Smartphones on Shabbos? How app-alling!
Smartphones on Shabbos? How app-alling!
Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard by now about the “Shabbos app,” scheduled to be released by early 2015 but which has already caused quite an uproar in the Jewish community.

Those of you who read my columns, know that I'm more of a political commentator and national security buff. I fear G-d and strive to keep His Law, but I don't see myself as a particularly religious man in the commonly used sense of the word. 

Therefore I'm normally content to leave the Torah commentary to the Torah scholars and stay within my own “daled amos,” as it were. Then something like this comes along, and try as I might, I simply cannot remain silent. So please, bear with me.

One good thing I can say about this Shabbos app is that I'll have the opportunity to feel makpid (i.e. stringent) in my observance for once—a rare treat for an easygoing “Modern Orthodox” type like me.

If it can deliver on the halakhically-compliant features it promises (and that's a very big “if”), the Shabbos app sounds like it could be just the thing for emergency use—perfect for Hatzalah volunteers, frum doctors, or even pregnant women and their husbands. (Quick question: Is it accurate to refer to Torah-observant orthopaedic surgeons as Orthodox ortho docs?) For all those who would technically be permitted to break Shabbos for the sake of saving a life, these workarounds could prevent them the aggravation of having to actually violate any laws. 

But for mundane everyday text messaging? It's just not Shabbosdik (in the Sabbath spirit), or as I like to say, “Shabbastic” (rhymes with “fantastic”). Is it theoretically possible that something like the Shabbos app could allow us to use our phones in a way that doesn't technically break any rules? Sure. And technically, I could leave my TV on all Friday night (or, better still, set it on a timer beforehand), and sit down to my favorite programs after kiddush and a nice dinner—but that doesn't mean I should!*

I don't think it's controversial to say that Torah Law is the essential core of Judaism. And there is such a thing as the letter of the Law, and the spirit of the Law. One who strives to follow the spirit of the Law while disregarding the letter of the Law is a fool (no offense to my Christian friends whose theology is largely based on the premise, baffling to Jews, that the former has somehow overcome and negated the latter—that is to say, the letter). Conversely, one who follows the letter of the Law without its spirit, is a hypocrite.

During this High Holiday season let us remember that the Jewish way of life is about acknowledging that G-d is the One in charge, and endeavoring to living our lives accordingly. Torah observance might not be an all-or-nothing proposition, but Torah acceptance absolutely is. To put it another way, we should all be in a constant state of teshuvah, in a never-ceasing quest to improve and bring ourselves closer to the Creator, may He be blessed.

But the minute someone decides that what Hashem has forbidden is somehow okay for them, that this time they are right and the Torah is wrong, he or she is no longer practicing Judaism. They're practicing Bob-ism, or Laura-ism, or Shmulie-ism.

The developers of the Shabbos app claim that some 50% of Orthodox Jewish teens use their smartphones on Shabbos. Alarming if true. But does that mean that the proper way to keep them from going “off the derech” entirely is to compromise the sanctity of Shabbos to accommodate whatever aberration is currently the “in” thing?

Bottom line: A kosher-for-Shabbos cell phone might be the lesser of two evils, but it's still an evil when used for in-app-ropriate purposes. (That's the last “app” pun, I promise!)

If viewing Shabbos as a day of rest, and an opportunity to unplug from the appliances that bind us in our day-to-day lives somehow makes a Jew backward or primitive (as I see some of the app's supporters implying, or declaring outright, on my Facebook feed), then by all means count me among the savages!

* It has been brought to my attention that the Gemara (Shabbat 18a) quotes Rava as ruling that it is prohibited to add wheat on Friday to a watermill that will run automatically on Shabbos, as the noise it would produce denigrates the Sabbath. Evidently some authorities have ruled based on this that leaving a television or radio on is forbidden. (One wonders how Rava would have reacted to a Shabbos afternoon stroll in my home town of New York City!) So yeah, please don't do this.
Daniel Perez is a freelance writer and media consultant based in New York City. He can be reached at Daniel@PerezConsulting.org.