Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Computer Use on Shabbat

This post has nothing to do with Lotus or IBM. It does have to do with computers and technology and a different view of making use of them. Do not take my references to religious guidelines as fact for the beauty of Judaism is much of it is open to discussion.

The Jewish Press
arrived today, better late than never after last week's snow but we usually get it after the weekend.

In the 12/31 issue on Page 10 are 2 articles of interest.

The first is a reprinted article from June 2009 which is available online and titled "IDF (Rabinate) Developing Shabbat-Friendly Keyboard, Computer Screen".

The second, which is available online from the Jerusalem Post, is titled "Siddur Going Digital, But Not For Shabbat"

The first article is about צהל or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) trying to come up with a way for a computer, among other items, to be used on Shabbat. There are whole sections of the Israeli army that are full of Shabbat observant people and this is not an easy issue to grapple with for some of them. It should be noted that in case of danger to one's life or others they can break Shabbat, "normal" times on base or in the field pose other questions.

While I can not debate all the halachic(religious legal reasoning) reasoning, suffice it to say that there are in effect boundaries that can be leveraged for these situations. It is not to say that just anyone can use them, although some may argue to do so, but these are for specific circumstances and go talk to your Rabbi or Rav if you have questions. Many are on Twitter by the way should anyone be interested.

Now what is of interest to note, especially in the 2nd article, is Artscroll, the leader in Judaica print houses, will not put their Shabbat siddurim and Chag machzorim in digital print...for now. The reason is:

But ArtScroll’s most popular books - its Shabbat and High Holidays prayerbooks -- will not be coming out for e-readers like the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle. The reason?
The Shabbat prohibition against using electronic devices is a major barrier.
“The vision of people coming to shul on Shabbat with their e-siddur just doesn’t cut it,” Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, president of the Orthodox-run publishing house, told JTA.

The view Artscroll is taking is deliberate and probably appropriate for the time being. One should not cause another to break the laws of Shabbat, no matter whether you argue there are Torah laws or Rabbinic in nature.

If, for example, an iPad or similar device could be designed in a way that could conform to halachic standards, would it be "in the spirit of Shabbat"? This is an altogether different issue.

One can watch TV on Shabbat or listen to the radio, but not change channels or volume or do anything else with it, is it in the spirit of Shabbat? Are discussions about work or anything not to do with Shabbat acceptable or not?

It is not an easy discussion to have.

While many in the print publishing world say everything is going digital, there is still a percentage of people who love the feel of a book in hand. Or for religious reasons can not or will not use the electronic devices. For many it is not an issue, and never will be. Personally I enjoy not knowing what is on or happening anywhere or if there are problems at work for 25 hours a week. It is also a time when I can catch up with my reading.

To close with a media related societal reference, in the "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan " movie, Spock gives Kirk an antique copy of a Dickens classic, "A Tale of Two Cities", as a birthday present and proceeds to read it after a brief dialog.

KIRK: Oh, by the way, thank you for this.
SPOCK: I know of your fondness for antiques.

I guess life just may imitate art...someday.


  1. Interesting post, Keith. My wife uses e-sword at times (even in church) as a means to carry around a bookshelf worth of commentaries and translations in her pocket. One might argue observance is enhanced in the case where otherwise bulky material can be condensed to a more portable format. Certainly it would be easier to have a holy text available while in the field if it all fit on a small PDA.

    I like what Jesus Christ said, though, best in situations like this. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." For a Christian, this makes it a much easier thing - observe because it's the right thing to do. If you need to take care of a small part of business in the midst of this (like starting up your iPad) are you violating God's law? Seems not, but I suppose it depends on how orthodox one is.

    I think the crux of the issue is whether one wishes to ascribe sanctification to a printed text while withholding it from an electronic version that has a different means of flipping pages. It's God's inspired Word. It's as valuable and sacred as printed as when spoken by a preacher, teacher or Rabbi.

    However, the Luddite in me worries terribly that allowing a flood of new ways means older (more reliable?) ways will be forgotten and lost.

  2. I find it ironic that people still follow "rules" written thousands of years ago as if they are relevant today.

  3. Roy, what part of thou shalt not kill, which by the way predates judaisim, don't you think is relevant? Hammurabi had some right didn't he?

  4. Jerry, Never said they couldn't or can't do it, in fact many prayer books, talmud and other texts are available online and for phones/ipads etc..
    The choice of not doing it, however, for religious reasons is interesting.
    I know its not always easy for people to understand, but orthodox Jewish people really do not use(physically touch, turn on/off, etc.) electronic devices. In fact there are arguments still about refrigerators, hot water tanks and other near necessities of existence in a house.
    The Torah or Old Testament, Exodus 20:10 says (basic translation here): but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.

    So no, working on the Sabbath is prohibited. There are exceptions, generally for medical reasons.

    I have used, many years ago, an excellent Palm app(remember the palm pilot) to pray and it in no way takes away from the experience. For me. Others prefer a book, still others repeat from memory.

    There happens to be some excellent Firefox plugins to search hebrew texts which I have used at times, so the ancient traditions and texts live quite well in the modern age. Just not on the Sabbath for me digitally.

    Old ways are never forgotten, but sometimes parts of them do fade away.

  5. Hi Keith...nice post. In the last couple of months, I've been seeing references to the concept of 'half-shabbos'. Here's an entry point into the discussion:

  6. Stuart, Our Rabbi, Rabbi Goldberg discussed this texting on shabbat a few months back. Not in such depth but have not heard the term half shabbat. Odd, but then as it points out, is selecting your socks not allowed either? Decisions, decisions.

  7. Hi Keith,

    I think the crux of it comes down to the difference between legalism and worship. Granted, it's hard for me to relate, not being Jewish, but that seems to be the essence of the discussion. If I make my focus the worship and communion with God, texting, putting on socks, driving to temple or church... setting aside the day is setting it aside and I guess individual flexibility in that regard depends on ones relationship to and understanding of God: whether more graceful or more jealous.

    In either case, thanks for discussing this as it helps me know other faithful more fully.

    Warmest regards,


  8. Jerry,
    I am always happy to talk to people about this, but best to do via voice as it is an interactive discussion.
    email me or skype me anytime.
    I like your idea, as does a whole segment of Judaism, just not the orthodox side which believes following the guidelines is how one gets to have the conversation in the first place.
    I don't personally see it that way, and do feel more along your thoughts that its a conversation between me and God.