In the world of ever-evolving consumer high tech, it should come as no surprise that an app has been created to assist Shabbat-observant Jews. There are other apps to assist Jews out there, like Rustybrick’s Minyan app or G-dscast’s Wake Up World app, which is narrated by Randi Zuckerburg, but the current talk of the town is the Shabbos App, developed by Yossi Goldstein and designed by Yitz Appel. Despite the excitement of the innovation, the emergence of this Shabbos App is a direct attack on the traditional Jewish character of Shabbat.
The Shabbos App claims to allow all Shabbat observers to text and stay connected with their families and friends without violating the rules of Shabbat. Goldstein and Appel aim to “let people who are already texting on Shabbos know that they can text on Shabbos and not completely fall off the path,” as they said in an article published by vosizneias.com, a website which describes itself as the “voice of the Orthodox Jewish community.” Even before the release of the Shabbos App, controversy as to whether or not observant Jews can and should use the app has begun to emerge.
The creators made the app in such a way that would allow Jews who observe Shabbat to exploit loopholes supposedly located within the laws of Shabbat derived from the Torah. When a user activates the app, the screen flips upside down. The speaker is on the bottom while the microphone is on the top. The phone immediately locks in that mode, so when a user holds the phone at a different angle, he or she supposedly uses it differently than the way he or she would on regular basis. This reflects the halachic concept of shinui, which refers to a situation in which something is done in a way that is unusual compared to the norm.
In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, there are thirty-nine Melachot, which are categories of labor that traditional Jewish law forbids Jewish people from performing on Shabbat. Kotev, which means “writing” in Hebrew, is one of the Melachot. However, the creators of the app claim that when the user wants to type on the Shabbos app, the keyboard appears in a different way than it does usually. Instead of the letters showing up individually, they are shown as complete words. There are a total of 150 commonly used words for the user to choose from. This allows the user to take words that are already created and form a sentence, rather than assembling the words themselves from the individual letters.
In addition, the app causes the LED backlight of the screen to stay actively lit for the entire duration of Shabbat, which prevents the phone from turning off. This averts any potential issue of turning the screen on or off. The app also blocks all functions of the phone except for the integrated Shabbos messaging app and e-books.
Despite assurances from the app’s creators of its legality, many feel that the Shabbos App desecrates the spirit of Shabbat. In order for the app to be activated, it needs to be downloaded and used on a smartphone. The phone itself is what is traditionally referred to as muktzeh. Muktzeh is a Hebrew word that means “set aside,” and in this context connotes everyday objects that should not be handled on Shabbat. Thus, according to this principle, we are forbidden to touch, nonetheless hold and operate, the smartphone throughout Shabbat. Moreover, once the user touches the screen, the brightness will change to preset the phone for use. By unintentionally adjusting the brightness level, the user breaks Shabbat without even realizing it.
Although the phone enables the user to form a sentence using a combination of words instead of forming them individually, use of the app still counts as one of the rabbinical prohibitions against writing and creating a sentence, which also goes against the statute of Shabbat. Not only are users creating a sentence, which is prohibited on Shabbat, but they also go against another of the melachot called mochek — Hebrew for “deleting” — when they make a mistake typing and want to re-write a word. Additionally, the battery of the phone can get extremely hot and can potentially cause the phone to overheat, which becomes an issue of an additional melachah, mavir, which refers to the creation of fire.
Besides the fact that this app goes against the entire basis of the day of rest, “people need to realize that this app should be prohibited because of the concept of uvdah d’chol,” says Rabbi Hekmatja of Mor Hatorah Synagogue in Santa Monica. Uvdah d’chol forbids any actions that may disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of Shabbat.
Even though the Shabbos app allows use of the phone through the concept of shinui, it completely contradicts the purpose of keeping Shabbat. During the biblical creation, G-d designated Shabbat as a day of rest and abstention from creative activity. Using a phone obliterates the entire purpose for which it was created. Shabbat represents one day where people can release their worries and not have to remember to complete any difficult tasks they would perform during the week.
Regardless, the app creators maintain that the app is both legal and beneficial, adopting the motto “Nisht Shver Tzu Zein A Yid,” Yiddish for “it is not hard to be a Jew.” The app is made for the convenience of people who want to keep Shabbat, but do not want to deviate from their routine lifestyles.
But this contradicts the purpose of Shabbat, and more generally, of Judaism altogether. The motto sends a false message that one can be called a Jew without committing any part of his life to God. An even bigger problem with the app is that it teaches Jews to treat Judaism as a nuisance to their every day lives. Shabbat was made for our benefit and close connection with G-d. However, this app denies Jews the ability to make that connection, because it essentially helps Jews not to keep Shabbat.
While the Shabbos App creators seemingly intended to make life easier for Shabbat-observant Jews, its founders have advertised how difficult Shabbat is for them and have made it seem like something they want out of their lives in its current form.
As a Jew who observes Shabbat, I know personally that the Shabbos App would not be beneficial in any way. It takes away from the atmosphere of Shabbat and the whole purpose for which Shabbat was created: to be a day of rest and to allow us to disconnect from our daily routines. As a full-time student working two jobs, being prohibited to use my phone is not a nuisance, but a privilege. Shabbat is my day of rest and a time for me to spend with my family. It is a day like no other, and should be treated as such.