray with an internet minyan he would be able to fulfill this obligation.
These rules were made up before the concept of virtual reality was ever thought possible. Just as the sages thought that the sex of an unborn baby was unknowable, the concept of praying with others over the internet was beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Reply

Related Topics