Shabbat Services: Live Stream and the Controversial Issues Arising

Angela McCainby:

Technology

Live-streamed services are offered by most Jewish communities for those who are not able to attend physically or for those who would like to join their services. The services can therefore be accessed through a device i.e. computer, smartphone, tablet, and smart Televisions. People who are not physically at the service feel connected to their own attending the services. People who benefit from these services include Jewish people living abroad, the sick, and the aged.

Live-streamed services have become cost-effective and straightforward especially for those who are not able to attend. Shabbat live streams are held every Friday at 6.00 pm and Saturdays at 9.30 am with over a thousand virtual congregations joining.

Shabbat services live stream started five years ago in a suburban Detroit synagogue funded by a donation from Richard and Sharon Brown. The live-streams aim was to be able to reach people going through all life journeys. According to most members of the Jewish congregation, the live streams allow them to connect to God, Judaism, and other Jewish members in a way they have never connected before. Others attend the Shabbat services online since they believe that it fulfils their long-life commitment to their religion and commitment to serving others.

Due to Covid-19, today, most synagogues started using virtual access transmission methods such as Stream spot, Facebook lives, YouTube, zoom, and google meet. Some of the streams are accessible to the public while others are password protected. A question of concern is whether someone who a member of the Jewish congregation is should use virtual technological means to satisfy their ritualistic obligations. Before the Covid pandemic, the sick aged and homebound people were not able to attend religious worship. The reasons why an individual may seek to be part of a live communal prayer do not justify the need to observe the laws governing the Shabbat.

The role played by the live streams have proven to be important and some of the factors that motivate an individual to want to take part in a Shabbat service include:

  • Being able to engage in parts of the service that cannot be performed by an individual e.g. the prayers that require a minyan or the reading of the Torah.
  • Experiencing the rituals which can otherwise only be done by a minyan or need skills that can only be found in a congregation.
  • Provision of an organized service with a sense of stage direction for those who are not comfortable going through the service individually despite having prayer books.
  • The desire to witness a particular event taking place in a community.
  • The need to hear a sermon from the service.
  • The feeling of inspiration that comes from being part of a community.
  • The desire to establish a connection.

Non-Jewish members are also allowed to join the streams. This helps most of the non-Jews to explore and understand the Jewish rituals before they can attend the synagogue. Once they attend it becomes easier to join the congregation without feeling like it is a foreign environment since everything is in Hebrew. Most people who are interested in converting first learn about Judaism online before approaching the Rabbi for an interview.

The Rabbis strive to ensure that the live streamers feel like part of the community and not just observers. Acknowledging the presence of the virtual community in attendance makes them feel part of the community. By looking at the camera at special moments such as when reading or reciting a special word or prayer is a way of making people feel part and parcel of the ongoing service. Formerly active members who end up being confined at home for various reasons stay attached to what they used to do by attending the live streams sessions.

Audio streaming may not fill the detachment void compared to the video streams, but some people listen and follow-through using their prayer books. Streaming has helped most members keep in touch since they are involved in the services and even sing along. Additionally, the rabbi’s summons give most members a warm feeling. The objective of the live streams being to reach the homebound, before the Shabbat or other high holidays, the synagogues would distribute information about the live streams to people in hospitals, nursing homes, and senior living centres.

Being able to connect to loved ones who are in situations that do not allow them to attend services in person has become one of the positive results of the live stream sessions. Other than attending the Shabbat, most people are also able to attend other services where a family member has a ceremony. An example is servicemen in war zone areas being able to join and see their family members in an ongoing Shabbat service. The services are also taped and availed online a few days after the main service for those who missed them to follow. The online services are however not meant to be a replacement for the synagogue life and in-person services but are a way of engaging people worldwide.

The use of live streams raises various variant issues across different denominations. The assumption that only old people attend services online is limiting. To most people, the Shabbat streams are an evolution from the initially existing Shabbat radio broadcasts. Some members go as far as doing Facebook live streams or identifying special conference locations where they can gather and watch the services communally.

The following are issues that are being addressed due to the need for streaming Shabbat services.

  • Fulfilling one’s obligation to pray by hearing or responding to prayers transmitted through electrical devices.
  • Setting up the transmitting and receiving system before the Shabbat service begins.
  • Fulfilling obligations that need to be heard directly or interpreted and requires one to hear the original sound.
  • The possible violations of Shabbat on being streamed and how to avoid them.
  • Allowing viewing of streams that have been left on or automatically activated. Labour is not permitted during the Shabbat and yet leaving a device on may distract the spirit of Shabbat.
  • Deactivating a stream
  • Tempting others to violate the Shabbat.

Reconstructionist congregations aim at being more inclusive and therefore avail the services on YouTube for better accessibility. On the other hand, conservative synagogues adhere to the strict interpretation of the Jewish law and observance of Shabbat and other holy days. For them, they allowed the live streams after an in-depth understanding and application of the minutiae law. They struggled with such issues concerning the Shabbat and other holidays. Some of the issues include typing text or URLs by remote users as a form of writing, using electronic devices, and turning on the equipment. Such issues were addressed by using automatic equipment and inbuilt stationary cameras or for others through the custodial staff who operated the equipment manually before and after the services. The use of social media during Shabbat was also avoided. Jewish theological seminaries understood the need to ensure the homebound members were reached and at the same time tried to be mindful about the halakhic issues like writing and recording during the Shabbat holiday. In some cases, the value of Shabbat was key and for others, the dignity of the infirm or disabled was overruled.

Conclusion

Synagogues have been able to implement Shabbat streaming while adhering to the Jewish laws of Halakhic to ensure that the disadvantaged members of the congregation can access community and spiritual life. The main arising point of concern is whether the live streams will replace the membership policy of the synagogues. It is possible that with time members will opt to tune in and watch live streams as opposed to going to shul.          

Angela McCain

Angela is a senior editor at Dreniq News. She has written for many famous news agencies.

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