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The Shabbos App: Totally Unnecessary

October 12, 2014

Question: What do you think of the Shabbos App?

Answer: Like Rabbi Menken, I think it is a hoax. And if there is anyone who knows the technical halachoth regarding the Sabbath and the technology, it’s Zomet’s Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, and he thinks the whole thing does not fly.

However, Rabbi Rozen and others are working on the assumption that all things electric and electronic involve forbidden labors and are therefore from the outset prohibited for use on the Sabbath. This was true way back when most electric and electronic devices

  1. actually performed melachoth, like heating metals, cooking foods, and laundering clothes.
  2. made loud noises that indicated they did these things.
  3. used large amounts of electricity, often to the point of heating metals until they were red hot, which is a forbidden labor,  and required devices to have a constant supply of electricity, which is ultimately produced by municipal generators, which of course also perform forbidden labors. 

However, nowadays we have many devices that rely on batteries to use a lot less electricity, do not get remotely hot, and do not need to be charged that often. Consider this: What forbidden labor does a standard cell phone perform? Which of the 39 melachoth can it even be remotely said that are pertinent? Which rabbinical prohibition is remotely applicable to cellphone usage?

I have long argued that just as it is permissible for Jewish men to carry firearms on the Sabbath for reasons of safety and despite that guns are muqtzim as keilim shem’lachtam l’issur, muqtzim because they perform a forbidden labor (i.e., slaughter), then how much more so should they be allowed to carry cell phones for reasons of safety, since the cellular phones do not perform any forbidden labor.

The reason we prohibit ordinary use of cell phones and computers and the like is as a matter of public policy, so that the aura and gravity of the Sabbath are  maintained. (There are many other similar prohibitions that are necessary matters of public policy, like the prohibition against playing ball on the Sabbath of the maintenance of separate seating in synagogues.) Many decades ago, great authorities sought to prohibit timers for hot plates and lights, arguing that the sanctity of the Sabbath would be impinged if Jewish households would use them regularly, but history has sided with the permitters, as we have seen that the Sabbath is much more enjoyable and sacramentally productive when decent lighting and hot food are available. The commandments we are bidden to perform on the Sabbath require good food and sufficient lighting. However, this should not apply to smartphone, etc. use. How does it help one fulfill his mitzwoth on the Sabbath if he can also write text messages to his friends, or check the news? On the contrary, those acts are either forbidden or they inherently detract from the mood of the Sabbath.

(Note that Zomet even recommends setting your dishwasher with a timer to wash  dishes [used for the Sabbath meals] on the Sabbath. As dishwashing is not a m’lacha, and as having clean dishes without all the work between meals makes the Sabbath more delightful, it is the right way to go. They would not say the same thing with the (clothes) washing machine, as laundering is inherently a m’lacha. Their claim that it could not be used for both dairy and meaty utensils is disputable, and I would think the more obvious leniency than actually running the machine on the Sabbath…)

As the whole matter of cellphone, etc. usage on the Sabbath is one of public policy, I expect things to change in the coming years. For now, if cellphone, etc. use is forbidden on the Sabbath for whatever reason, then the Shabbos App does nothing to remove the prohibition, and if it is permitted by the letter of the law, then the Shabbos App is superfluous. 

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