A few weeks ago, the New York-based Jewish Week reported on what it described as the growing trend among Modern Orthodox youth to text on Shabbat. And so, we decided to ask Connecticut rabbis to give us their thoughts about texting on Shabbat. Here’s what a few had to say:
Rabbi Yossi Pollak
Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk
The recent article about Modern Orthodox youth using their cellphones to text on Shabbat is saddening for a few reasons, though not necessarily surprising. While I view texting to be a definite prohibition, I understand that there are some halachic positions on electricity which might make it more acceptable (although I think those opinions would not apply to this case, as texting should also probably be viewed as writing, which is its own prohibition). More importantly, this phenomenon shows an obsession with the technical details of Shabbat, without any thought about the spirit of Shabbat. Even if I did not believe texting to be halachically forbidden, I would still believe that texting violates the spirit of Shabbat.
Shabbat is meant to be a time when, among other values, we emphasize our human and divine interactions on a deep personal level, which is one of the reasons that we avoid interacting with technology on Shabbat. Texting allows people to “communicate” with others without personal interaction, without the experience of seeing a person’s reactions, hearing their voice, or engaging them as another being who is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. Instead it reduces our communication to 160 character bursts, barely enough to write a complete sentence, and certainly not enough to convey emotion or a real connection. Imagine trying to send a text message to G-d…could I really convey my hopes, dreams and prayers in 160 characters? (OMG just doesn’t cut it.) I personally value Shabbat as the time I have to spend with family and friends, sharing meals and time and the experiences of the past week.
In our synagogue, most of our members are not traditionally observant, so the technical restrictions of Shabbat are not necessarily relevant or meaningful to all of them. However, what is very meaningful to many of our members is the idea of “unplugging” on Shabbat, of setting aside time to avoid the fast-paced world of technology, and spend time on Shabbat interacting with family, friends, G-d, and nature.
To me, texting violates that spirit, regardless of whether it is halachically permissible or not. Our job as rabbis and parents is to inspire these youth to find a way to experience Shabbat that is more in line with this spirit, and to avoid the boredom that might accompany the Shabbat experience for many of these youths.
Rabbi Richard Plavin
Temple Beth Sholom B’nai Israel
The sad aspect of this issue is how addicted we have all become to our various media. It emphasizes in a significant way how important it is for us to unplug each week on Shabbat, if for no other reason then just to prove to ourselves that we can.
That is the real meaning of freedom on Shabbat.
Of course, whether it is permitted is a no-brainer. Texting is forbidden because it is included in one of the 39 forbidden labors, namely, K’tivah (writing.) Like any other forbidden labor, when life is in danger it is not only permitted but mandatory.
I have not brought this issue up with my congregation, but I have certainly often spoken about the importance and significance of keeping Shabbat.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Beth David Synagogue
Texting on Shabbat, how sad — but not totally surprising. Social pressure and social acceptance is a relative challenge at every stage of life beyond infancy. One of life’s most difficult balancing acts is finding harmony between what we know to be right versus what might be expected of us by our peers, or how we might be drawn astray by our own inner desires and inclinations.
Texting on Shabbat might seem or appear to be a problem limited to the traditionally observant community; but in truth, it is indicative of a more ubiquitous and potentially troublesome condition. How do our youth spend their time? What are they thinking and what do they value? Shabbat is but one day. To truly appreciate the depths of the problem (dare it be called an addiction?) we need to multiply by seven.
Earlier this year, there was a campaign to get teens to let go of technology for one day. One day! It was called the “National Day of Unplugging”. In essence, teens (and plugged in adults of all ages) were asked to avoid cell phones, Internet and cable television for 24 hours; it was not an exclusively Jewish campaign though it ran from a Friday evening through Saturday night. Participants were asked to use the time to commit to 10 principles ranging from finding silence to giving back, from avoiding technology to nurturing good health. If the campaign is repeated, it would be a worthy project to be embraced in our community.
Old time religion might not be in vogue beyond the regions of the United States referred to as the Bible belt, but traditional Judaism has always had important messages that transcend geography and generations. Setting aside time one day a week to focus on family, on community, on personal tranquility (and yes, on God) has always been a good idea. In contemporary terms, allowing cell phones and computers to rest on Shabbat is good for their owners and operators. It allows humans to be human. Untethering ourselves from keyboards and thumb pads helps us to find the time to reconnect with our inner souls, with the people we love, and with the God who loves us.
If teens are leaning on technology too much, like with everything else of value, the “tikkun” should ideally begin at home. Rabbis can teach, but parents should be the primary role models. Schools can educate, but homes should be the laboratories where the lessons are applied. Every Jewish home can afford to turn off the television and the cell phones long enough for families to share in a Shabbat dinner.
The irony is profound – technology has made it easier than ever before to be religiously observant and spiritually connected; yet, it is that very technology that is a culprit in fostering chasms in families and fomenting crises in relationships. Yes, texting is a clear violation of Shabbat, as Shabbat is interpreted by orthodox protocols. Still, I would like to think that the discipline to refrain from texting on Shabbat would be an initiative embraced and supported by the rabbis of all of our movements. The oldest of text messages is sacred texts, Torah texts and the messages in those texts. Asking people to abandon technology over Shabbat might create unexpected vacuums in their lives. Giving Torah a chance to fill those gaps might be the best text of all.