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.