App lets Jewish kids text on Sabbath – and stay in the fold

The ‘Shabbos App’ is generating controversy in the Jewish community — and a monumental on-line discussion of Jewish law

Screenshot of what the Shabbos App looks like (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Screenshot of what the Shabbos App looks like (Photo credit: Courtesy)

One of the hallmarks of Orthodox Jewish Sabbath observance is facing a serious challenge. Creators of a new app claim it will allow observant Jews to use their smartphones to text others on Shabbat. The Shabbos App, said one of its developers, Yossi Goldstein, follows halacha (Jewish law), and is based on principles that are well known to all students of the Talmud and other legal tomes.

“A lot of people are stuck in an old-fashioned mentality, that what was is what will always be,” Goldstein told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “There are plenty of other technology-oriented devices out there that allow users to perform functions that most people think are ‘assur’ — forbidden — but are really ‘mutar’ — permissible.”

Most people — even non-Jews — “know” that Orthodox Jews are forbidden to turn on lights, ride or drive in a car, press an elevator button, or even carry items outdoors in areas where there is no “eruv,” the fictitious neighborhood boundary that has sparked controversy in communities in the US and Israel. But those who really know Jewish law, insisted Goldstein, understand that many of the practices Orthodox Jews follow are not really “core halacha” — the bottom-line must-do-or-don’t laws — but “chumros,” extra practices that perhaps make people feel more “religious,” but Goldstein insists they are actually doing religion — and religious Jews — a disservice.

Most Orthodox rabbis — and Orthodox Jews, for that matter — don’t distinguish between the two types of strictures, arguing that they make up a package deal of practices that define Jewish life, especially on the Sabbath. Liberal streams of Judaism reject many of these limitations, but not all of them.

Goldstein maintains it’s the distinction between what is really permissible under Jewish law, as opposed to what people think is not allowed, that is at the heart of the work behind the Shabbos app. “Already, half the kids in the Orthodox community (in the US) are using their smartphones to text on the Sabbath,” Goldstein said. “They think they are ‘getting away’ with something, but what they don’t know is that the halacha is flexible enough to allow that behavior.” If they believe they are sinning when it comes to a cardinal Jewish value like the Sabbath, it will make it easier for them to sin in an area where there really is no halachic leeway — like eating non-kosher, he warned.

“We don’t want to lose a generation in the Orthodox community because its leaders are afraid to embrace the kind of change that is within the norms of Jewish law, and has been historically acceptable,” said Goldstein. “That’s why we developed the app, which allows these kids to use their smartphone in a way that keeps them within the fold of observant Jews, by conforming to halacha.”

The legal and legalistic issues involved in the app are clear, if a bit involved. All are explained on the app’s KickStarter page, where the group of 10 programmers, led by California resident Yitz Appel, are seeking to raise money to complete development and begin marketing the app. According to the site, it will be ready in February. The site describes how the app deals with the halachic issues involving writing (they are not all applicable to electronic writing that is not permanent), battery usage (as with an air conditioner, the app keeps the battery running at a set temperature that will not rise when the user enters text), and electrical charging (electricity, according to nearly all halachic decisors of the last century, is not subject to the Biblical laws against lighting fires on the Sabbath), among others. According to Goldstein, the app has lined up a number of rabbis who are prepared to give their approval to the app.

Shabbos app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Shabbos app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Some of them, he said, may be the same ones (or of the same mindset, at least) who gave approval to another Shabbat-oriented tech product — the KosherSwitch, which, its maker says, allows users to effectively turn lights and other appliances on and off on Shabbat on-demand (as opposed to using a timer, which automatically turns lights on or off at a predetermined time). Among those giving their approval, the KosherSwitch site says, is Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, the author of Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa (Keeping the Sabbath according to Jewish Law), a seminal work on how the laws of the Sabbath are to be practiced in the modern era.

The controversy swirls. “I know of at least one case in which a well-respected rabbi gave his approval for this device, but then partially retracted it, later saying that it could only be used in the case of medical or security emergency,” Goldstein said. The change in attitude came after the rabbi was savaged in his home community. “We realize the same thing is likely to happen to rabbis who approve the Shabbos app as well, so we expect that most of those who will be willing to go on the record will be members of the ‘left’ side of Orthodoxy.”

The app, naturally, has generated loud on-line arguments (there’s already a ‘ban the Shabbos App’ Facebook page) with those for and against weighing in on its Facebook and KickStarter pages. Among the anti-comments: “As an Orthodox teen I can confidently say your supposed statistic that 50% of teens text on Shabbos is completely false;” “From what I can see right now, your true intentions seem to be the latter (creating an environment where EVERYONE uses their phone on Shabbos, including non-teenagers who don beards, suits, and hats, as portrayed in the video). I’m not buying your ‘save the teenagers’ front that you put on in these comments;” “PLEASE drop this. Shabbos is a beautiful day of rest why take that away? Jews have not kept Shabbos for 2,000 years, Shabbos has kept the Jews.”

One of those opposed to the app is Rabbi Yair Spitz, principal of Jewish studies and interim head of school at B’nei Akiva Schools, which include Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot. On the KickStarter page, Rabbi Spitz called the “the foundational logic of the app false and very disturbing.” Besides the many halachic issues involved, he wrote, “throughout history our rabbis made sure to maintain the unique distinction between Shabbat and weekdays, making sure that during Shabbat people not only not create but also not be engaged — in action or thought — in weekday endeavors. I can think of fewer things that would empty Shabbat from all that is beautiful about it. Think of the quiet of Shabbat, the quality time with family and friends, the Shabbat meals and songs. How much of that would continue if cell phones – the instrument which most isolates us from our immediate surroundings – were permitted on Shabbat?”

Goldstein sees it differently. What it boils down to, he insists, is not halacha — but “hashkafa,” broadly defined as the accepted Orthodox outlook on the world. There are many contradictions between halacha and hashkafa. “For example, if you were to ask someone from a ‘real yeshiva’ (i.e., a Brooklyn-style ‘black hat’ institution) why they use timers when Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986 and acknowledged as the foremost halachic authority in North America) said they were not allowed, they will give you some vague excuse about how life would be too difficult without them. But other difficult things, like the ‘eruv’ in Brooklyn, which are also difficult to live with, they do abide by.”

Shabbos app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Shabbos app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The reason why one prohibition is relaxed while another is enforced is related to hashkafa, habit, or other issues — but not halacha, said Goldstein. “We realize that many people have a perspective on how the Sabbath is to be celebrated and observed. But we have to realize that we are losing members of the community just because we want to stay in our comfort zone. As a community, we can’t allow that to happen. I don’t expect those who disagree with our viewpoint to use this app, but I do want a halachically valid method for kids who are going to text anyway to do so and remain a part of the community.”

There is a precedent for change in the laws of Sabbath observance, according to Rabbi Steve Bar-Yaakov Gindi, an American oleh and longtime rabbi (he studied at a well-known Jerusalem Old City yeshiva) who received ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and administers a Jewish educational website. “Rabbis need to be careful in what they permit and forbid,” said Gindi. “I have friends who totally left religion who started out by saying that using computers could not have been forbidden by the rabbis, because they had no computers in those days, and today’s rabbis don’t have the power to forbid new things. They’re right, to an extent. In my experience, the older generation in America ALWAYS left their television sets on with a timer, so they could watch on Shabbat, although they didn’t change the channel.

“Today, there are security cameras everywhere, and no rabbis forbid walking in front of them. That is a good example of how halacha has adjusted, in a perfectly legitimate way, to answer the needs of society using a new technology. To my mind,” said Gindi, “this is very similar.”

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