The Amazon Echo and Shabbos

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amazon-echoBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman
For the Refuah Shleimah of Boruch Zev Ben Bracha

“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 Rottenberg’s ‘Dveikus’ music.”

THE ECHO

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 which delivers such remarkable sound quality that it makes iPhone’s Siri sound, well, nebbish.

HALACHIC QUESTIONS

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 around at the top of the device.

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 key chain would begin to emit a musical tone that would help you locate the missing key chain.
Was one permitted to do so on Shabbos, and is there a parallel between that device and Alexa?

FASCINATING READING OF RAMAH

The Tzitz Eliezer (Volume XVII #16) had a remarkable reading of the Ramah in Orech Chaim siman 338:1. Based on The Gemorah in Eiruvin (104a), Rav Yoseph 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 when it is not in a musical form is permitted. The Ramah add the words, “It is likewise permitted if he is not engaging in an action (such as making noises with the mouth).” The Tzitz Eliezer reads this Ramah as even permitting a non-action – when it is in a musical form. The Aruch HaShulchan also questions what the Ramah may be referring to, and provides an alterbative understanding of his words than that of the Tzitz Eliezer. He understands the Ramah as coming to differentiate why using one’s hands to bang on a table would be forbidden but it would be permitted to place one’s hand in the mouth to make a bird-sound. Thus, according to the Aruch HaShulchan, the Ramah would not be permitting a non-action when it results in a musical form.

GEMORAH IN BAVA METZIAH

Furthermore, 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 Gemorah’s discussion in Bava Metziah 90b. There, Rav Yochanan and Raish 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 in fact a violation when done just through speech, while Raish Lakish holds that there is not. Since we do rule like Rav Yochanan in this case, we need to understand how this corresponds with the idea that one does not get malkos on a violation where there is no physical action involved (also a statement of Rav Yochanan.) Most Meforshim explain that here the words caused a physical action to come about (See Tosfos and Maggid Mishna Hilchos Schirus 13:2). According to this understanding, the words that cause the Amazon Echo to go into action may indeed be forbidden. The Rashbam, however, has a different understanding of this Gemorah.

ANALAGOUS TO MICROPHONE

But aside from all this, the Amazon Echo is more analogous to leaving a microphone on over Shabbos. This is true for two reasons: Firstly, 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 gzairah shema yesakain 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 (Shaivet 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 Naichah lay, 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 Pikuach Nefesh, the Echo cannot really accomplish anything useful.

As an interesting aside, Rav Moshe rules (Igros Moshe YD Vol. II #4) that when a Shochet, in fact, does violate the prohibition of using a microphone it is forbidden to eat from his Shechita. This would also most certainly be the case if he were to be using his Amazon Echo.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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