The Shabbos App was introduced to the world this week. A lot of people think it’s a hoax. It’s not. It’s very, very real.
Several people asked me what I thought about the app and I wanted to speak with someone at the Shabbos App before I wrote anything. I had a nice conversation with one of the people working on the app and feel comfortable writing about the app, their ambitions, and the consequences.
Almost everyone working on the app is Shomer Shabbos. This is not a subversive attempt to ruin Shabbat or pull people away from Orthodox Judaism. Rather, the app is for Orthodox Jews who want to observe Shabbat and use their smartphones. The developers spent considerable time and effort researching halachic reasoning and opinions on the subject. They know what they are doing and what they are up against.
Briefly, the issue of electricity on Shabbat is not simple. Every Orthodox Jew knows that it’s prohibited. Many know about the psak of the Chazon Ish who prohibited electricity based on the melacha (Biblically forbidden creative activity) of boneh (building) because activating an electric device involves completing a circuit which is a form of building. Many people also know that this is not considered an accurate description of electricity or boneh by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rabbi Auerbach famously concluded that although there is no particular forbidden labor that precludes use of electricity per se; it is forbidden because that has become the accepted halachic tradition in Orthodox Judaism. At most, this would be a Rabbinic prohibition.
This rule applies to electricity in general. There are electrical devices that can violate possible Biblical prohibitions. Using a microwave might be bishul, or lighting an incandescent bulb might be mav’ir. Smartphones raise another set of issues which are particular to modern personal electronics. I don’t think any of these would be Biblical prohibitions either. The greatest obstacle is probably tikun maneh or makeh b’patish, but these issues have already been handled with regard to electrical appliances that use a Sabbath (really Yom Tov) Mode. Once again, the Shabbos App team is comfortable navigating these areas of halacha. The problems raised by draining battery, writing, lighting the screen, generating sounds, and charging can be circumvented with technological workarounds. The Shabbos App does all this by running in the background of the smartphone and controlling those problem areas in a way that prevents the issues. Apparently, the Android OS is more flexible in this regard and thus presents a more robust solution. But even in Apple iOS, the app is functional and would potentially avoid all violations of Rabbinic prohibitions.
So it is real. And it actually does what they say it does. At least in terms of the technical aspects of halacha, it seems to avoid violating Shabbat prohibitions according to accepted halachic opinions.
The motivations of the Shabbos App team are genuine and holy. There are people who use smartphones on Shabbat right now. The way they use them is more likely to incur serious halachic problems. As a consequence, those who use them often feel very guilty. Not to say that they shouldn’t feel this way, but guilt can morph into a form of religious self-loathing that triggers further departures from observance in other areas. This is a terrible result. The Shabbos App might assuage some of that guilt and keep more people in the fold. They might be right about that too. I am also very sympathetic to the emotional needs of people struggling with observance and I can corroborate the guilt slicked journey off the path. I am not expressing an opinion on the importance of this effort, or whether it outweighs considerations in the other direction. But it’s a valid concern. Further, if it is permissible to use a smartphone in this manner, then maybe they actually should be used.
So far, the objections to the app carry a familiar tune. In essence, the problem with the Shabbos App is that even if it is halachically acceptable, it will ruin the spirit of Shabbat. I am sympathetic to this point of view as well. There is something beautiful about avoiding technology on Shabbat. Recently I advocated using the digital fast concept as a social benefit to keeping Shabbat on this blog. I think it might be worth turning off our devices for Shabbat even if devices were permissible. However, Rabbi Heinemann addressed this concern when similar objections were raised against his Sabbath Mode ovens. His response was that if something is permissible then it can’t ruin the spirit of Shabbat. There’s no such thing. He supported his position by noting that when the Aruch HaShulchan or Rabbi Auerbach permitted the use of telephones on Shabbat the spirit of Shabbat was not a concern. Further, when they backtracked and prohibited the use of phones on Shabbat, they did not hang their hats on the spirit of Shabbat. Telephones were prohibited based on halachic concerns, not spirit of Shabbat concerns. When I asked the Shabbos App developer what Shabbat would look like if everyone would be using their smartphones, his answer reflected this sensibility. He said “Shabbat will look the way Hashem wants it to look!”
What’s going to happen when the app is released? Almost all Orthodox rabbis will prohibit it. That’s almost a near certainty. But what will the people do? Most adults will listen to their rabbis. I suspect that younger demographics might consider the Shabbos App. If they do, they will probably need to hide their smartphone use. I can’t see Orthodox Judaism adopting the app and its halachic implications en masse in the near future. But it is possible that as we become more and more dependent on technology, especially passive technology, there will be a natural movement toward greater leniency. If that does happen, I think we might look back on the Shabbat App and see it as a catalyst for that change. In the meantime, I don’t expect any significant change in the way Orthodox Jews think about smartphones, but at the very least we will be forced to talk about these issues with more halachic rigor and discussion. That is definitely a good thing.
I talked to one of the developers. Here are my thoughts on the Shabbos App (Yes it is Real) http://t.co/kIN9TGDD9x
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) October 1, 2014