The Halachas of Facebook and Google: A Rabbi and a Web Marketer Discuss

I have a confession to make… I am a Web marketer.

I spend most of my working day up to my eyeballs in Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And Yes, I know what the rabbis are saying about this… I live in Jerusalem, after all. I’ve seen those pashkevelim (street notices).

Since I write this blog, my fellow religious Jews regularly approach me with questions like “Is it mutar for me to have a Facebook page for my business?” or “Can I have my photo on my Twitter account?” I consider myself expert in all these shaylas since I always give the same answer: “ask your rabbi!” That’s what I did last week, when my husband and I went for a meeting with our posek, to discuss halachic issues related to my business.

Let me start by saying that our Rav, like most mainstream chareidi/yeshivish rabbis, maintains that using the Internet is assur. He will, however, grant a heter on a case-by-case basis for people who need to use the Web in order to earn their parnasa. In this day and age, that’s pretty much everybody in the work force, but it’s still a shayla that should be asked.

As a Jewish woman who works on the Web, I find myself with many involved questions about my Internet usage. Every now and then I feel my conscience starting to bother me and I know it’s time to talk to a posek again and clarify the boundaries of my activities, from a halachic perspective. In the past I’ve asked him about operating my websites on Shabbos, speaking to Jews about web business (like I do on this blog) and using my photo online (BTW he said it was OK, but I still don’t do it for personal reasons). I also sometimes run my blog posts past him before I publish them (including this one). But for last week’s meeting, my questions focused mainly on social media use and marketing to a frum audience online.

But really these questions are one and the same because the Website I run targets frum women, and they are online and they are on social media and I need to reach them there. In case there is anyone reading this who still believes that frum Jews don’t use the Internet, it’s time to drop this misconception. The adoption of web technologies and development of online communities has lagged a bit behind the general market, but by now it is clear: Frum Jews Are Online!

A good illustration of this is RabbiKaganoff.com, the website that I created with my husband for the Torah writings of Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff shlita, a Jerusalem-based Rabbi who writes wonderful halacha articles. Although the Rabbi does not use the Internet and has never seen the site, he was very positive when we suggested the idea of creating the site as a resource for people around the world. The site now gets around 1,300 visits a month exclusively from search engines, despite the fact that not one drop of SEO effort has ever been invested in the site. The reality is that thousands of frum Jews are going to Google and asking sophisticated questions like “is my nectarine tree orlah?” or “can the father be sandek at a bris?”

ask rabbi google

I also once asked Rabbi Google a shayla. Right before Shabbos my husband presented me with a gift of a very pretty butane lighter engraved with the words “Lekavod Shabbos Kodesh.” As I was thanking him it suddenly occurred to us that we didn’t know if it was permissible to use a butane lighter for Shabbos candles. Since it was three minutes before candle-lighting we figured that we’d ask Rabbi Google rather than calling a flesh-and-blood ordained rabbi. And where did Google send us for our answer? About.com!

I think that most religious Jews would agree that it’s better that we should get halachic guidance and news from a Jewish source, rather than The New York Times (which owns About.com). And I guess that’s the rationale behind the increasing number of news and community sites targeting frum Jews. Orthodox Jews are already on the Web looking for information, social interaction and entertainment. Isn’t it better that they should find their online home on a Jewish site that caters to their unique needs and concerns, and abides by the laws of tznius and lashon hora?

My own site, MavenMall, is part of this phenomenon. It is the first online magazine and modest mall targeting frum women, but in reality it is just riding a wave that has been gathering momentum in the last 2-3 years. Sites like Yeshiva World News and VosIsNeis have grown hugely in that period and are now massively popular. Imamother.com is a very frum forum that has a huge and very active community. Sites that target particular frum communities (e.g. Chabad) or interests (e.g. kosher recipes, frum deal sites) have also taken off in a big way. There are also many frum blogs that are popular and provide valuable information.

Despite this growing trend, I still had a question that irked me: Why is it permissible for me to run a site like MavenMall for frum women if it might be assur for some of these women to be online? Our Rav answered that since they are already online and I did not encourage them to go there, this is not a problem. I am providing them with the information and entertainment that they are already seeking online. They find MavenMall via Google and Facebook, and it is by their own choice that they haunt Google and Facebook. This is the reality of our society.

The rabbi also did not object to us displaying photos of women, even though this is a huge no-no in the frum publishing world nowadays (a recent development). Since we are clearly a site for women and any Jewish man wishing to look at women in an improper way has much better opportunities elsewhere on the Web, he did not see a halachic problem.

Regarding Social Media, he said that he thought that Facebook was more problematic than LinkedIn or Twitter because of the ads on Facebook (which, we have all got to admit, can be offensive).  I asked him how much he really knows about Facebook and he said that he felt that he understood it quite well, despite never having seen it. He said that he recently answered a question from a rabbi doing campus kiruv in the US regarding whether it was permissible to notify his students about the upcoming bris of his son by creating a Facebook Event, since this would cause them to receive an “invitation” yet we are not supposed to invite people to a bris.

This question seems kinda cute but the reality is that religious Jews encounter all sorts of problems on Facebook, especially lashon hara and lack of tznius (not to mention intense time-wasting). And yet the fact remains that Facebook is incredible as a marketing tool and I want to use it to its maximum to gain exposure for the quality content on my site. Is it OK that I use it to communicate with my fans and potential fans? But again the answer was the same. MavenMall did not lure frum women onto Facebook, they were already there long before we even launched. Therefore communicating with them via Facebook is not a halachic problem.

Clarifying all of these points was very helpful for me, and I hope that you also find this information useful. Beyond the practical benefit of our meeting, I also enjoyed an the intense feeling of relief after talking out these questions with a rabbi, even if though his message was hard for me to hear at times. There is peace in knowledge, while uncertainty is a very uncomfortable place to be. It’s not always easy being the only Mommy at the cheder PTA meeting who works as a Web Marketer. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when my kids reach the age of Shidduchim!

At least I will always be able to say that I asked my rabbi and he said that it was kosher!

So if you are in doubt about any issue relating to your business, not just issues related to the Internet, don’t struggle to negotiate this minefield alone, ask a rabbi!

In the meantime – let’s discuss the dilemmas of working on the Web for frum Jews. Please share your thoughts with us!

PS. Writing this post got me thinking about the current explosion of frum websites and the implications of this for Jewish publishing . In fact I wrote a whole other post on the topic just now, but I’ll save that one for next time. So if you’re interested subscribe below!

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Comments

  1. says

    Hi Naomi –
    I love when you post psak on some things I haven’t thought to ask, or in this case, on something I’m going to ask him myself this week, iyH! I didn’t know you’re the one behind Rabbi Kaganoff’s blog either – thanks, I really enjoy having his articles available in one place.
    Kol hakavod on this post. Keep up the good work!

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks Myriam!

    [Reply]

  2. says

    Great post. I would just add that Rabbonim need to be introduced to the social media big time because there are many nuances involved and the more they know, the more they will be equipped to answer the shailos that arise.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    I’m agreeing that many Rabbanim are not equipped to answer these questions. But others really understand the need. E.g. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz spoke at the Kishor Conference on Social Media last year. He said he was the target of criticism for agreeing to speak there but in reality he gave so much chizuk to people who need to use these tools for their parnasa and need guidance. I think it’s up to us to get answers, even when it’s hard to find a Rav that understands.
    Thanks for reading!

    [Reply]

  3. Linda says

    Hi Naomi,
    Thanks so much for a great article. It’s very “mechazek” to read how you have consulted da’at Torah every step of the way for your profession. It’s the right thing for all of us. I guess we are just so scared to ask a Rav a ‘sheila’ related to being online!
    Thanks; I am very inspired to read how you keep your priorities in place.
    LD

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    I totally understand what you mean Linda. It can be scary. Working on the web is like being alone on a raft sailing through uncharted territory… and I will stop here before I get too girly and start sharing my feelings :).

    [Reply]

  4. Linda says

    ps: Please take the scary face off my comment (and maybe the others too)?

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Got rid of those scary monsters. I really gotta get myself a gravatar. And I call myself a web marketer!

    [Reply]

  5. says

    Did your rav answer any of your questions lechumra?

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    I’m sure he wouldn’t give me a psak that he considered a chumra. But it’s possible that another rabbi with a different approach might consider the psak machmir. But I must say that I don’t think his answers sound machmir. Do you?

    [Reply]

  6. says

    Great post! A frum Jew goes to his Rav for all shaylas related to his business… and there are many that come up. Business shaylas are usually a lot less clear cut than whether or not you can use a butane lighter for candle lighting, and they are usually more chamur with more ramifications.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks Shmelke (AKA Husband)!

    [Reply]

  7. says

    Hi, Naomi. Thanks for sharing all that with us. Your Rav seems like a very insightful individual – it’s good to have someone like that.
    I thought the points about “they’re there already, so you might as well give them a constructive venue” and that about why it’s not an issue to put women’s pictures on Maven Mall were particularly relevant and interesting.
    In relation to what you and Binyomin were saying, I’d add that it’s critical when asking a sheilah about social media, etc. (for that matter, this applies to any sheilah) to be as specific as possible in describing the metzius. That includes what the situation is in all possible details (e.g. exactly what messages, images you see when you open up Twitter and how much control you have over those, what you motivation is in using it, how you feel it impacts you, etc.) because otherwise you will get a very good answer to the exact question you asked, which if you left out details might not reflect the metzius of the situation.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Good point Aviva

    [Reply]

  8. says

    Great and very useful article. If you don’t mind I would like to republish it on my website dedicated to Jewish mobile apps, social networking and new media in Jewish education – http://www.jewishiphonecommunity.org (of course with link to the source). Keep up the good work.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks. I’d be happy for you to post it – though some might say that it could affect our rankings if we have duplicate content. Let’s ask our resident SEO expert Aviva what she thinks? @Aviva?

    [Reply]

    Aviva B Reply:

    Good question, Naomi. I would imagine that if Reuven gives credit by saying that you’re the author at that the original article is found at http://myparnasa.com/the-halachas-of-facebook-google/, that shouldn’t be a problem of harming your ranking. That will be pretty clear to Google. His site might still be on the first page if someone types in a term that would bring up the article, but my guess is that you would be above it. If you want to eliminate ranking concerns entirely, you could use a cross-domain canonical tag, which would mean putting the tag into the header of the page that copies the article. Then ostensibly that page should not rank and any links created to that page should strengthen yours. So that’s more beneficial to you as the licenser of the content, but won’t work if the licensee isn’t willing to give up the value of the page, especially if he has a lot of his own unique content on it in addition to the copy of the article (in which case the canonical tag isn’t so relevant anyway).
    Long answer and not saying 100% what you should do – but this stuff is complicated and not an exact science. Too many “should”s and “probably”s. B’hatzlacha rabbah deciding!

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks Aviva. So go ahead and republish it on your site with a backlink. Thanks for asking!

  9. says

    The solution to the Bris invite might be to “invite” them to see the “mo’dah” for the Bris.

    Bada-bing! :)

    great article!

    [Reply]

    daniel kahan Reply:

    there is no halachic problem in inviting someone for a bris even in person – the problem is inviting them to attend the seuda, so informing them of the time and venue online without a personal invitation should be ok

    [Reply]

  10. says

    Another thought, Naomi, about the challenges of working on the web, and specifically when you’re involved in SEO/social media, are methods and motivations. One example is the blog posts from linkbuilding experts (real SEO big people; I’m not saying “experts” sarcastically) who talk about building relationships with people who you want to get a link from by connecting with them on social media, talking to them about their interests, even non-industry interests (which you’ve figured out by reading their personal blog about their dog, say) and then eventually getting to the point where you can “suggest” linking to your site or post and it will be received. The idea of building a relationship with the sole aim of what you can get out of it (which of course you don’t disclose to the other person) – I don’t know if it’s halachically geneivas da’as, but it certainly smacks of that, and sheker, and manipulation – all things which can’t be so beneficial for your personal spiritual development. But those are the “most effective” methods – so it’s challenging to have that constant question of: yes, it would be effective. And it may not be assur. But what is it going to do to me?

    [Reply]

  11. says

    Once again Naomi, you blow me away with your writing, topic, intelligence and ruchnius. I guess that’s why I love you! Such a great article and so much to think about.

    The other side of the coin is that Internet Marketing eliminates so many barriers to entry for so many women, especially young frum women who are trying find parnasah to support lofty spiritual ideals. From a purely feminist perspective the extremely low barriers to entry are amazing – one can independantly and very easily learn Internet Marketing, research hot trends and businesses and for virtually nothing, except the value of your time and patience, build a successful money-making business. With that being said, I do see that we always have to be so careful with what we say and do, how we say it and how we do it, as frum Jews, wheather on the Internet or not. Your article drives home that point well.

    I now have a question for a Rav – hopefully you’ve asked it… Am I allowed to have a Facebook contest requesting people to come and ‘like’ my page – is that considered luring people onto facebook? (and I just posted a facebook contest today!) oy….

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    You are so right Shoshana about Web marketing! This is the main reason why I love it. There is so much opportunity – it’s close to infinite! That doesn’t mean it’s easy to be successful but it does open a window for a woman who is looking to create a business that fits in with her family without taking a massive risk.
    I can’t imagine anyone joining Facebook just to enter a contest, unless the prize was a new car or something else really huge… but if you’re feeling confused you can always ask a rabbi!

    [Reply]

  12. says

    This is an absolute great post and while I am sure it has been discussed in full length online before this is really the first time I have seen it. I think you are really going places with this blog Naomi with the topics you are bringing up and I just wanted to thank you. I being in the online business for many years also have always asked this question. I know when the internet first came out and there were other newer technologies that most of the frum community was speaking against the Rebbe came out and said something along the lines that there are good things that can come out of new technology and we should absolutely put those to good use. Now today we can see this so clearly with so many good causes on facebook, twitter and all over.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks for dropping by, and especially for your encouraging comments!

    [Reply]

  13. says

    Shavua Tov. @Jewish Business – Dozens of years ago on Motzei Shabbat parshat Yitro, on radio celebrated the conclusion of a year’s broadcasting, and the beginning of the new year’s weekly shiurim on Tanya Rebbe, amongst other issues, mentioned: “Through the radio, the actual wellsprings of Chassidus are spread instantly to every place in the world, engulfing the “outside” in the wellsprings — and thereby purifying the “outside.” It is the preparation to the fulfillment of the promise, “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea,” for, as was promised to the Baal Shem Tov, Mashiach will come “when your wellsprings shall spread forth to the outside.”

    What is quite strange, a few opponents of such kind of education came into picture at the time, but Rebbe explained: “Evil cannot create; everything in this universe, including the ability to transmit through radio, is a creation of G-d. Since everything in the world was created ‘for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel’ (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1), it is clear that the powerful force of radio was created so that it be utilized for holy matters, such as the dissemination of Torah. However, as in all matters, man is given free choice to use radio for good or evil – ‘Behold, I have set before you this day [a free choice] between life and good and death and evil’ (Devarim 30:15). And, says G-d, ‘Choose life!’ (Devarim 30:19)”. I think it was the beginning of the “technological” revolution in Torah teaching.

    [Reply]

  14. says

    Naomi, I loved reading this post! I think Its so amazing that you spoke to your Rav about the internet in a very open, honest way. I’m scared to say the word Internet next to a Rav. It feels so taboo. But Internet is a reality, and i don’t think the “bans” that I feel no one follows will be in place for long. I think frum Jews need to be educated in Internet usage in general.

    Great post! Love your work on this website.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Thanks Sina. You know I’m a big fan of your blog too!
    It is scary to talk about what we do in public, but I also yearn for openness, because I want to live a life of integrity, not pretending to be something I’m not. I hope that if my rabbi told me that what I’m doing is assur, I would stop. But I think that most frum Jews have an inner compass that tells us when something is going too far. Someone who works on the Web needs to be in tune with this voice and nurture it. It takes maturity and courage to say: everyone’s doing that but that’s not for me.

    [Reply]

    sina @ the kosher spoon Reply:

    very well put!

    you have so many sites going on. I dont know how you have time for it all! I wish you lots of Hatzlacha!!

    [Reply]

  15. says

    Good article, glad you retweeted it today, very good social marketing!
    To keep things personal enough to interest “viewers” , but
    not too personal is indeed a fine line.
    Keep up the good work!

    [Reply]

  16. says

    Sadly left Israel to focus on paying debts etc 2 years ago leading me to Toronto. Speaking with some of the yidden here…

    I am in discussion with someone and I’m talking about a new chapter, which we call ‘Jewnet’ for short. Imagine an online world completely free of the garbage out there….

    We should get together (frum internet marketing yidden) and discuss with askanim and gedolim about creating a completely different internet that is centralized.

    I am sure to receive flak but most of the world, and most Yidden know the great benefits international networking through the internet has – but what if we could do it in a way that is positive for us and our children and future generations???

    The Internet was/is a test project. It proved successful. Now is the time for us to learn from it and create the next level, one which will be controlled of negative sources. I know a lot of red flags come up, but if we work together I know we can do it.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    I like your idea. You are not the only one who is thinking along these lines in the Jewish world. I know of someone who is trying to create a tablet computer that can only access certain sites, for seforim and kosher resources, etc. I’m not sure that the time is yet ripe for these developments, but it’s very good to think ahead and start planning now. If you get some key rabbanim on board, then you will be alright. But there will always be some flak.
    In the meantime, there is this blog! There are many Jewish marketing professionals who regularly read it. Perhaps you’d like to write a guest post and talk to them.
    Contact me if you’re interested.

    [Reply]

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