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The Shabbos App

Nisht shver tzu zine a yid” - “it is not bad to be a Jew.” This is the motto of the Shabbos App, which sparked controversy after news of its imminent release hit the internet last month. The Shabbos App purports to allow the user to use their cell phone, albeit in a limited fashion during Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. A user would supposedly be able to send messages to other Shabbos App users, while still observing Shabbos. The app developers claim to have subverted the halachic problems that one runs into when using a cell phone, namely the prohibition of writing, making electronic sounds, and doing actions on the Shabbos that are similar to the weekday, by using specific workarounds to allow one to use their cell phone on Shabbos without breaking Jewish laws.

Unfortunately, the developers of the Shabbos App have missed some important details. One Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, wrote in a public email distributed by members of his morning shiur, that according to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, probably the most lenient rabbinic opinion in this area, the use of electricity is clearly not allowed on shabbos. Rabbi Wieder paraphrases Rabbi Auerbach in Minchas Shlomo 1:9, “The use of electricity may be preferable to things that are clearly prohibited by the rabbis, but make no mistake - the Jewish people follow the opinions of earlier authorities who said that using electricity on Shabbos is prohibited.” Therefore, according to Rabbi Auerbach, Rabbi Wieder, and other RIETS Roshei Yeshiva that were consulted, the Shabbos App would not be allowed in any circumstances on Shabbos.

Although the Shabbos App does not work according to the halachic framework, it still raises some interesting questions. One of the main reasons the creators claim that there is a need for the app is due to the fact that there are currently people in the religious community who observe what has been coined as “half Shabbos.” This is where people follows most of the laws of Shabbos, but do not follow laws that they find too cumbersome, or difficult. This behavior is most prevalent among Jewish teenagers, who claim that it is too hard to stop texting on Shabbos. “It’s almost a problem of addiction,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth group who was interviewed regarding the “half Shabbos” issue by The Jewish Week. Perhaps finding a way for teens to use their phones on Shabbos would be beneficial, some argue, since other attempts to halt such forbidden use have largely been met with failure.

The answer to this conundrum can be found by contrasting two cases in Jewish law. One case is where one is liable to pay tithes on their produce once it has gone through the gate of the field. Instead of paying their tithes, many people simply brought their produce out of their fields without using the gate, like throwing the crops over the fence. The rabbis of the Gemara looked at this behavior in a pejorative manner, because it caused the Kohanim and the Levim to lose their livelihood. On the other hand, the rabbis permitted selling leavened bread on Passover to a non-Jew, and then buying it back once the holiday was over. This was in order to save Jews from the great monetary losses that they would incur by having to throw away all of their leavened bread. Although selling leavened bread - knowing beforehand that you are going to buy it back after the holiday - seems to go against the spirit of the law, the rabbis thought it was necessary for the Jewish community.

What is the difference between the case of the tithes and the case of the leavened bread? Clearly, the difference is the reason for the action. In the case of the tithes, people were acting purely out of greed. Additionally they were taking away the livelihood that their fellow Jews rightly deserved. In the Passover example however, the reason that the rabbis subverted the spirit of the law was in order to prevent people from annually losing large amounts of money. When it comes to the Shabbos App, most should do not see a large justifiable need like in the case of Passover. This is a problem that affects a group of teenagers, hardly representative of the entire Jewish population, who seemingly do not value and appreciate the Shabbos and its protective laws. The answer to this problem is not to try and deal with the problems by creating technological workarounds fraught with questionable halachic validity, but rather to work to instill within Jewish youth a greater love and appreciation for the sanctity of Shabbos.