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What are the issues in talking into a mic that was accidentally turned on on Shabbat?

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During the COVID pandemic many synagogues have moved activities online, including communal prayer. Some have even done this on Shabbat, and the Conservative movement recently published a responsum permitting this for this specific situation (because of its wide-ranging impact) and on the condition that everything is set up in advance. Basically, you can listen to/watch a Zoom call on Shabbat that was already running before, according to them.

Taking that as a baseline for the purposes of this question, can one benefit from accidental disturbance of the technology? If one's cat happens to walk across the keyboard and unmute, is it permitted to speak and engage with the call? Or does halacha require one to avoid using the computer's microphone on Shabbat? A lower-tech version of this question might be if a pet (or child) knocks a ringing phone off the receiver -- at that point, could you talk with the person on the other end? Is mere use of the technology to talk the problem, or is the problem interacting with the technology itself, for example by typing commands, tapping a touchscreen, or picking up the (muktzeh) phone?

I understand that if one walks past a motion-sensor light on Shabbat, causing it to come on, but did not desire that effect, the person has not transgressed Shabbat -- it was an accident. Similarly, the cat on the keyboard shouldn't cause a transgression. The question is about what comes next, speaking in range of the mic in this case.

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5 comments

Can you clarify more on the distinction between 'use' and 'interaction'? Is interaction not a form of use (and vice versa)? PinnyM 7 days ago

@PinnyM edited. I meant interacting with the technology itself, like typing or tapping on a computer, which I expect is categorically forbidden. My question is about the case where you didn't do that but something unexpected happened. Monica Cellio 7 days ago

Thanks for the clarification, updated my answer accordingly. PinnyM 7 days ago

Not answering (I actually started writing an answer earlier and then changed my mind) since I truly don't have time to do this topic justice - just two points to consider: 1 - In principle "microphone to remote speaker" should be no different from a traditional telephone where the main issue is dialing, on/off hook, etc. However with Zoom (and similar) the voice interaction can itself cause much more - e.g., causing the display on the remote computer to change when in Speaker view; manassehkatz 7 days ago

2 - there are issues with anything that makes significant noise - I don't remember the source (unfortunately) but that enters into quite a few situations that might otherwise be (relatively) non-issues. manassehkatz 7 days ago

1 answer

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There is a broad range of opinions as to the extent of the prohibition, but the consensus opinion for any activity involving electric current that achieves a tangible, desired outcome is that it will be prohibited (unless of course, it falls into some categorical exception, e.g. shvus deshvus bemakom mitzvah). Any interaction that would be considered normal use of the device would be included, even if it didn't include physical contact (e.g. use by voice or motion).

The halacha may change significantly when some of these aspects are missing. If the outcome is intangible, or if it is undesirable (or even indifferent) , or if the interaction is not normal usage, that could conceivably make the activity permitted. But the devil is very much in the details of each specific case.

This is an extremely complex topic that touches on many factors of shabbat law, and can't really be done justice in a few paragraphs. For those looking to delve further into the finer details, here are some sources that may provide related background information:

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