When checking STa”M (Sifrei Torah, tefillin and Mezuzos), it is not uncommon for an examiner to encounter a shailos chochom, a question that requires the psak (ruling) of an expert rav or moreh horoah. However not all morei horoah / rabbanim are comfortable answering technical shaolos in STa”M - as a matter of fact very few are. Additionally, virtually all the noteworthy poskim in STa”M today live in Eretz Yisroel.
As a sofer living in Melbourne, I have personally relied heavily on overseas rabonnim to answer my questions, either by telephone or by email. If the question concerns a tzuras haos (formation of a letter), very often I will take a clear digital photograph or high resolution scan and email it to the rov for a ruling.
In the past, upon receiving an answer, I would often share the email with other sofrim around the world who were on my email list. Likewise, many of them shared their answers with me. (Over the years I have amassed hundreds if not even thousands of such emails.) Then, about two years ago, I started an online forum where sofrim from around the world could post their shailos directly online and everyone could see the responses and discuss it.
Is an electronic image reliable?
One of the problems with electronic images (or even printed images) is that often they do not really portray the exact “metziyus hadavar” and cannot compare with seeing the shailah in real life. A decade ago, an image sent by fax or low resolution scan was often too blurry and lacked detail. Today, a high resolution photograph may have the opposite problem, that it enlarges the image in great detail and may show too much, causing one who sees it to be potentially machmir (stringent). Other factors such as the image being too bright or too dark can be an issue. Some cameras cannot zoom in enough to get the detail required, some images are a little blurry due to camera shake and some scanners actually thicken the letters a little.
It is interesting to note that of all the hundreds of teshuvos and seforim on STa”M written in the past few hundred years- many which discuss very detailed technical shailos of tzuras haosiyos - very few of these poskim actually print images or figures of the shailo. Today, such “picture books” (as one Rov I know calls them) are more common. This Rov told me that the reason why the “poskim of old” did not include pictures, is because they were worried that a printed image would not portray the exact shailo as it appeared in real life, and therefore did not want to take the responsibility of possibly misleading their readers.
I think it goes without saying that even the clearest of images connot portray a shailo exactly as it appears in real life. For example on the abovementioned STa”M Forum, the average size of images uploaded and posted are substantially larger than “life size”. Yet if one shrinks it down to “life size” it simply will not be as clear as the real life image when viewed on a computer monitor.
On the other hand, it is still far easier for a rav to pasken (rule) from such an image long distance via email than from a verbal telephone description. And for those without a local rov prepared to answer the question, there is often no other choice.
Poskim on this issue
To the best of my knowledge there are no teshuvos (responsa) printed on this issue, however there are teshuvos that discuss the use of a magnifying glass that enhances an image. (I once wrote an article on this issue you can see it in kovetz heorols vol . )
However the issues pertaining to the use of electronic images and the use of a magnifying glass are not really the same. The only common ground they have is when the digital image is high resolution and very large, it has magnified the shailo in the same manner as a magnifying device, in some cases making the shailoh seem worse. But all the other problems that can potentially arise from a digital image such as contrast, brightness, resolution and general accuracy etc are not really discussed in these teshuvos.
What is interesting however is that there are many renowned authroties today who still choose to pasken from photos and scans even though they know it does not necessarily portray the shailo in the exact same manner as real life. (Rav Shammai Gross has personally paskened from over 250 images brought to him in the past few years. ) This seems to send the message that it is acceptable to pasken from electronic images.
My discussion with Rav Friedlander
During a recent visit to Eretz Yisroel, I had a two hour meeting with Rav Mordechai Friedlander, Moreh Tzedek of the Va’ad Mishmeres Stam and Badatz Eidah Hacharedis. Rav Friedlander is familiar with my Forum and one of the questions I asked him is if a rav can pasken from a digital image posted there.
He said that he agrees that an electronic image will never really be exactly the same as the real thing. However he felt that certain shailos were more of an issue than others. Together we viewed several recent shailos posted on the forum.
One of the shailos was a mem that had the churtem (connection between the right chof part of the mem and left vov part of the mem) connecting very low down on the vov on the left side of the mem. He argued that the size and clarity do not really affect the ruling here because the halacha is that as long as the connection is above the bottom of the base (of the chaf on the right side of the mem) it is kosher (and can be fixed to make it proper). This criteria needed to render it kosher was apparent both on the scan and would be easily apparent in real life as well. So he felt that such shailos (which are not “size” or “clarity” sensitive) should be acceptable for a rav to pasken from an electronic image.
However he said other shailos are too risky to pasken on based on an electronic image alone, because the size and other factors may lead to a misrepresentation of the shailoh.
He related an incident that occurred with Rav Elyashiv, who was once brought a parsha with a shailoh (of a chof which had a small protrusion on the back of the lower right side which made it look a little like a beis). Rav Elyashiv paskened it was kosher. The next day someone else brought him an enlarged photocopy of the same shailoh. Rav Elyashev paskened it was possul . The second person then told him it was a blown up image of the same shailo he was machshir the day before. Rav Elyasheiv responded by saying that obviously the shailo will look worse when blown up (because it will exaggerate the protrusion), and that the sofer should follow the first psak and ignore the second.
Rav Friedlander argued that the same would apply to a digital image which enabled the rav to come to a different conclusion based on discrepancies between the image (size, clarity etc) and the real life shailo. Many shailos in stam, particularly small negiyos (touching letters) and nifsakim (broken letters) are extremely sensitive and should really only be judged by the naked eye in real life.
However he did say that a rav who has lots of experience with both viewing digital images and real life images, and who has a good feel for the way a real life shailoh will translate itself into a digital image, can use his “mind’s eye” to pasken from a digital image. This would mean that he would be able to use his judgment to translate how the digital image presented before him would look in real life. He said not many rabbis are be able to do this but it was certainly possible by one who had the correct expertise and experience.
Obviously there are still certain shailos that remain impossible for even the most expert rav to judge accurately from an electronic image. Examples of this include small breaks in letters, holes, questions pertaining to ink texture and colour, etc. Often you need to look at these shailos from different angles and different lighting (such as backlight) which cannot be done with even the best images.
Based on the psak of Rav Friedlander, we can therefore conclude that there are three basic catagories of shailos , each with different ramifications when it comes to paskening from a digital image:
1) Shailos in which size and clarity are not important: For example it would not make a difference if the image is a little larger or smaller or has slightly more or less resolution – the result would be the same either way. An example of this is shown above, with the mem with the low churtem. It is no problem for a Rav to pasken from such an image.
2) Shailos in which size and clarity are important factors: An example of this would be the abovementioned beis / chof question that was brought to Rav Elyashiv. Other shailos such as negiyos and nifsakim would fall into this category. However an expert rav with very good judgment can use his “mind’s eye” to see how the digital image would most likely look in real life and rule accordingly.
3) Finally, as explained above, there are shailos which are impossible even for an expert to be able to gain enough information from any image for a proper ruling, such as small breaks in letters, holes, questions pertaining to ink texture and colour and the like. Such shailos are rarely uploaded anyway, as it is obvious that the image will not be sufficient for even the most expert rov to pasken from.