A recent NY Times article highlighted the growth of real-time written communication — texting, chatting, messaging — and the corresponding drop in e-mailing (link). Texting and the other forms of messaging receive quicker responses and involve less formality. They are the written equivalent of a conversation. What’s not to love? I don’t think e-mail will be disappearing any time soon. Like most things in life, correspondence requires balance. Some conversations are best in real-time messaging but others are not. There is a time and a season for each.

Real Rabbis Text

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I. Texting* and E-Mailing

A recent NY Times article highlighted the growth of real-time written communication — texting, chatting, messaging — and the corresponding drop in e-mailing (link). Texting and the other forms of messaging receive quicker responses and involve less formality. They are the written equivalent of a conversation. What’s not to love?

I don’t think e-mail will be disappearing any time soon. Like most things in life, correspondence requires balance. Some conversations are best in real-time messaging but others are not. There is a time and a season for each.

E-mail still holds a number of benefits over messaging. The ability to delay before responding is valuable for many reasons. Adults are often too busy to message because we have jobs that involve meetings and deadlines. We also take our study time seriously, refusing to interrupt it with unnecessary distractions. We cannot always correspond in real-time. Additionally, some correspondence requires thought and consultation with others. If I am e-mailed a complex question, I can research the issue and respond when I am ready. If I am texted such an inquiry, I can either respond tentatively but insufficiently or decline to answer.

II. Responding Rabbis

Consider a rabbi who is asked a religious question. He may want to look up the issue before responding or consult with colleagues or mentors. Rabbis generally prefer face-to-face questions but when electronic formats must be used, e-mail is better.

On the other hand, rabbis should know the answers immediately. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) explains the phrase “ve-shinantem — and you shall study [Torah]” (Deut. 6:7) to mean that you must reach the point where words of Torah are on your fingertips. You should not need to look anything up. “If anyone asks you something, you should not stumble but should answer immediately.”

III. Think Before You Speak

However, the Mishnah (Avos 1:1) says: “Hevu mesunim be-din — be deliberate in judgment.” This implies careful thought and delay rather than instant response. How can this be reconciled with the obligation to have answers at your fingertips?

The Meiri (commentary, ad loc.) suggests that the Mishnah is referring solely to court cases where two litigants compete for judicial sympathy. A judge risks sympathizing with the underdog or the powerful and therefore needs to carefully consider both sides before ruling. On ritual matters, however, where there are no dueling parties, a rabbi may rule quickly.

Alternately, the Meiri proposes, the Mishnah could be referring to someone who does not know the proper ruling automatically. Rather than rushing to judgment and making a mistake, he should proceed with care and caution. However, when a rabbi knows the proper answer with certainty, he may respond immediately.

R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Kiddushin 30a sv. she-im) quotes a responsum of the Shevus Ya’akov (2:64) who says that a rabbi should look up a law in his books ruling on a question. What, R. Braun asks, about the Gemara’s statement that a rabbi should be able to answer immediately? He answers that a rabbi can immediately answer a standard question that is explicitly discussed in the sources. If he must arrive at a new ruling, then he should consult the texts and think carefully before responding.

It would seem, then, that accomplished scholars do not need to hesitate before answering simple questions on religious ritual. Real rabbis can text. Unless, that is, their busy schedules or limited technology skills prevent them. And presuming they can obtain enough information from a text or chat to adequately reach a conclusion. However, I have not yet reached that level of Torah mastery and can only dream of someday getting there. I still need my correspondence to allow me time to research.


* If you think text is only a noun and not a verb, then messaging is not for you.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

6 comments

  1. Reuven Spolter

    The phenomenon of rabbinic texting is much more prevalent in the Holy Land, where SMS shailot appear in many of the weekly Alonim.
    The challenge of texting isn’t the immediacy of answering. It seems pretty clear that if a rav knows an answer, he should answer without delay. Moreover, what stops a rav from consulting a sefer before texting an answer back?
    The challenge of rabbinic texting lay in the necessary brevity of a text and the difficulty of expressing nuance. Quite often, questions require give and take: was the pot hot; when did you last use it? What day of the count was it? The skill of the rabbi lies in knowing what questions to ask of the “asker”. Texting does not lend itself to conversations. It lends itself to quick hits. Yes. No. C U L8R.
    Halachah, while arriving at a clear solution, is anything but black and white – which is exactly what texting is. Halachah requires nuance; a sense of who’s asking the question, the underlying issues behind the question, and the gravity of the situation.
    You can’t get that from a text.
    So – if someone wants to know what time davening is or whether a hechsher is acceptable, by all means, text the rabbi. But if you want to know whether your wife can go to the mikveh tomorrow night after her recent exam, do yourself and the rav a favor: pick up the phone.

  2. Another challenge of texting, and email, is the impersonal nature of the medium. If the SMS/email sender is well known to the rav, he will be able to answer באשר הוא שם, in a matter congruent with the spiritual and material station of the questioner. But otherwise, the impersonal medium may, on the one hand allow people who would otherwise shy away from asking, to ask a question, but on the other hand, will prevent an optimal answer from being crafted. After all, it’s like going to a specialist or even a general physician, for a single visit, without answering any question about any medical past, and without providing access to any medical files.

  3. I prefer if people don’t text shailos because it takes too long to type the answers on my phone’s keypad.

  4. My read on the Gemara in Kiddushin is that it is not specifically referring to a posek, but rather setting an educational ideal, that one should learn something until he knows it clearly – the test of which is his being able to answer a question about his learning fluidly. As such, I see no real contradiction in the sources.

    Rabbi Rakeffet, in his teshuvot shiurim at Gruss repeatedly stresses that one of the most important things for a Rav who gets a call to pasken an issue to do is to say “Let me call you back” – one should always give a question the time and measured approach that it deserves, and not be pressured into a quick answer simply because someone is breathlessly waiting on the other end of the line.

  5. Three favorites from R’Shlomo Aviner:

    Q: Why are there text message responsa? People just make a joke of it.
    A: Mockers will always find something to mock. Serious people, like you, read them seriously.

    Q: But why not answer at length and in depth?
    A: You can find them in my books of responsa and other books.

    Q: I am in the middle of learning and my father sent me a text message. Should I answer?
    A: Yes, instead of text messaging me.

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