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The Tragic Lesson of the Shabbos App

After days of discussing the Shabbos App — the new technology that claims to allow you to use your iPhone on Shabbat without breaking any Jewish laws — someone finally asked me a question that cut to the core of the 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. 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. 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.

This piece originally appeared on Eliyahu Fink’s personal blog.


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