Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

“Alexa, what is the temperature in Jerusalem today?”

“Alexa, can you wake me at 7:40 tomorrow morning for minyan?”

“Alexa, can you shut off the air conditioner in the living room?”

“Alexa, please play me some of Abie Rotenberg’s ‘D’veykus’ music.”

The Amazon Echo, answering to the name “Alexa,” is one of the latest technological innovations that has come out of Amazon’s special Lab126 offices in Silicon Valley, California. Amazon Echo is essentially a voice-command device with functions that include answering almost unlimited factual questions, playing music, controlling smart devices, and real-time fact-finding. The device looks somewhat like a black Shabbos-lamp and consists of a 9.25-inch tall cylinder speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. The speakers include a woofer and a tweeter, delivering such remarkable sound quality that it makes iPhone’s Siri sound, well, nebbish.

Like most technology, Amazon Echo carries with it a number of fascinating halachic questions. What are the prohibitions associated with its use on Shabbos? If one avoids using the name “Alexa” in conversation, may one leave it plugged in on Shabbos? Is there any circumstance in which it may be used? When the word “Alexa” is used, the Echo awakens and a blue light circles at the top of the device.

Halachic Discussion

The Key-Finder. A number of years ago, a new product came on the market that helped you find your keys. If you lost your keys, you could either whistle or clap, and the device attached to your keychain would begin to emit a musical tone that would help you locate the missing keychain. Was one permitted to do so on Shabbos, and is there a parallel between that device and Alexa?

Fascinating Reading of the Rema. The Tzitz Eliezer (Volume XVII #16) had a remarkable reading of the Rema in O.C. siman 338:1. Based on the Gemara in Eiruvin (104a), Rav Yosef Karo in his Shulchan Aruch writes that making a noise with an instrument (or vessel) is forbidden. However, banging on a door or other such item, not in a musical form, is permitted. The Rema added, “It is likewise permitted if he is not engaging in an action (such as making noises with the mouth).” The Tzitz Eliezer reads this Rema as even permitting a non-action–when it is in a musical form. The Aruch HaShulchan also questions what the Rema may be referring to, and provides an alternative understanding of his words.

Gemara in Bava Metzia. The position of the Tzitz Eliezer, however, even in regard to the key locator, is not so simple. The issue may depend upon the exact understanding of the Gemara’s discussion in Bava Metzia 90b. There, Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish debate whether the Torah’s commandment not to muzzle an ox while it works can be violated through mere words and not physical action. Rav Yochanan holds that there is a violation when done just through speech, while Reish Lakish holds that there is not. Since we rule like Rav Yochanan in this case, we need to understand how this corresponds with the idea that one is not liable to receive malkos on a violation where there is no physical action involved (also a statement of Rav Yochanan). Most mefarshim explain that here the words caused a physical action to come about (see Maggid Mishneh Hilchos Schirus 13:2). According to this understanding, saying the words that cause the Amazon Echo to go into action may indeed be forbidden.

Analogous to Microphone. But aside from that, the Amazon Echo is more analogous to leaving a microphone on over Shabbos. This is true for two reasons: First, seven microphones are being left on over Shabbos and a computer chip is deciphering the converted electrical signals. The second reason is that the voice activation is causing the device to respond.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, would thus forbid the Echo on account of avusha milsa (Minchas Shlomo Vol. I 9:2). Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (Igros Moshe Vol. III siman 55; Vol. IV siman 84) has three distinct halachic issues that would apply here to the Amazon Echo too. He would forbid it on account of molid kol chadash. He writes this regarding microphones alone; certainly it would apply to the additional factor of Alexa’s responses. Rav Moshe also has an issue with the changing of the form of the electrical impulse into louder sound. Finally, Rav Moshe believed that microphones fell under the prohibition of gezeirah shema yesakein kli shir–one may come to fix or make a musical instrument. All three of Rav Moshe’s rationales would be even more applicable regarding the Echo.

Rav Vosner, zt’l (Shevet HaLevi Vol. I #66) forbids microphones on account of being mezalzel (disrespecting) the honor of Shabbos. All this would certainly be even more applicable regarding the Echo.

Does It Need to Be Unplugged? But does the Echo have to be turned off before Shabbos? This author believes that it does, because the device actually hears and processes every word that is being said. This is done by its Texas Instruments DM3725 ARM Cortex-A8 processor and with its 256MB of LPDDR1 RAM. This processing is nichalei, something that the owner is desirous of, because the owner wants it not to respond to everything. We want Alexa to filter out all other words and only respond to the start-up word–“Alexa.” Luckily, there is a mute button on the device itself.

Are there circumstances when it can be used? It would seem not, and even if it were a case of pikuachnefesh, the Echo cannot really accomplish anything useful.

As an interesting aside, Rav Moshe rules (Igros Moshe Y.D. Vol. II #4) that when a shochet violates the prohibition of using a microphone, it is forbidden to eat from his shechitah. This would also most certainly be the case if he has used his Amazon Echo.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

 

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