iPods and Hirhurei Torah

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Six months ago, on July 7th, the Hirhurim community enjoyed a get-together. You can see some details on the last few posts on the old blog (link). In order to raise funds for the event, I published a commemorative journal with many interesting articles. I cannot post the entire journal online because that would not be fair to those who paid money for the journal. Instead, six months later, I am posting my article.

Torah Technology

Portable computers and smartphones are now capable of storing entire libraries on them, and, through the Internet, allow access to even more. IPhones, Blackberries and now iPads allow users to read countless texts in multiple languages on portable devices. Technology also allows us to not only take large numbers of Torah texts with us but even Torah classes.

The Walkman, first released in 1979, allowed travelers to listen to lectures on cassettes. The development of portable CD players in the 1990s enabled travelers to easily carry many classes with him. The next decade saw the iPod, which made possible easy downloading of lectures from the Internet and storage in the portable listening device. With all the benefits these advanced technologies offer for Torah study on the go, they also open up potential halakhic problems.

One such problem often encountered while studying Torah in transit is that of giving the Torah insufficient respect. The Gemara (Shabbos 150a) states that one may not learn Torah in a place where people are immodestly dressed because the Torah (Deut. 23:15) says, “An unseemly thing (ervas davar) will not be seen among you.”

On the subway and on city buses, you invariably find women immodestly dressed during the summer. Technically, then, you should not be allowed to learn Torah within eyesight of these women. According to the majority of Ashkenazic posekim, as recorded in Mishnah Berurah,[1] even closing your eyes is insufficient. You must (discreetly) turn your back before learning Torah. This is frequently impossible on the subway or bus. Are we then prohibited from learning Torah in these common situations?

Types of Learning

The Gemara cited above contains a dispute whether hirhur (thinking) is like dibur (speaking). In the course of that debate, the prohibition against learning Torah in the presence of nakedness is raised. Rashi[2] explains the Gemara as saying that only reciting Torah is prohibited in the presence of nakedness. Dibur is prohibited but hirhur, thinking about Torah, is permitted. One could conclude, then, that while one may not learn Torah out loud in the presence of an immodestly dressed woman, one may think about Torah. The Magen Avraham[3] raises this possibility, and it is confirmed by the Machatzis Ha-Shekel.[4] The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh[5] and Arukh Ha-Shulchan[6] also explicitly permit hirhur of Torah in front of an immodestly dressed woman.

According to this line of reasoning, a man is allowed to learn silently on the subway or bus. But there is a further complication when it comes to listening to an audio lecture. We need to clarify whether you can fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah by listening to a recorded lecture. The Torah refers to the mitzvah of learning in terms that imply communication. “Ve-dibarta bam—And you should speak them” (Deut. 6:7).[7] “Haskes u-shema—Take heed and listen” (Deut. 27:9). “Ve-shinantem—And you shall teach them” (Deut. 6:7)—this implies that Torah must be learned in a format that can also teach others.[9] The Gemara (Eruvin 54) reads “Chaim hem le-motza’eihem—They are life to those who find them” (Prov. 4:22) as “motzi’eihem be-feh—to those who emit them from their mouths.” This all implies that you must learn Torah out loud. Hirhur, thinking about Torah, is not enough. You need actual dibur, speech.

Thinking About Torah

Taking this to an extreme, one reaches the absurd conclusion that if you listen to a scholar teach a class, you do not fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi[10] proposes a mechanism by which this problem is avoided. He suggests that while you do not normally fulfill the mitzvah by thinking about Torah, when you listen to someone teach, the teacher fulfills the mitzvah on your behalf and you fulfill your obligation by hearing him—shomei’ah ke-oneh.

The Vilna Gaon[11] disagrees with the entire premise. He rules that you can fulfill the obligation to learn Torah through hirhur. After all, the prophet commands us “Ve-hagisa bo yomam va-lailah—And you should think about it day and night” (Josh. 1:8). Clearly, the obligation to learn Torah includes merely thinking about it. The Vilna Gaon’s mechutan, R. Avraham Danzig, responds to the Vilna Gaon’s multiple proofs.[12] Regarding this prooftext, he takes into account the verses cited above and understands the conflicting indications in the Bible to mean that the primary obligation is to learn Torah out loud. If that is impossible then you should at least think about it.

One of the implications of this debate is regarding thinking about Torah before reciting the morning blessings on learning Torah. According to the Shulchan Arukh,[13] you may. While this could be due to the blessing’s explicit connection to speaking Torah, an alternate explanation is that the mitzvah is specifically to speak Torah. According to the Vilna Ga’on, however, you must recite the blessings before even thinking about Torah.

The consensus among posekim[14] seems to be that hirhur fulfills some sort of mitzvah, either the full mitzvah of learning Torah or a lesser mitzvah mentioned in the Prophets (mi-divrei kabbalah). However, listening to a lecture is unquestionably a fulfillment of the core mitzvah because of shomei’a ke-oneh. By hearing someone else speak words of Torah, it is as if you are speaking them yourself. But how far do we take this principle?

Listening is Like Speaking

R. Shlomo Kluger[15] attempts to answer this based on a debate over the proper procedure for someone in the middle of his silent Amidah when the community reaches the responsive kedushah prayer. Rashi[16] maintains that you should listen attentively to the prayer leader while Rabbenu Tam[17] believes you should ignore the community and continue praying quietly. R. Kluger explains that Rabbenu Tam considers shomei’ah ke-oneh, fulfilling your obligation by listening to others, to be the functional equivalent of speech. By stopping during prayer to listen to kedushah, the person praying is considered as though he is interrupting his private prayer with speech. Therefore, he must not stop to listen. Rashi, however, views shomei’a ke-oneh less literally and does not consider it an interruption. R. Kluger suggests that Rabbenu Tam would posit that listening to a Torah lecture is a complete fulfillment of the mitzvah of learning Torah to the point that you may not listen to it unless you have already recited the blessings on studying Torah. Rashi, however, would not consider it exactly like speaking Torah yourself.

However, as R. Kluger and others point out, Rabbenu Tam could very likely agree with Rashi that hearing is literally like speaking but disagree elsewhere. For example, he could maintain that you must theoretically be able to speak in order for hearing to be considered like speech[18] or he may believe that fulfilling a mitzvah during prayer is considered an interruption regardless of whether one speaks.[19]

This has practical ramifications regarding the issue of listening to a recorded lecture while traveling on the subway. If we take shomei’a ke-oneh as fully equating listening with speaking, then listening to Torah would be forbidden just like speaking Torah. According to Rabbenu Tam, as initially explained by R. Kluger, this would be problematic. However, according to other explanations it is not clear whether this would be forbidden.

Recorded Lectures

An additional reason to be lenient is that the lecture is recorded. Shomei’a ke-oneh means that the person speaking is fulfilling the mitzvah on behalf of the person listening. When you are listening to an electronic reproduction of a lecture, there is no person acting on your behalf. R. Ovadiah Yosef[20] is so convinced by this argument that he allows people to listen to live Torah broadcasts on the radio while taking a bath. Since the bather only hears an electronic broadcast—even if live—and not the actual voice of a person, there is no shomei’a ke-oneh.

However, this conclusion is difficult to accept. It implies that someone listening to a recorded lecture is not fulfilling the mitzvah of learning Torah on a biblical level. It means that listening to a recorded lecture is on a significantly lower level than listening to a live lecture. R. Yisrael Harfenes[21] draws this conclusion and, therefore, recommends against listening to recorded lectures in general. However, R. Simcha Rabinowitz[22] quotes R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and others who suggest that you fulfill the mitzvah even if you hear words of Torah from someone who is not obligated (e.g. child, woman). Similarly, he adds,[23] you must recite the blessings on the Torah before listening to a recorded lecture. This is not hirhur but full learning of Torah based on shomei’a ke-oneh.

If we reject the conclusion that listening to a recorded lecture is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah to learn Torah and instead accept that listening to Torah regardless of its source is a mitzvah, we are left with the question whether one may do so in front of ervah.

R. Simcha Rabinowitz[24] suggests that the prohibition does not apply if you consciously intend for your Torah study while in sight of ervah not to fulfill the mitzvah. No one, after all, can force you to fulfill a mitzvah if you have explicit intent to the contrary. This, he suggests, allows you to study Torah without concern. His entire premise, however, is based on the comparison of someone who hears a blessing to someone who hears words of Torah. If you intend not to be considered as if you have recited a blessing, then hearing it and even answering “Amen” to it do not work. Therefore, R. Rabinowitz suggests, hearing words of Torah while intending not to fulfill the mitzvah also does not work. It is unclear to me that this logic flows completely. As long as you intend to learn Torah, it seems to me that there could be a problem of learning it in front of ervah.[25]

Looking Away

R. Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld[26] addressed the issue of whether a lecturer can speak words of Torah if a woman in the audience in dressed immodestly. As you can imagine, this is a prevalent question in places with warm climates. R. Sonnenfeld based his lenient answer on a distinction between genitalia and revealed flesh. The former is a problem of ervah while the latter is only a problem because it causes improper thoughts. Therefore, you must turn your back before speaking words of Torah in front of genitalia, so they aren’t in sight. In front of revealed skin, however, such as a woman wearing tank tops or shorts, you need only refrain from looking by diverting or closing your eyes. If you are speaking before an audience that includes immodestly dressed women, you can choose not to look directly at them. Even though there is good reason to be strict about this, we cannot allow immodestly dressed women to prevent public Torah study.

Therefore, R. Sonnenfeld, followed by the Chazon Ish[27] and Tzitz Eliezer<,[28] permit men to teach Torah even if immodestly dressed women are in the audience. Forbidding it would inhibit the religious growth of less-observant Jews and provide a too-easy means for those who wish to halt Torah study.

This would, it seems to me, provide a justification for listening to Torah lectures during a commute to work even if immodestly dressed women are present. You should look elsewhere or even close your eyes, and then fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study by listening to a shi’ur. The alternative is a dramatic loss of spiritual growth for thousands of men, and thousands of hours of lost Torah study.

The Middle Path

R. Simcha Rabinowitz[29] suggests that there is a third category between hirhur and dibur—learning from an external source. This is reflected in the common ruling that you must recite the blessings on Torah before hearing a lecture. Rather than being a function of shomei’a ke-oneh, listening to a lecture is hirhur from an external source. This is a step above hirhur but not yet dibur.[30] Listening to a recorded lecture and reading Torah literature are in the same middle category. R. Hershel Schachter[31] adopts this approach with a slight twist. He considers this middle category to be a stringency of later authorities. The basic law is that this middle category is considered hirhur but, as a stringency, we treat it like dibur. When it is impossible to be strict, however, such as when you are on a train with immodestly dressed women, then we set aside this stringency and treat this middle category as hirhur.

R. Yehudah Henkin[32] offers a somewhat different approach. In addressing the same question as R. Sonnenfeld, R. Henkin quotes minority views that the study of Torah is permissible in front of immodestly dressed women. According to the Sefer Hashlamah and Meiri,[33] only reciting keri’as Shema, and not studying Torah, is forbidden in front of ervah. R. Henkin rules that, in an extreme situation, you may rely on these minority opinions and study Torah despite the presence of immodestly dressed women.

Women Learning Torah

We have been discussing men learning Torah in front of immodestly dressed women. Does this apply to women also? May a woman learn Torah in front of another woman who is immodestly dressed? This is not only an issue of learning but also praying. Some women have the practice of praying from a siddur on the bus or subway. Is this problematic, if immodestly dressed women are there?

The Rema (Orach Chaim 75:1) follows the Rosh, who holds that this rule applies to women in front of immodestly dressed women just like it applies to men in front of women. The Rashba, though, is lenient and only prohibits women from praying in front of uncovered genitalia. Many later authorities rule according to the Rashba (e.g. i>Mishnah Berurah 75:8; Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 5:16).

The study of Torah is not just a mitzvah but a spiritual energizer. It sets the tone for a person’s day, night, week, month and year. It is such a transformative act that, according to many posekim, there is room to be lenient in cases that lead to the loss of Torah study.[34] As technology progresses, it is our opportunity and our duty to use it to improve study of Torah.


[1] 75:1,129.
[2] Sv. ha-hi.
[3] 85:2.
[4] Ad loc.
[5] 150:2.
[6] Orach Chaim 74:2, 85:2.
[7] Cf. Yad Eliyahu [Ragoler], writings, sv. hirhur.
[8] Berakhos 15b; cf. Responsa Maharsham 2:38.
[9] Cf. Shev Ya’akov, Yoreh De’ah no. 49.
[10] Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 2:12.
[11] Bi’ur Ha-Gra, Orach Chaim 47:4.
[12] Nishmas Adam 9:4.
[13] Orach Chaim 47:4.
[14] Cf. Piskei Teshuvos 47:5; Yabi’a Omer vol. 4 Orach Chaim no. 8.
[15] Ha-Alef Lekha Shlomo, Orach Chaim no. 35.
[16] Sukkah 38b sv. hu omer barukh.
[17] Tosafos, Sukkah 38b sv. Shama.
[18] R. Kluger, op cit.
[19] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as quoted in R. Hershel Reichman, Reshimos Shiurim, Sukkah, Tosafos 38b.
[20] Yabi’a Omer vol. 5 Orach Chaim no. 11.
[21] Va-Yevarekh David, vol. 2 Tzvi Ve-Chamid no. 177.
[22] Piskei Teshuvos 47:5, last par.
[23] Note 59.
[24] Piskei Teshuvos 74:2.
[25] Cf. Mishnah Berurah 47:7, end.
[26] Salmas Chaim 1:26-27.
[27] Orach Chaim 16:7 sv. u-le-inyan tefach.
[28] 15:11
[29] Piskei Teshuvos 47:5 n. 59.
[30] Cf. Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 47:2; Yeshu’os Ya’akov 47:4.
[31] Personal conversation, although my understanding and recollection may be imprecise.
[32] Understanding Tzni’ut, pp. 20-21.
[33] Both on Berakhos 24a.
[34] Cf. Haggadah Mi-Beis Ha-Levi, p. 309 no. 4.

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.

8 comments

  1. I read this article without speaking any part of it out loud. Did I fullfil the mitzvah of learning Torah?

  2. Can you fulfill Shnayim Mikra by simply reading with your eyes?

  3. Aryeh J. Leibowitz

    This discussion might also be relevant to chavrusa learning. When your chavrusa is reading, and you are listening, are you mekayem the mitzvah of talmud Torah? R. Moshe Tzuriel quotes in one of his sefarim that you are due to the din of shomeh ke-oneh.

  4. Regarding women in front of other women, reproducing my comment from your original post (shorter post on this topic on your old blog), in response to my own and others’ question re how it can be permissible for a woman to pray when she is not fully dressed but not in front of other women who are not fully dressed:

    “I just looked it up and I see that the poskim starting from the pri chadash say the ikar is like the rashba and that in fact the gaon (and subsequent poskim eg mishna brura) seem to think that there is no such rosh and that it’s a printing mistake…”

    indeed the shorter post on this topic ends more clearly with the conclusion that bottom line, women need not be concerned with this issue

  5. Let’s not forget to quote the most important source of all: “U’valechtecha va’derech”.

  6. I paid for the journal but I do not have any problem with it being made available online in its entirety. In fact, I strongly support it!

  7. If I listen to a lecture which occurred long ago and fulfill talmud torah by shomea k’oneh, does this work for other shomea k’oneh cases as well? Can I listen to a recording of shacharit or megillat esther & thereby fulfil my obligations?

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