Just A Thought: On the Shabbos App

By connecting to the Internet on Shabbat, the writer says, we will in effect be disconnecting from our Shabbat communities.

No laptop (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
No laptop
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
My students, 18- to 19-year-olds from North America spending their gap year here in Israel, were very excited to share news of the “Shabbos App” with me.
While society has been talking about the growing addiction both adults and teenagers share to their smartphones, in the Modern Orthodox world this has spilled over into the issue of their use on Shabbat. Claiming a mental/emotional inability to disconnect, some students keep what they call “Half-Shabbat,” which means they keep most of the observances of Shabbat in an Orthodox manner, but will use their phone to text on Shabbat.
It seems that from an anecdotal survey I conducted with my students, about a third to 50 percent of them keep this Half-Shabbat. Even if these numbers are exaggerated, which I hope they are (but suspect they aren’t), they testify to a real problem of Shabbat observance among our youth.
What can account for this? I think at least part of the issue is that unlike turning on the light or watching TV/using the computer, one can easily text and check social media and “not get caught.” The phone is kept under a pillow, leaving no light or sound or large screen as evidence to one’s parents they are not keeping Shabbat.
The other part of it is, of course, our society’s addiction to social media. We suffer from what the younger generation calls FOMO, fear of missing out, afraid we will miss something if we are not constantly checking each other’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. These kids are quite literally the very first generation in human history to grow up with Internet and cellphones from birth, and simply cannot disconnect from them. For them, the smartphone serves as an invisible umbilical cord.
The Shabbos App attempts to solve this issue. Through ingenious stretching of halachic loopholes, what the app does is put the phone in a mode which, if used on Shabbat, would supposedly not violate Shabbat.
Such examples include muting the phone so no sound is made, a choice of listed completed words to type from (as writing is “only” prohibited if one writes a word, letter by letter) and turning the screen upside-down to circumvent the prohibition of uvda d’hol, doing things on Shabbat in the manner they are done during the week.
The website and video are quite clever, but I have no doubt this is a hoax. (Even the website recognizes how preposterous such an app would be, specifically addressing the issue in a FAQ and answering that it is not a hoax. Methinks the lady doth protest too much!) The website claims to have approbations from leading rabbis, but none actually appear.
The problem with the app, though, isn’t its existence. In fact, if such an app did exist and did meet all of the halachic standards, it would be great for healthcare workers, the military and others for whom the sanctity of the Shabbat is important and want to minimize its desecration (if one can, in fact, call dealing with lifesaving operations a desecration).
Yet to let the app be used by the vast majority of Shabbat-observant Jews would be an anathema that would change the very nature of Shabbat, and make it virtually unrecognizable. The argument I am making is not halachic, but practical.
The Zomet institute has already put out a plethora of electric devices that through halachic loopholes (for lack of a better word), allow people with special needs to participate in the community and still not violate Shabbat. Let’s take the example of someone for whom walking is very difficult. In many neighborhoods, there are Jews who use a little electric buggy on Shabbat to go to shul or visit friends. One might make the argument that there is no pikuah nefesh, lifesaving reason, and therefore we should say to them: “Stay home! Why should Shabbat be violated just to let you attend shul, or visit a friend for that matter?” Yet there is the strong sense that if there is a halachic way to enable them to use electric buggies, this will enhance their Shabbat and keep them from being shut-ins for 25 hours.
The use of smartphones on Shabbat will not enhance the day, but will bring its very ruin! One of the biggest mistakes that Conservative Judaism made was permitting the use of the automobile on Shabbat. In the middle of the 20th century, the suburbs in America grew ever larger, and more and more American Jews moved to communities that did not have a synagogue.
The Conservative Movement, fearing these Jews would be lost forever in the suburban sprawl, decided to allow the use of the car to go to and from shul. Not only did this fail to keep American Jewry engaged with their synagogues, but it failed because use of vehicles was not limited to shul alone, but included baseball practice and birthday parties. The unintended consequence of this permission was the Conservative Movement’s inability to create Shabbat communities.
Orthodox Jews, refraining from the use of automobiles, naturally tended to live within walking distance of synagogues; this ensured the creation of Shabbat communities.
Orthodox Jews pay a premium in the real-estate market of tens of thousands of dollars to make sure their home is within that distance. The concentration of so many Orthodox Jews living within walking distance of each other, married to the inability to phone each other on Shabbat, encouraged families to walk over and drop by for impromptu visits, and reinforce the bonds created by seeing each other in synagogue every week or even every day.
What the Shabbos App threatens to do is eradicate the very nature of Shabbat. Over 800 years ago, Maimonides wrote that certain things are prohibited on Shabbat even though they are not one of the prohibited labors. They are prohibited because they turn the day into something mundane, and take away from the unique nature of Shabbat. One is not allowed to even walk or dress in the weekday manner on Shabbat for this very reason.
The use of smartphones is not something missing from our Shabbat experience; in fact, their absence is the very essence of Shabbat. By connecting to the Internet on Shabbat, we will in effect be disconnecting from our Shabbat communities. We will no longer be able to drop by our friends unannounced, because the etiquette will not allow it when one can easily call beforehand. We will not even have the time to stop by, because we will be catching up on email and other work the Shabbos App will permit us to do.
This does not solve the problem of our teens observing only Half-Shabbat. But there is no doubt the Shabbos App is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.