Texting on Shabbos!
Rabbis have been arguing, writing, blogging, and preaching from the pulpit on this topic since the Shabbos App was first announced.
According to the developers, YidTec, Inc., which is really a division of The Company Corporation, incorporated in Delaware on October 6, the technical changes they’ve made make this App compatible with Smartphones in such a way that it would not violate the finer points of the law. Another claim they make is that since kids are texting anyway on Shabbos, use of this App will make it halachic.
They argue that the phone must be held upside down, a different manner than it would be held during the weekdays; a different keyboard is used, with 120 complete words instead of letters; sounds are disabled; the app forces the LED backlight to stay on all Shabbos; and when the App is activated all other phone functions would be disabled.
Also, it is argued that electricity is not fire, and therefore allowed, another concept that has been debated since electricity came into common use.
According to Popular Mechanics, the Shabbos App will keep the smartphone’s screen on during the entire Sabbath, which avoids turning the screen on and off, will have an option that can delete text so no permanent characters are created, and will have an indicator that alerts users when they can connect their phones to a charger without initiating a charging action, because completing an electrical circuit on the Sabbath is forbidden.
Yossi Goldstein, one of the developers, said it’s based on principles that are well known to all students of the Talmud and other legal tomes. “A lot of people are stuck in an old-fashioned mentality that what was is what will always be,” Goldstein told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “There are plenty of other technology-oriented devices out there that allow users to perform functions that most people think are ‘assur’–forbidden–but are really ‘mutar’–permissible.”
Goldstein’s claim is that people are already texting on Shabbos so this makes it halachic, which is kind of the same as saying that if smoking on Shabbos were legal it wouldn’t be harmful.
These opinions are not universally shared.
Some rabbis think the whole thing is a hoax, such as Rabbi Yaakov Menken, Director of Project Genesis-Torah.org. “Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on…what, precisely, I’m not sure–probably that we care about the (traditional) Sabbath at all, and are distressed by those teens in some communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Jewish Law.”
Another rabbi who thinks the whole thing is not real is Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. “I think it’s a hoax,” he said. “I think it’s a factual hoax and I think it’s a halachic hoax. The claims that are being made are not technologically possible. They’re just playing a game. I don’t believe it’s real, and I don’t believe that it can be real.”
Asked if it were technologically possible, would he believe that it could be halachic, Rabbi Pruzansky said, no it can’t. “They relied on a series of leniencies and halachic opinions that are minority opinions, not majority opinions. You could permit any number of acts according to Jewish law if you just string together lenient opinions that are not accepted. That’s why I think it’s a hoax.”
However, other rabbis think it is real but not necessarily any more permissible. In fact, except for the approval the developers claim to have received from rabbis they refuse to name, Internet searching could not find any rabbi who had approved of the technological advancement.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, said it’s a good thing to look at these issues and revisit the idea of using electricity on Shabbat. However, that only addressed part of the technical side of what is and is not permitted–activities involving creation or exercise of control over the environment.
“But there’s a broader issue of the atmosphere of Shabbat that we try to create that is as critical and that really guides us. I feel that there’s a real consensus among both Shabbat observers and halachic authorities that the atmosphere of Shabbat is about not being involved in electronic things, in emails and in texting. It’s really about communicating with the people who are around you, face to face in the community.”
Regardless of the technical or spiritual pros or cons of the Shabbos App, JLBC asked Lopatin, what if the phone or texting were the only way people who are isolated from a community, either by circumstance or design, have to communicate, would this be halachically permissible?
Lopatin said that if this were the case the communities have to do a much better job of making sure that people have real people to connect with, and that they have ways of getting to the synagogue, either helping them walk or using a mobility vehicle. (The Zomet Institute in Israel has found a way to modify scooters to be permissible. Each scooter has a sign that states, “This is a specially modified Shabbos Amigo Scooter designed and authorized by The Zomet Institute-Israel”). “But that’s a way of getting a person to come to synagogue to really be connected to people.”
He said that if a person is a shut-in, then it’s the obligation of the community to make sure there are people who are going to visit him/her.
On the other hand, Lopatin said, for safety reasons or for some medical reason, this is a great advancement, “to have a device that violates Shabbat as little as possible and still takes care of your health.” Even performing the mitzvah of visiting a sick person should not be done by using a phone because the idea is to connect in person, be physically present to properly perform the mitzvah.
“Even if the rabbis find this is technically permissible, it really pushes us to fight for that personal connection that we can make on Shabbos and the freedom from the impersonal ways of communicating.”
Keeping Shabbos holy was more the issue, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America. “The app isn’t a hoax, but it is a farce, in the sense that it doesn’t change the fact that using a device to text on Shabbat is forbidden. Whether or not it renders the serious prohibitions involved less serious, as the creators of the app claim it does, is doubtful and irrelevant. The way to deal with young people who are not sufficiently sensitive to the importance of the Jewish Sabbath is to educate them better about it, not seek to accommodate their nonchalance about the day’s holiness.”
By Anne Phyllis Pinzow