By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have seen a lot of hoopla around a new app for cellphones called the “Shabbos App” for texting on Shabbat. The company website claims that they have resolved any halachic issues and its use does not constitute any defilement of the Shabbat. I have recently begun keeping the Shabbat myself, and this idea looks enticing to me, but at the same time sounds a little weird. I would rather not rely on what I see online and would like to know what you feel about this innovation; is it something I can feel comfortable using?
— Roslyn S.
You have touched a raw nerve in me; I have been deeply shaken up by this matter ever since it was first sent to me some weeks ago. I will try my best to verbalize the way I feel about this.
This issue needs to be reflected upon on multiple levels by competent authorities of Jewish Law. Firstly, the halachic or technical issues of Jewish Law which arise. The second issue which needs consideration is, assuming it passes all technical hurdles, if the use of this app measures up to the spirit of the law. Lastly, what are the ramifications toward the future? Are there valid grounds for concern that this new innovation could create a slippery slope which may result in the desecration of Shabbos sometime in the future?
Let it be said that the halachic authorities heartily welcome innovation and have no aversion to the utilization of new technology with regards to any area of halacha, providing it passes the above three specifications. My mentor, the esteemed Rav S.Z. Aurbach ob’m was widely acclaimed as the world’s foremost authority in the laws of Shabbat, medical halacha and most other areas of halacha in the last generation, and he was on the cutting edge of innovation in a vast number of areas of Jewish law. The IDF, as well as hospitals and other technology based entities throughout Israel, are in constant use of innovations which gained R’ Aurbach’s approval, in consultation with leading scientists and engineers.
I will offer you my humble opinion on the above three questions with regards to this app; my opinion has circulated in the other kollels of the U.S. and I have received the approbation of scholars throughout the country.
It is not within the purview of this column to discuss complicated Talmudic and halachic issues. Let it suffice to say that the creators of this app claim its permissibility based upon the opinion of my mentor, Rav Aurbach ob’m. This is in regards to the completion of a circuit on Shabbat; that it would not constitute a “temporary act of building.” I, personally, heard from R’ Aurbach a number of times that as a matter of practical halacha he considered the completion of a circuit to be considered an act of building. Under the halachic guidelines which define that “melacha,” or category of creative activity on the Shabbat, to complete a circuit is to create a working unit which did not exist previously. This is with regards to the use of electricity in a situation where it would not constitute lighting a fire; even so the completion of an electric circuit is its own issue. Therefore, I disagree with the authors and consider it a distortion of the truth to connect R’ Aurbach’s name to allow this. Other issues involved would need more space to discuss.
The second issue is with regard to the spirit of the law of Shabbat. Many activities, which are technically permitted on Shabbat, were forbidden by the sages under the category of “mundane activities.” Shabbat is a day which was given to us by the Al-mighty to immerse ourselves in spirituality and holiness. For that, we need to “disconnect” from our normal weekday activities. In the Shabbat songs we proclaim Shabbat as “mi’ein olam haba,” a miniature of the “next world.” This tells us that Shabbat is not something we just do or perform like most mitzvot. Shabbat is a world we enter; by stepping out of this world and climbing up into the next corridor, into the gates opened by Shabbat. As long as we hold onto that which keeps us connected to all that we are used to, through physical connectedness and can’t let go of that connection, we will never be able to immerse ourselves in the otherworldly space of Shabbat.
Lastly, with regards to these types of innovations, I heard R’ Aurbach proclaim that such things will undoubtedly lead to an eventual destruction of our observance. We are all, unfortunately, well-informed as to the widespread addiction that so many, especially young people, have to their cell phones and texting. This innovation is clearly looking for a loophole to continue this behavior into the Shabbat, sending a subtle, (or not so subtle) message that this technology trumps all, even the holiness of Shabbat, and we begin to slip down the slope to oblivion. And I proclaim to the authors of this app: Leave our Shabbat alone! It has protected us for thousands of years, don’t tamper with it and transform it into some new-fangled expression of modern technology. It is in the merit of Shabbat kept properly that we will be redeemed from our exile; let it be soon!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.