As someone who attended Beth Sholom Congregation when it was still located in the District of Columbia, I am often asked whether the shul had a microphone back then before it moved to its current location in Potomac. When I reply in the affirmative, my answer is usually met with puzzlement, as Beth Sholom is an Orthodox congregation. The truth of the matter is, at one time, there was great halachic support for the use of microphones on Shabbat; it was only a greater understanding of the science behind their operation, coupled with political considerations, that led to their gradual disappearance from Orthodox synagogues, including Beth Sholom, by the 1980s. It really is a fascinating story.
Electric microphones were first invented in the mid 1920s. They revolutionized the recording industry. Record labels featured lightning bolts and the words “electrical process” on the label. Microphones made radio broadcasting possible as well; soon after, motion pictures with sound came onto the scene.
For shuls looking to improve their sound quality, this invention, like electric lights, seemed like a natural thing to adopt. And early rulings from several poskim (decisors of Jewish law) in America and in Europe treated them the same way: Just turn it on before Shabbat, leave it on, and go from there. The Chief Rabbinate of London ruled in favor of using microphones, as did the Rabbinical Council of America under its leader at the time, Rabbi Simcha Levy. The renowned Rabbi Eliezer Silver also ruled their use permissible. There was still great debate in those years on both sides of the issue, but whichever way a shul decided to go, there were rulings to rely on.
As time wore on, however, two great postwar rabbinic figures in America began to look at the issue in a different light. In his great genius, Rav Moshe Feinstein looked into how a microphone actually works and based his ruling completely on the science of the device. RavMoshe found two areas which, to him, were problematic. First, the microphone is not a passive device that merely broadcasts the voice, but instead turns it into electric current to amplify it; second, this transformation completes a circuit. Taking these issues into consideration, his ruling in a 1951 opinion completely forbade their use on Shabbat.
Then the second great rabbi made his voice heard, no microphone necessary!
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as “the Rav,” had become world famous through his leadership of Yeshiva University and his presence on the Rabbinical Council of America’s Jewish Law Committee. At the 1954 convention of the Council, he delivered a blistering address in which he thundered against the use of microphones, basically equating their use with the absence of a mechitza (divider between men and women) in synagogue and urging their removal from all Orthodox shuls immediately. (He still allowed his students to take jobs as rabbis in shuls with microphones, with the understanding that they would get rid of them as soon as they could.)
The battle continued to rage throughout the 1950s and 1960s; many renowned rabbis, such as Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff of Baltimore, still permitted their use. By the 1970s, however, most American Othodox rabbis were students of either Rav Moshe or the Rav, the two leading voices against the use of microphones. As these disciples took posts as rabbis across the country, it was only a matter of time before the era of the microphone ended in Orthodox synagogues.
In recent years, non-electric “Shabbat microphones” were invented, but they have not really caught on. It seems that the question of “to mic or not to mic” has been laid to rest. It really is a fascinating example of the evolution of halacha (Jewish law) that continues in so many areas all the time.
So how did Beth Sholom get rid of their microphone? In the early 1980s, there were merger talks with other congregations in DC. In order to begin the process, the shul had to agree to ditch its microphone, which it did right away. The mergers never happened in the end, but the microphone was gone for good. And you know what? The acoustics in that building were so magnificent that no one even missed it! Go figure.
NEXT TIME: A Tribute to Chazzan Dr. Mordechai Sobol, z”l
By Larry Shor