The Right to Privacy

Although text and email are relatively new inventions, the answer to this question takes us back more than a thousand years to the time of Rabbeinu Gershom (960–1040 C.E.), the earliest prominent rabbi of Ashkenazic Jewry. Rabbeinu Gershom is known for enacting several bans and communal regulations, such as forbidding polygamy (among Ashkenazim). One of the better-known bans is “not to look at a letter that one friend has sent to another, without his knowledge. If it was discarded, it is permitted.”1

Reasons for the Ban

There are a number of reasons given for this ban:

  • We do not look at others’ correspondence so that we do not come to reveal gossip or a secret, as that would be rechilut (forbidden talebearing).2
  • Reading someone else’s writings without permission is like borrowing something without permission, which is a form of theft.3
  • It is incompatible with the rabbinic teaching, “Don’t do unto others that which you do not want [to be done] to you.”4

What is Included in the Ban?

There is a disagreement whether the ban includes something like a postcard, where the writing is clearly visible on the outside and there is no envelope or seal. Some are of the opinion that since it was sent openly, that is proof that the person doesn’t mind if others read it.5 Others contend that perhaps the sender doesn’t mind if some anonymous mail carrier reads it, but he very well may mind if people in his social circle read it.6

However, it seems clear that this ban would include email, texts or direct messages,7 since the prohibition is about the invasion of privacy.

How About a Spouse?

According to Jewish law, whenever a person entrusts either articles or money to a colleague, he does so with the understanding that his items may be placed in the care of the colleague’s spouse, adult children or other household members.8

Since one reason for the ban is that reading someone’s mail is considered borrowing without permission, some rabbis explain that you would indeed be able to read your spouse’s mail, since it is similar to an item lent to the spouse.9

The assumption is that the sender is aware that a spouse may see the communication, and the receiver (your spouse) presumably has no problems with it. However, in a scenario in which your spouse doesn’t let you see his or her private communications, it may (at least generally) be problematic to do so. If that does not sit well with you, I recommend that you read Cell Phone Privacy in Marriage, which discusses the question from a relationship perspective.

Also, if you need to see your spouse’s communications to prevent adultery, theft, or monetary or physical damages, etc., speak to a competent rabbi. The ban may not apply in such a situation, for the purpose of the ban was to minimize sin, not enable it.10