The Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was passed on January 28, 1981. “Data Privacy Day,” established in 2007, is celebrated in the United States, the U.K. and other European countries. In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution creating the “Data Privacy Day”.

Judaism has a similar policy that was established over a millennium ago. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (960-1040) of Mainz, Germany, known as the “Light of the Diaspora,” led the most prestigious Torah academy in Germany. He also enacted a number of important communal decrees which had more bearing communally than legally. The Hebrew word for decree is takanah and the Hebrew word for ban is chay’rehm. It was Rabbi Gershom whose court banned bigamy (the Torah permits it), and it was Rabbi Gershom’s court that insisted that although Biblical law allowed a woman to be divorced against her will, assent from both the husband and wife was required before a divorce could be granted. Another one of his famous takanot was a ban on reading other people’s mail. While some suggest that Rabbi Gershom’s decrees would expire at the end of the fifth millennium (the Jewish year 5,000 corresponds to the secular year 1240), others see no reason he would have included a sunset clause.

Further, there are arguments to be made that reading someone else’s mail was already prohibited according to Jewish law and Rabbi Gershom’s cherem is unnecessary. Reading mail intended for another could fall under the prohibition of using someone else’s property without permission, as well as commandments such as “love your fellow as yourself,” do not act as a tale-bearer, and potentially causing damage to another person.

Contemporary rabbis see no reason to distinguish between reading someone else’s letter, and reading an email addressed to someone else. They are both prohibited.

Here is an example of potentially competing considerations. Saving a life, or potentially saving a life, overrides all Biblical laws, and certainly rabbinic laws, and decrees. In a situation where reading someone else’s mail could potentially save specific people’s lives that are potentially endangered, it would seem clear from a Jewish legal point of view, that it would be permitted. But, this would need to be weighed against all the reasons described above and the Jewish virtue of following the law of the land (dina d’malchuta), as the U.S. Constitution offers citizens an assumed right of privacy. 

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one’s local rabbi for practical application.

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