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Siddur going digital, but not for Shabbat

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ArtScroll is launching digital versions of many of its popular Jewish books, but not the Sabbath or High Holidays prayer books.  (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications)

ArtScroll is launching digital versions of many of its popular Jewish books, but not the Sabbath or High Holidays prayer books. (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications)

ArtScroll is launching digital versions of many of its popular Jewish books, but not the Sabbath or High Holidays prayer books. (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications))

ArtScroll is launching digital versions of many of its popular Jewish books, but not the Sabbath or High Holidays prayer books. (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications))

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — A major publisher of Jewish books is moving into the digital age while trying to strike a balance between technology and Jewish observance.

ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, which calls itself the world’s largest Jewish publishing house, has begun digitizing the first batch of some of its 1,500 titles.

But ArtScroll’s most popular books — its Shabbat and High Holidays prayerbooks — will not be coming out for e-readers like the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle. The reason?

The Shabbat prohibition against using electronic devices is a major barrier.

“The vision of people coming to shul on Shabbat with their e-siddur just doesn’t cut it,” Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, president of the Orthodox-run publishing house, told JTA.

There are other reasons, too — notably a lag in technology. Amazon’s Kindle is not yet equipped to present Hebrew and English texts on facing pages, which the prayerbooks require, and the iPad’s capability to do so is “quite limited,” according to Zlotowitz.

None of the e-readers can do Hebrew-English hyperlinking, whereby a reader of the Hebrew text could touch a word or phrase and be taken to an English explanation. Nor can they cross-reference between the two languages.

Meanwhile, ArtScroll is moving ahead with plans to publish digitized versions of its weekday prayer book, as well as the Schottenstein Talmud, as soon as e-readers are able to handle the technology.

“We’re doing all the preparation now, so we’ll be ready as soon as they have the platforms,” Zlotowitz said.

There are already a number of Jewish prayer books available for downloading via various applications, from Googlebooks to iPad options, notes Tzvee Zahavy, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But for people who swear by the ArtScroll siddur, he says, this new move is significant.

“Just to be able to get a couple different prayer books on your devices and use them is noteworthy,” he told JTA.

The first of ArtScroll’s e-books are available now for downloading to iPads and iPhones through Apple’s iBookstore. They include self-help titles, novels and books by Orthodox writers such as Rabbi Abraham Twerski and Esther Jungreis. The first books of ArtScroll’s 14-volume “Daily Dose of Torah” series, which offer daily Jewish lessons taking 18 minutes, also have come out in e-format.

But for now, Zlotowitz says, no Shabbat or holiday siddurs.

ArtScroll’s decision puts it squarely in the middle of the conversation about Jewish observance in the digital age, particularly when it comes to e-readers.

With some experts predicting the demise of printed books, what will observant Jews read on Shabbat, when they are forbidden to operate electronic devices, Uri Friedman asked in a recent article in The Atlantic.

“Some are thinking of ways to accommodate emerging technology within the structure of traditional Sabbath observance while others wrestle with the implications of the shifting media landscape for Jewish law and observance,” he wrote.

One blogger proposed a “Sabbath e-reader” that would turn pages automatically, much like a Sabbath elevator stops at each floor in a building so observant Jews aren’t technically operating it, Friedman said.

Then there is the larger question, which goes beyond the laws of Shabbat to the spirit of the day.

“A number stress that, regardless of legal considerations, the Sabbath’s rules and spirit have never been more important than they are today, when technology saturates our lives,” Friedman wrote.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbinical association, says the question of e-books on Shabbat has not yet come before the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which sets Jewish law for the movement.

Aside from the Jewish legal question, she said, there is the broader question about the implications for Jewish spirituality.

“If the goal of Shabbat is to take us away from distractions and give us a more spiritual focus, what would it mean to have this electronic media enter that most sacred realm on that most sacred day?” she asked. “Even if you could daven from a Kindle, should you?”

Many observant Jews already use smartphones with downloaded prayers during the week.

Zlotowitz says he suspects that the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad and other similar devices may one day go the way of the 8-track tape and the turntable.

“The written word is forever, but I don’t think the digital word is forever,” he said. “You can’t even get a cassette player anymore.”

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