We live in a world of technological advancements. How we approach new inventions, medical procedures etc., and their impact on halacha can be highly complicated and very confusing. We have therefore been blessed from one generation to the next with Gedolei Yisroel whose broad shoulders have borne the responsibility to address these types of issues. This article will focus on a not-so-recent technological advancement, but one that nevertheless has been discussed quite extensively by poskim, the microscope.
Crude microscopes were first introduced as early as the 15th century. Since then there has been ample discussion amongst poskim as to their place in halacha, if any. The Tiferes Yisroel in his commentary on Avodah Zarah (2:7:3) entertained the possibility of relying on microscopes to determine whether a specific fish, burbot, was kosher. A kosher fish must possess two fundamental characteristics, fins and scales. However, in this particular instance the scales were highly difficult to discern, but nevertheless visible with a microscope. The Tiferes Yisroel wrote that one must premise that the Torah only recognizes what appears to the unaided eye, without any additional intervention. The thought of prohibiting something without using a visual aid and permitting it with, or vice-versa, is completely untenable. Accordingly, the Tiferes Yisroel not only applied this position with regards to the burbot fish, but any area of halacha that required a precise measurement.
Rav Yaacov Emden wrote in his sefer, Sheilas Yaavetz (2:124) that microscopes may be used when checking rice for insects. Therefore, if an insect is visible under a microscope but can not be seen otherwise, it is still prohibited. However, Rav Shlomo Kluger in Tuv Ta’am VeDa’as, Kuntres Acharon (2:53) strongly objected to this approach. The basis of Rav Shlomo Kluger’s argument against Rav Yaccov Emden’s approach was very similar to the reasoning of the Tiferes Yisroel. It must be assumed that inspecting vegetables or grains for insects is not limited to instances when a person has a magnifying glass at their disposal. If the Torah requires inspecting certain vegetables or grains before eating them, it must be understood that the checking may be done by anyone at any given time. The thought that the same portion of rice is permitted to one person and prohibited to another is nonsensical. Moreover, scientists have publicized that under a microscope living organisms appear in the water we drink, yet they are not visible to anyone who has drunk the water since time immemorial. One this basis, Rav Shlomo Kluger concluded that insects detected in foods with the use of a microscope, which otherwise would not be noticeable, are not prohibited. Rav Kluger’s position was echoed by Rav Avrohom Danzig in Binas Adom (34) and Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein in Aruch HaShulchan (84: 36). Both of these authorities also addressed this matter with regards to detecting insects in foods.
Contemporary authorities have addressed this issue as well. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l in Igros Moshe (Yoreh Deah 2:146) wrote about whether a microscope or magnifying glass should be used when determining whether the batim of tefillin are properly squared. In his teshuva, Rav Moshe took the position that provided that it is sufficient that the batim appear to be square, even though they may not be under the view of a magnifying glass. Rav Moshe also writes that he does not believe using a magnifying glass should be considered praiseworthy. Moreover, tefillin whose batim have been examined under a microscope and pass the test should not be considered higher quality than those whose batim may not appear perfectly square under magnification. Although Rav Moshe makes reference in his teshuva to a position quoted to him in the name of the Brisker Rav zt’l that it is recommended and laudable to examine batim with magnification, he writes that he does not understand the rationale behind it, and dismisses the thought.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch shlita also discussed using magnification to examine the writing of stam, to ensure that the letters are properly spaced. Rav Shternbuch writes (Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:628 and 3:323) that magnification should not be used. Although apparently there numerous expert sofrim that will use a magnifying glass to detect whether there is a space between two letters, if the letters appear attached without the magnifier it is not acceptable. This was the position of the Tschbeiner Rav zt’l, which appears in Dovev Mesharim (1:1), and Rav Shternbuch also makes reference to the Tiferes Yisroel’s position regarding examining fish for scales and the Aruch HaShulchan’s ruling about checking for insects, as support for his opinion. However, it is interesting to note that the Debricziner Rov, Rav Moshe Stern, was lenient specifically with regards to this issue. In Shut Be’er Moshe (5:16) he writes that since the letters were written properly, the ksav is kosher and the magnifying glass merely clarifies this fact.
There is a question that arises regarding checking vegetables whether insects are considered visible if something can be noticed, perhaps as dirt, by the unaided eye but only determined to be a bug through magnification. It would appear at first glance that there is no difference and this too should be permitted. The same rationale expressed by the poskim quoted above who rule leniently with regards to checking for insects with microscopes should apply in this type of scenario as well. Rav Shmuel Vosner shlita in Shut Shevet HaLevi (7:122) writes that he believes that insects that appear as specs of dirt to the unaided eye yet are noticeable as insects under a microscope are not prohibited. This type if lenient approach has also been quoted in the name of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski zt’l.
Rav Yehoushua Neuwrith shlita in Shmiras Shabbos KeHilchasa (3:37) quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt’l as ruling leniently; however, Rav Neuwrith also writes that Rav Shlomo Zalman made mention at a later date that the Chazon Ish ruled stringently on this matter. Similarly, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv shlita has been quoted as ruling that microscopes and magnifiers are an acceptable means to train oneself to identify insects. According to Rav Elyashiv, if something is noticeable to the unaided eye and can first be determined as an insect only through magnification, it is still prohibited since it can be identified as an insect without magnification in the future. However, if it appears in a manner that magnification will always be required in order to identify it, the spec should be permitted
To a generation that is living in a constantly changing world, it is only through turning to Gedolei Yisroel for direction and guidance that we will learn the Torah’s approach to today’s most recent innovations and advancements.