The Shabbos App as Tragic Commentary

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Someone asked me a question yesterday that cuts to the core of the Shabbos App issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?”

My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones to my Shabbat experience.

That is the real issue here. The halachic question about whether it is permissible or prohibited and why is a fascinating and important discussion, but it’s relatively obscure and esoteric. Digging into the nitty-gritty halachic nuances is enjoyable for me, but I think we have to look at the big picture and examine the social and communal issues raised by the Shabbos App.

To me, it’s real simple. No one would have thought of the Shabbos App or the need for the Shabbos App if people were enjoying the break from technology that Shabbat affords.iber If we all loved being off our phones for 25 hours, the Shabbos App would be superfluous. No one would want it. No one would care to have it. But that is not the reality.

Many people struggle with observing Shabbat every week. The phone is a private and quiet way to escape Shabbat observance. That’s one the many allures of the smartphone. It’s like holding the universe in your hands, and if someone is feeling stifled by Shabbat observance, the world in one’s hands can feel quite liberating.

I think most people who have smartphones would be quite happy to be able to use them 24/7. It’s a bit of a challenge to restrict one’s smartphone usage for 25 hours if one is accustomed to using their device on a constant basis. It’s not addiction as much as it is a habit. Smartphones have become like appendages to our bodies. They accompany us to the kitchen for recipes and culinary inspiration. They come with us to the dinner table and can be used to research a point of discussion at the table or to share a YouTube video that gives everyone a good laugh. They are part of our Torah study routine with the entire Torah available at the tap of a finger. Calling us addicts completely mischaracterizes the challenge. Our devices are like auxiliary brains. They are part of everything we do during the week.

So when Shabbat arrives, it is certainly a challenge. Some people embrace this challenge. They say that Shabbat is meaningful because they love being free from technology. It’s still a challenge, but the personal satisfaction and ecstasy of freedom makes it worth meeting the challenge head on. Others just accept the fact that they might be miserable without their devices and slog through Shabbat like zombies. Then there are the people who don’t think it’s worth giving up their smartphones for Shabbat. The pain of abandoning technology for 25 hours is greater than the payoff of keeping Shabbat. Those people have no incentive to turn off their phones for 25 hours. Why should they?

That is a tragic commentary on our Shabbat experience.

One solution might be to allow for a halachic revolution or a slower halachic evolution to a place and time where using smartphones is halachically acceptable. Another might be to figure out methods of minimizing the desecration of Shabbat to the best of our ability. But I prefer a third option.

The best solution is to craft Shabbat experiences that are meaningful to American Orthodox Jews. This can be done in several ways and should be personalized to each individual person. We need Shabbat programming and meals and prayer services and activities that enhance Shabbat. The existing version of Shabbat works for a lot of people. Friday night services with some singing, family dinner that is almost exactly the same every week and in every home, a family game or a book, sleep, wake up 8:30 AM or later, head to shul, pray and listen to a sermon, grab some nosh at kiddush, eat a big lunch that is almost exactly the same every week and in every home, sing some songs, schmooze, take a nap, go for a walk, play with the kids / siblings / friends, wind down in the evening, mincha, seuda shlishit, maariv, havdala, and pizza for melaveh malka. That sounds heavenly to tons of Orthodox Jews. They wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s better than anything you can get on a smartphone.

But many people don’t like all the stuff or they might like it but not in the way that it’s currently configured. We can recalibrate. We can add and subtract within the boundaries of halacha. The experience could be more customized and appeal to each person’s preferences. In particular, we should focus on the benefits of a digital fast in our modern world so that it becomes something we subjectively want to do. We don’t need a standardized version of Shabbat. If Shabbat feels like a burden, there are ways to change it up so that it becomes a joy. When we love our Shabbat experience, the smartphone loses its appeal. We are tuned into our Shabbat experience. That’s better than being tuned out of Shabbat and tuned into our smartphones.

It’s obvious to me that this is the way forward. It’s what we discussed in the essay series a couple weeks ago. There is a version of Shabbat that is needlessly canonized, and it is to our detriment that it is. We have this idea in our heads that the meaning and lessons of Shabbat or other mitzvot are objective. I’ve heard a ton of comments that sound like “but Shabbat is about X” while the other commenter says “Shabbat is about Y.” It’s about what we make it. It’s subjective. This is not really a debatable point. So let’s think creatively. We all know the basic Shabbat rules and rituals that must be included in the experience. So let’s start from the beginning. To borrow a tech metaphor, let’s reboot. What would a Shabbat experience look like if we started building it right now? And how many other options and versions can we dream up? Let’s do it. Let’s try them. Let’s create our own subjective Shabbat experiences. Let’s make them really cool and really interesting. Let’s make our Shabbat better than anything a smartphone can offer. Let’s make the Shabbos App completely useless.

  • AY Lawrence

    Can you clarify something? Last post, you seemed to allow for the possibility that permissible smartphone usage on Shabbos could be or eventually become “how God wants Shabbos to look”. Here, you’re advocating (I think) constructing a menu of meaningful Shabbos experiences amenable to all so that we won’t feel we would ever need to use our smartphones. These two views seem contradictory a bit?

    • Slow down. The previous article had a quote from the developer. That’s what HE said. (#TWHS?) I offered no opinion on this matter in the previous post.

      • AY Lawrence

        Looking back – yes you are correct. Sorry!

        Just curious, what if (halachically acceptable) smartphone use indeed becomes something which infuses genuine spiritual enhancement and meaning (though that is hard to define) into many peoples’ Shabbos/YT experience? What then? You seemed a bit open to that idea or possibility, unless I’m reading something into the previous post incorrectly. But you seem intent in this post to circumvent that very possibility by creating experiences that would make us want to ditch smartphone use – see below quite from above. I’m not necessarily arguing with you – just unclear here.

        Thanks.

        “But many people don’t like all the stuff or they might like it but not in the way that it’s currently configured. We can recalibrate. We can add and subtract within the boundaries of halacha. The experience could be more customized and appeal to each person’s preferences. In particular, we should focus on the benefits of a digital fast in our modern world so that it becomes something we subjectively want to do. We don’t need a standardized version of Shabbat. If Shabbat feels like a burden, there are ways to change it up so that it becomes a joy. When we love our Shabbat experience, the smartphone loses its appeal. We are tuned into our Shabbat experience. That’s better than being tuned out of Shabbat and tuned into our smartphones.”

        • Indeed, I am circumventing here because I am being realistic about halachic development. If smartphone use became integrated into Shabbat and was part of the spiritual experience in a halahically acceptable manner, I would be cool with that. But right now, the people dying to use their smartphones do not fall into that category. Not even a little.

          • AY Lawrence

            That may indeed be the case. Thanks for clarifying.

            • AY Lawrence

              I guess my point is that people perhaps should not box themselves into absolute value statements like “smartphone use is absolutely not in the Shabbos spirit!”. That may have been true before and is true now, but may or may not not be true in the future.

              • Agreed. I have been making the same point in the discussions.

          • ZP

            You are painting with too broad of a brush. Personally, I would like to use my smartphone on Shabbos primarily because of its function as an e-Reader. Shabbos is the only day of the week when I have time to read the newspaper, periodicals, and novels. I could get hard copies of all of those, but it would be significantly less convenient, not to mention unnecessary, than using my smart phone or Kindle Fire. Does that are, quiet time reading fall so far outside the aegis of a spiritual experience that it doesn’t even fall into that category…even a little?

            • I expect the next Sanhedrin will permit the use of ereaders, but probably restrict devices that allow typing, including your reader’s search and download functions, as well as sound production software. Let’s wait and see, and pray the wait is short!

            • Yes, I was generalizing. The so called “epidemic” of texting on Shabbat is what I am talking about.

  • This hearkens back to the “1/2 Shabbat” issue in regards to MO teenagers texting on Shabbos. Sure, finding (kosher) alternatives would be ideal. But Orthodox Judaism is largely focused on the two extremes of life; childhood and married home life. Teenagers aren’t going to sit around and play games and do group activities on Shabbos. They aren’t particularly interested in group meals and Torah discussion either (they get enough of that in school). In North Miami Beach, there is a canal on the edge of the community with a walkway. Teenagers go and “hang out” over there on Shabbos. However some of the rabbeim flipped out about it, saying that it was casual mixing of sexes…therefore dangerous. So go walk over there at your own peril now. The “spirit of Shabbat” is very subjective ultimately. And during that age of “finding yourself” (ages 13 to 19 roughly), it can be all over the board. I see this Shabbos app thing as something that’s not meant to be mainstream…but to be an option for young people really struggling, and frum professionals who have a heter to be plugged into technology anyway.

    • The teens issue is a great point. I kind of mentioned that in my Half Shabbos article.

      “I am certain that for many teens the Shabbos table discussions of adults are irrelevant, boring and quite frankly can be a turn off. People kvetch and moan about Jewish issues at their Shabbos tables. This is good conversation and important to discuss. But for a teen to hear negative, negative, negative, blah, blah, blah, every single week, it can have a terrible effect. So, I propose more relevant Shabbos discussions for teens.” – See more at: http://finkorswim.com/2011/06/23/half-shabbos-half-truths-half-solutions/

  • MarkSoFla

    “The phone is a private and quiet way to escape Shabbat observance.”

    I disagree. It’s as much a way to escape shabbat observance as it is to escape weekday observance. It has nothing to do with shabbat. At this point, for the younger generations, a smartphone is like a toothbrush, something they use as a tool everyday and all the time. And just like they brush their teeth every day, …

  • Shlomoh

    It’s definitely a hoax.
    I know, you spoke to one of the developers.

    So what.

    How do you know he wasn’t pulling your leg and laughing at you as soon as he hung up?

    100% it’s a hoax.

  • Holy Hyrax

    A challenge to stay off the phone for 25 hours? A challenge? “Pained” to abandon technology? Who are these pathetic people in our society? I think these people have bigger problems than Shabbat.

    >Let’s do it. Let’s try them. Let’s create our own subjective Shabbat experiences.

    I know you used the word subjective, but can you give some concrete examples for once?

    • Tsippa Ackerman

      I don’t like that people–especially younger people–have become so attached to their phones. I think it’s sad and scary, but I wouldn’t call it pathetic.
      I’m sure people from 100 years ago (that’s not that long!) would think I’m pathetic for “needing” air conditioning in the hot, humid NYC Summer.

      • Holy Hyrax

        There is no comparison. Man has always attempted to find cooler areas to stay away from the harsh heat (i.e. shade). I don’t think they would call it pathetic. I don’t believe air conditioning has led to negative consequences in the manner that smartphone usage has.

        • Tsippa Ackerman

          Man has also always attempted to form strong social units and maintain connection, both for species benefit and emotional regulation. Having a cell phone, without a doubt, strengthens people’s need to feel connected to others.
          There were poskim who were against using timers on shabbos; they would say that reliance on air conditioning did, indeed, lead to negative consequences in regards to shabbos.

          My point is not to say that phones and airconditioning are the exact same thing and are relied upon the exact same amount in the exact same ways. My point is that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all incredibly weak and reliant on things that for thousands of years before us people were fine without. It’s just that most of those things are technologies we grew up with. The way we carry-on when we lose power for a couple of days…how people would have shaken their heads sadly at us…

          Many of us are still in a generation that didn’t experience smartphones or even texting until they were already adults, so it’s difficult for us to understand the attachment.

          Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the same as electricity or airconditioning or whatever. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s pathetic either.

          • Holy Hyrax

            >reliance on air conditioning did, indeed, lead to negative consequences in regards to shakos.

            Fair enough. Than they would need to specify what the negative consequence is. My ears are wide open to listen to their concern. Of course it can’t be some convoluted concern that by using air conditioning, it might lead to mix dancing, but a real visible concern with a repeated pattern that affects others as well as yourself.

            Again, it’s not pathetic in of itself. It’s the attachment that is pathetic which leads to negative consequences. Like I said. I enjoy my dish washer and TV. But if I reliant on it to the point I pained without it, than it’s a problem to the point of being pathetic.

            • Holy Hyrax

              Sorry for F.O.B’ish grammar. Just typing quickly.

      • Holy Hyrax

        Tsippa, also, it’s not a question of need. I know people need their phones for work, for example. I like having a dish washer. But if I am “pained” not to have these conveniences for 25 hours than yes, I think I would have a problem.

  • nkj

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  • Billy G

    Couple things
    many ppl who text on Shabbos do so because they are more heter, no wires bla bla.
    Do you really think ppl are not addicted to their phones??
    I used to send thousands of texts a month, but not one on Shabbos.
    Their site is seriously dissing “The Rabbis” a bizayon haTorah and Chillul Hashem. Some party-pooper …
    They keep using the 50% stat, it is BS.
    What about dirabanan’s, they are batul if you live in LA?

  • Reilly Berger

    I greatly agree with your main gist here, we need a beautiful Shabbat experience so people will not be bored etc. A different direction that watering down halacha and shabbat like reform. It reminds me of the Shabbos Project, promoting trying one Shabbat to keep the entire shabbat, to the fullest, in order to experience the beauty of the shabbat.

    Gemar hatima tova!

    • The Shabbos Project is great. But it’s still a very canonized, objective version of Shabbat.

      • Reilly Berger

        Thanks for your reply. I am sorry if I did not read your article here carefully enough. TSP is objective as Hashem is, the Creator of the world gave us the gift of Shabbat with his rules, it is not subjective. You keep shabbat by going to synagogue, I skype with my relatives … that is subjective but not keeping shabbat.

        All the best!

        • Oy. Did you read this article at all? Read the last three paragraphs again please.

          • Reilly Berger

            OK, I reread it slower. Nice, it could be that TSP also fits in, everyone keep the whole thing, and in your style, focus etc.

            • It could happen, but it seems somewhat monolithic. Not that I blame them, I am only suggesting we shake things up now. I can’t hold it against them if they don’t.

  • I can see wanting an autonomous Judaism, where people find their own meaning in Shabbos and yet are still loyal to messages Hashem actually was imparting to us via Shabbos. But it requires some things contemporary Orthodoxy doesn’t offer much of:

    1- A LOT of introspection.
    2- A one-on-one relationship with a moreh derekh, a rebbe ready to help you find that path, and keep you from fooling yourself.
    3- A peer group that is defined by a common search, and are willing to ignore the unique answers and practices each of you end up assuming. That is (again) going to keep you honest, and yet supportive.

    All of which were features of the Mussar Movement, by the way.

    • It can be in done in a less structured environment as well. The only real prerequisite is that we don’t think negatively of others who do not conform to purely social conventions.

      • And the dialectically charged second requirement that we foster the self-awareness necessary to be sure you aren’t fooling yourself.

        This isn’t just about increasing autonomy; it’s about increasing autonomy within the pursuit of holiness. (And the definition of holiness, for that matter.) If we increase autonomy at the expense of fealty to the Torah, it’s not a success.

        • I agree. But I think we should be more confident that we are capable of choosing our own path.

          • I also agree. I am just firmly adding that we can’t add one without the other. That way also lies the Shabbos App or other inauthentic innovations.

            Actually, thinking about it, I don’t fully agree. We have to start with having communities defined by being common seekers. As long as our communal lines are by common practices, the price of social membership will be too much conformity.

            • Under my proposal, halacha is not on the table.

              • Autonomy without halakhah is Reform. I don’t mean “just like”, I mean it’s their current self-definition. Find what of Judaism resonates with you, and observe that. Better than no Jewish identity, and better than no pursuit of spirituality. But is that really a position you want to invest effort to promote?

                • Non-responsive. I’m saying halacha is not up for discussion. We aren’t touching it. You have to keep it. Everything else is on the table.

                  • Clearly a communication gap… I’m saying that by stressing autonomy and not discussing halakhah, you end up giving people license to leave the tent. The resulting message — regardless of your actual position — is that of Reform. If you give people autonomy you MUST also give them the tools to check themselves, to say autonomous within the bounds of halakhah. No solution without that piece will really work. Then I noted that tools to check oneselves were dropped from the Orthodox lexicon when the Mussar Movement ended.

                    One good but subtle tool is switching to focusing on the Arukh haShulchan rather than the Mishnah Berurah or other more recent guides. One thing newcomers to the AhS find frustrating is that he rarely simply says “do X”. He may recommend one position, but elsewhere speak to people who do the other. The variety of viable opinions is taken for granted on every page, and the logic of their viability the majority of the text. With time (I think, I only started AhS Yomi on Pesach) you get used to thinking of halakhah’s recommendations as a fuzzy set. The truism that you and your rabbi ought to be negotiating which ruling is best for you at this point in your life becomes a perspective on Judaism, and not just an abstract idea.

  • AmericanJew0002356432

    i really think part of the problem is also the very rote form of tefillah we have today where there is so much required stuff to say and so little emphasis on personalizing tefillah. Our rabbis might say you MAY add in whatever you like, but it certainly isn’t encouraged or mainstream. When it comes to ArtScroll, it is often discouraged in schools.

    when so few people can honestly say they understand every word they’re saying in the davening, you’d think there would be some part of tefillah where people are encouraged to really connect more on a personal level. i can guarantee if someone starting mumbling in English to themselves, they’d get some weird stares in most shuls, with most people assuming they’re baalei tshuva or something. i don’t think it’s a solution to say, “OK, we have to teach people better Hebrew or Aramaic.” That’ll get nowhere. Leaders have to think more along the lines of “How are we helping to connect our followers to G-d,” rather than “How are we ensuring our followers do this or that properly.”

    I can confidently say compared to my peers, I probably have a far greater command of Hebrew or Aramaic, but many zemiros I’ve been saying for a few decades now, I’d have to at least stop and think to figure out what they’re saying. And some I’d definitely need an Artscroll to verify. There’s no way with the speed they go through davening in many shuls that people can really internalize what they’re saying. And forget about Kinos or other seldom read texts. And that’s just the required stuff. When you can barely keep up with davening, when do you personalize? How do you personalize tefillah? You see in many movies how people say grace at a table like on Thanksgiving in their own words. Is that goyish thing. Do we ever verbalize these things that we are grateful for?

    So when people are 1) going multiple times a day, or once a day, or every week to shul just speeding through the same rote prayers, often just to keep up without any personal dimension 2) when translations are discouraged early on 3) when there isn’t a Herculean effort to ensure students understand ALL that they will be saying for the following decades… is it any wonder that some will eventually become disenchanted???

    One way to put it is there’s too much focus on Torah, and not enough on avodah and gemilus chasadim. Tripods are sturdy because they have 3 legs. Take two away and it ain’t staying up very long. The thing is a little campaign here or there won’t have any effect. There has a to be a mass rethinking of the curriculum/activities in the schools and how shuls are conducted. If you point-blank ask some random sampling of Orthodox people, “Why are you frum?,” you’re not often going to get a deeply personal answer. It’ll usually be some cookie-cutter response or they’ll just take offense at the question. In the ideal world, after decades being frum, people should have an inspiring and personal answer to that question and not have to think a whole lot about it.

  • Chaim Bochner

    RS”O this is real chillul Shabbos. What does chillul mean? Chillul = Chullin, weekly mundane work! If anybody has ever looked and learned seforim hakdoshim, Shabbos is so sweet. It’s the parents fault this generation stinks… We are busy in our gashmios 24/7… This gotta stop ASAP… Why are we losing our lovely kinderlach to the athiestic masses? What do we talk to them? Do they hear that judiasim is nice and good or Oy, it’s hard to be a jew? Why are we talking on Shabbos kodesh about what we’ll do motzei Shabbos? Why are we waiting for the first pizza pie after pesach? Did we forsake our heritage R”L? Wake up holy brothers, Shabbos is our present hashem gave to us. Don’t throw it back like a stubborn mule! Wake up, where have we gone wrong? Cheshbon habefesh is not depressing, guilt is…

  • AmericanJew0002356432

    now as far as this app is concerned, and many discussing the fine line of what is or what is not denigration of Shabbat, clearly this definition has changed over time. i’m still kinda surprised that digital picture frames seem to be catching on. In shuls there are digital announcement boards that are probably beyond what we would have considered normal for shabbos in the past. i kinda of feel you should at least have the interval time on digital frames set long enough so it’s less like a TV. very young kids don’t know the difference. but is it really different than flipping through a family album? tough call. but i think picking up a phone and WRITING seems like a huge step outside the norm. i feel if this was about leaving open a Skype connection from before Shabbat, and especially if the monitor was mounted on a wall out of reach [without mouse/keyboard etc] there’d maybe be more to talk about. as far as sound being created, it’s not even your device making the sound and you’re not touching or typing anything. maybe the camera is focusing or the software is modulating your voice in the background. but if it were all fixed focus with no active functions customized to your image/voice…? Picking up a phone and texting – I kind of feel that’s beyond hope that someone would actually pick up something so ingrained from a young age to be muktzeh and start typing on it. I don’t think an app will keep them on-board very long.

  • Mike S.

    If I could occasionally deliver my Shabbos morning gemara shiur by some sort of Shabbos compliant VoIP system I would be able to visit my adult children more often without bittul talmud torah d’rabbim. Would that in any way contradict the “spirit of Shabbos”? What about checking in on my infirm (not local) mother-in-law during a three day yom tov? Why would you only think of the more frivolous applications of the technology, even if they are the main motive for many people.

    • AmericanJew0002356432

      yeah as mentioned below, I think a Skype or similar connection, maybe with some modifications, on from BEFORE shabbos would be a more interesting discussion than this texting app where you’re actively handling and typing on a phone. and i said interesting discussion… not necessarily OK. even IF there were no halachic issues involved with the texting app, i think much could also be said about maris ayin and i think inevitably you’re blurring the lines between what’s ok and what’s not. a 2-3 year old child will refer to a digital picture frame as a TV. to them, there’s no difference and that’s not great for chinuch. to actually type on a phone is ridiculous. with an open Skype feed though, such a monitor could be split screen among multiple open video feeds with family members across the country, shiurim etc. it would be something that just sits on a wall. you don’t touch it. you don’t control it. you can’t take it with you like cellphones. but there could be more people “at” your home on shabbos, you could see a shiur or tish happening far away, family members across the globe would be a bit closer… that could potentially enhance shabbos. someone living in a small town away from yiddishkeit could have a better experience… there certainly could be positive aspects. as long as we’re not talking about actively controlling some device. that’s nuts.

  • dear rabbi

    The app costs $49.99. You can contact me and I will bless your smartphone for Shabbat use for $39.99. 🙂

  • Yair

    Two quick points: The Rambam claims that the reason Muktze was instituted was in order to distinguish Shabbat from weekdays. More specifically, he says it can’t qualify as a “Shevitah” if you never do any work during the week, and so, for the very wealthy who don’t do Melachot throughout the week, they instituted Muktze in order to make such a distinction.
    Additionally, the problem of electricity hasn’t been dealt with. Most authorities say it is an Isur D’Rabanan, and R’ Asher Weiss makes the ambitious claim that it is an Isur D’Oraita because of Makeh B’Patish, but for different reasons than those most brought up (see his Teshuva in Minchat Asher, Chelek 1 for more details). In any event, it remains prohibited. Now, that isn’t directly relevant to the question of it’s advisability for those who already break Shabbat, but framing it as a “Mutar but against the spirit of Shabbat” might just influence some who are on the fence about texting on Shabbat that they should do it, when it really is prohibited.

  • Vincent Calabrese

    What does it mean to say that, one one hand, the values of Shabbat are subjective and Shabbat is ‘what we make it’, and on the other hand that we need to come up with strategies that will make the perceived need for the shabbos app a moot point?

    If Shabbat is a matter of self-defined subjective preferences it makes no sense to say that there’s anything wrong with the Shabbos app. It only makes sense to say that the Shabbos app is something to be resisted if Shabbat has a normative message which we do not define. If Shabbat is ‘what we make it’, then why exactly can’t I decide “For me, Shabbat is about creative transformation of the physical world and making lots of money” (i.e. exactly the opposite of what the Bible has to say about Shabbat)? Why, if Shabbat is ‘what we make it’, should there be any core of ‘basic Shabbat rules and rituals that must be included’?

    The shabbos app is not a symptom of a particularly new disease. People have always had difficulty taring themselves away from the rituals of secular life (Amos: “When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? and the sabbath, that we may set forth corn?”). I’m a digital native/mellinial person, but I still don’t really see why smartphones and computers are a cause for so much extra rachmanus around this.

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