More Jewish Web Search Patterns
How do you find halachic answers?
Some months back, in my "Web Search Patterns and Jewish History" article, I shared some curious discoveries about the way people react to big events in the Jewish world. Since then I've found some new tools for more effectively working with data from the Google Trends service. Here are a couple of insights plucked from those tools.
Searching for Halacha
Nearly 50 years after its birth, the internet is home to more content than any one human being could possibly consume in a thousand lifetimes. But, for all the controversy surrounding them, search engines often work well to cut through the noise and point you to just the information you need. It's to be expected that many frum Jews will turn to the internet for answers to halachic questions.
Is that always a good idea? Of course not. Some questions are simple enough that you can and should look them up yourself. (Even if you do plan to eventually ask your rav, doing your own research first is an excellent practice.) Other questions involve the kinds of subtle distinctions and complexities that require a face-to-face meeting with a qualified posek. And some online sources are unreliable or downright misleading.
But there's no hiding the fact that, between online services and digitized seforim, there is a formidable body of excellent halachic material on the internet. And it's all helpfully indexed by your friendly neighborhood search engine.
Here's one example (from much colder times). I was curious about whether one could activate and/or use chemical hand warmers on Shabbos. Not only was I unsure how halacha might treat the technology, I wasn't even clear about how it worked. So I searched for "hand warmers on Shabbos" and was instantly pointed to a quick audio shiur by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz (of YU), a longer PDF detailing the issues involved from one Rabbi Shimon Silver, and a brief Ask the Rabbi Q&A response from Rabbi Yoel Lieberman of yeshiva.co in Israel. The conclusions varied but, between them, those resources provided enough background and source material to help me develop my own opinion.
But shouldn't you try to be consistent by sticking with a single posek for all your questions? Sure. But most of us live in the real world. Very few people have uninterrupted access to a single posek - and particularly one who's qualified in every subject area that might confront us. And all of us should be doing more of our own homework, if only to relieve our community poskim of at least some of their heavy load.
At any rate, with so much high quality halachic content online, we should be able to see evidence of search activity in Google Trends. Well, yes. But, when I measured searches involving the word “halacha,” I didn't expect this:
There's been an obvious and steady decline in the use of the word "halacha" in Google searches since 2006 or so. That's odd, because the volume of better halachic content has clearly been growing. This isn't only the case for "halacha." Other searches like "heter iska" and "ribis" and even "גניבה" were also initiated in far greater numbers in and around 2005. I will note that, over the same period, searches in Israel involving the Hebrew word "הלכה" have been growing:
But we're focusing on the rest of the world, right now. I can't explain what was going on in 2005, but perhaps "halacha" is too general a term and unlikely to result in useful links. Perhaps, instead, we've become more sophisticated about the way we use search engines, and we should be looking for more precise search terms. In that context, English searches like "ma'aser", "pruzbol", and "shemita" show a more predictable pattern.
…As do Hebrew searches like "לשון הרע" and "יחוד" (please excuse the backwards Hebrew captions).
Considering Jewish Homeschooling
One more topic. Homeschooling - especially in the US - has been growing in popularity. Estimates of growth in the US through the pandemic suggest that the proportion of school-aged children being homeschooled has risen from around 3.3% (two million students) to as high as 9%.
Do Orthodox Jewish families homeschool? Yes. Are there a lot of them? probably not. But it seems that a lot of Jewish families were at least thinking about the possibility over the summer of 2005:
While I do suspect that another “2005” anomaly is coincidental, what prompted those searches just then? I can’t say for sure. But that was the summer immediately following the Slifkin ban - and its subsequent controversies. For those of you too young to remember, the fallout from the events of that year were significant, and quietly impacted far more people than a casual observer might have assumed.
I myself (for reasons I can’t completely recall) received multiple communications from individuals struggling to find a satisfying way to respond. One older kollel yungeman in Lakewood, for instance, called me asking how he should understand the fact that “some 30-year-old kid has just wiped the floor with my own rosh yeshiva” - who was nearly three times Slifkin’s age.
People were seriously reassessing their identities as Torah Jews and looking for context. I wouldn’t doubt that some of them at least considered changing their children’s schools.
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