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Shabbat in The Age of Technology

Every day, thou shalt use iPods and cell phones. But on one day, no iPod shall rise upon thy face and thou shalt surely place no cell phone beside thy ear.

With the exponential increase in all sorts of media in the so-called digital era, Shabbat observance today demands far more abstinence than simply ignoring a ringing phone. Has the Sabbath, in its modern prohibitions against computers, cell phones and iPods, changed substantially from its biblical day free of stick gathering and animal-skin dyeing? Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?

However tough, observant Jews endure a sense of isolation from the modern world 25 hours a week — every week. And many cite advantages: peace, family time and a slower pace.

Jewish outreach organizations describe similar incentives. Aish HaTorah’s Web site calls Shabbat the “one final parcel of absolute and unconditional silence” in an “era of Blackberries and Bluetooths,” where peace and quiet are “basically extinct.” Chabad’s Web site compares Shabbat to “an island of tranquility in the maelstrom of work, anxiety, struggle and tribulation that characterizes our daily lives for the other six days of the week.”

But many question whether modern-day incentives are even relevant to Shabbat observance. Responding to the sorts of arguments expressed on the organizations’ Web sites “not as a psychiatrist, but simply as an observant Jew,” Paul Appelbaum, director of the psychiatry, law and ethics division at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons psychiatry department, said, “I think it is a mistake to rely on instrumental arguments for observance of the Sabbath or any of the other mitzvot.” Instead, Shabbat should be based on belief in a divinely ordained commandment, he said.

Earlier this year, students in Danna Walker’s “Understanding Mass Media” class at American University in Washington, D.C., participated in a unique project that, for many, required great discipline and restraint. Their assignment: No technology for 24 hours.

Over e-mail, Walker, who is not Jewish, said Shabbat never figured into her project concept, though many readers later mentioned it. “I wish it were a tradition in many other religions,” she said. “It is a great way to find peace.”

Walker recounted the experiment in “The Longest Day,” an article that ran August 5 in The Washington Post. Student responses cited in the article ranged from “How are cellphones media?” to “Can we eat?” One student later recalled “the grueling pain that was the 24-hour, e-media fast,” and another, “complete isolation… one of the toughest days I have had to endure.”

According to Walker’s assignment, students were not as restricted as Shabbat observers and could use alarm clocks, manual typewriters and megaphones (no microphones). Still, Sara Blatchly, who took Walker’s course, was initially doubtful that she could complete the task. As a practicing Presbyterian, Blatchly sees a “religious connotation” to the assignment, though she admits skipping chocolate during Lent requires less willpower than Internet abstinence. “I’m not sure if I would be able to give up going online for a week, just for the sake of giving it up,” she said.

Later, many of Walker’s students noted that they did discover the advantages of the peace and quiet afforded by a technology fast.

Several bloggers responded to Walker’s story. Jocelyn McCabe of the Association of Washington School Principals introduced her post on the AWSP blog, “And you thought Gilligan had it rough.” Another blogger compared students’ reliance on media to drug addiction (Appelbaum disputes the term’s appropriateness, though Blatchly used it). Carla Rolfe, who blogs on “doctrine, theology, parenting, tulips… life,” responded to one of Walker’s students, who said, “we can’t deal with silence anymore.”

“When someone is afraid of silence, it’s often because it forces them to think about things they are normally able to avoid through external stimulation or distraction,” Rolfe wrote. “As a Christian, it’s impossible for me to read this comment and not think of the message here: Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).”

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on religion and the arts at Iconia.canonist.com, is based in Washington, D.C.

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