by R. Daniel Mann
Question: Is it permitted to email, WhatsApp, and use social media before davening?
Answer: Emailing and other forms of electronic communication have two broad purposes – social interaction; technical/business-related. Each can be a problem before davening, but their parameters differ somewhat. We will deal with them separately before touching on “policy.” (We leave out the important issue of such activity causing one to be late for tefilla.)
The gemara (Berachot 14a) forbids greeting people with “Shalom” before Shacharit but clarifies that the problem is when you go to another’s place to greet. Rashi (ad loc.; also, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 89:2) describes the permitted case as “meeting him along the way.” Contemporary Acharonim discuss, in this context, calling by phone. Ishei Yisrael 13:(40) cites Rav B. Stern and Az Nidberu, who say that this is not like going to another’s house. Rav Elyashiv (P’ninei Tefilla, p. 59) considers it like going to his house, which makes it forbidden if the call’s purpose was the greeting. It likely depends if one views the problem as giving a special standing to your friend (before giving to Hashem) by going to his house to greet him or that initiating greetings is a problem. (See also our Ask the Rabbi, Vayishlach 5779). Rav Melamed’s compromise, that it is permitted when there is a real need, is logical.
Some electronic communication has advantages over a phone – specifically, those where one does not engage in direct conversation, giving a person prominence, but leaves a message for him/them to see at some time. Also, for written messages, halacha does not always equate writing with speaking (also, beyond our scope). Responding to a message is arguably like responding to a greeting, which is permitted (Shulchan Aruch ibid.). However, there is a difference because, as opposed to normal greeting, it is usually unnecessary to answer messages immediately (i.e., before davening). In short, this element is not a major problem, especially if one first says Birchot Hashachar and avoids the word “Shalom.”
Personal needs: One must not “deal with his needs” before Shacharit(ibid. 3), which some of the activity in question may be. If needed for a mitzva (e.g., helping parents), this is “Hashem’s needs” and permitted (Mishna Berura 89:36). How major an undertaking is considered “dealing with needs” (or melacha, which poskim discuss – see Tosafot, Berachot 5b)? The Eshel Avraham (Butchatch, to 89:3) permits simple things one may do on Chol Hamo’ed. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 2) assumes one may “go to see some eisek”; the Mishna Berura clarifies: “to see but not to be really involved.” Tefilla K’hilchata (6:(36)) cites Rav S.Z. Auerbach as permitting a quick look at a newspaper or throwing clothes into a washing machine. A quick session with an electronic communication tool to take in some information or send out an instruction to a colleague, etc. need not be forbidden on these grounds. Steps to keep the process short are important (see Mishna Berura 89:16).
Personal Policy: The following is clear from various halachot (see OC 89 & 93). When one wakes up, he should focus on encountering Hashem at Shacharit. Things that show that a different priority, misdirect his mind frame, or might make him forget, unduly delay, or rush his tefilla are against the spirit and/or letter of the law. Initiating unnecessary interaction before davening is far from ideal for the average person. Many people are involved in pressing matters that can change overnight and some “cannot wait” until after davening. Doing the minimum necessary is the proper thing. Some people are regrettably so worried/curious before “checking in” that it hinders their kavana. But many are unnecessarily and unhealthily attached to their devices and refuse to go a waking hour off social media, which sometimes includes during davening. Avoiding such devices until after davening is part of weaning themselves or taking steps not to deteriorate and is a great step in their avodat Hashem and personal wellbeing.