‘App’solutely Atrocious


Texting as it appears in the Shabbos App. The users selects words instead of composing words by typing letters. Shabbos App.

In this century, when technology advances with lightning speed, we tend to forget about a different time, when things like Shabbos timers and electric ovens were nonexistent. This may come as a shock, but not so long ago, people lived without electricity or running water and they had to make Shabbos. Seems impossible. But our ancestors managed just fine.

Now this may be stroke-inducing information, but the world should know the truth: cell phones with the capability for texting were nonexistent 20 years ago. There are many survivors living today who led normal, productive lives before the invention of this life-sustaining device. Our parents, and even some of us, lived in a world without texting or touch-screens (and most amazingly, candy crush.)

But times have changed. Nonetheless, we all went through Shabbos without our phones, which are prohibited for use on Shabbos. Electricity is considered fire and we are forbidden to kindle or extinguish a fire on Shabbos, according to Jewish law. In the case of cordless phones, the battery of the phone heats up when in use so there’s our fire ban. Using the telephone on Shabbos is strictly forbidden but that wasn’t a problem. We made plans with friends beforehand or dropped in unexpectedly. We went a day without chatting on the telephone for hours on end. And we managed just fine.

Then the world took what we thought was a great leap forward. Texting sprung into being. Cell phones became affordable for the average person. Texting, touch screen, apps … we felt accomplished and empowered because of our innovations. But then we went overboard. And now? Go anywhere on the street and (if you’re able to look up from your cell phone) you’ll notice most people completely absorbed in their own phones. Step into your kitchen, and odds are your mother’s texting at furious speed, oblivious to the overflowing pot of boiling soup. Are we merely puppets, slaves to the little machines in our pockets? That’s what the creators of the Shabbos App seem to think.

The Shabbos App allows users to text on Shabbos without violating the prohibitions, according to the inventors. A special keyboard replaces the usual one used for texting. “That’s crazy!” cried Sharon R., a junior in Brooklyn after hearing about the app. “I think it’s pointless! The whole point is not to text or do these types of things on Shabbos.” (My sources did not want their full names or the names of their day schools included.) 

The Shabbos App creators want to take Saturday, the one day each week when we must shut off our phones and communicate face to face with our loved ones — a day filled with meaning and beauty — and transform it into an average Wednesday. They envision us sitting at the table, ignoring the singing, disregarding the steaming bowl of cholent on the table and instead tapping away at our “halachically permitted” smartphones our eyes glued to the screens.

The way they’ve designed their app makes texting halachically correct, so they say. The keyboard is comprised of a list of words, unlike a regular keyboard where users input each letter. Therefore they think this does not violate the transgression of writing on Shabbos. In Shabbos App mode, all other functions of your phone are blocked and sound is muted. Malkey Wallerstein, a mother and teacher at Bais Yaakov Academy (BYA) in Brooklyn, says she looks at it as, “1-800-DIAL-A-HETER.” (A heter is permission from a rabbi to use a halachic opinion not generally relied upon).

Penina S. of Brooklyn also disagrees with the Shabbos App philosophy. “I think that’s pathetic,” said the high school junior laughing disbelievingly. “There’s something called ‘Shabbos.’ It’s not about assur [prohibited] or mutar [permitted]. It’s the spirit of the law too and that’s what we’re forgetting.”

Wallerstein, Penina and Sharon are not alone in their opinions. There has been outrage in the Orthodox community following the announcement of the Shabbos App. This app crosses a line and invites further transgressions. Will we be driving to shul for Shabbos davening in our halachically-permissible cars? Will they make an app that allows someone to go to the office on Shabbos? Where does it end? If we tolerate transgressions we will not be keeping the spirit of the law, but we will also not be keeping Shabbos altogether.

“Personally, I find it kind of bad,” said Hadassa R., a junior in Brooklyn. “It’s going to do more harm than good. And it’s going to end up leading to you just using your phone.” Will our day of rest become just another day of being plugged in?

Everyone I interviewed does not believe this app is permissible, despite the designers’ claims. “I don’t think it has any bearing on the Torah,” says Mrs. N., a mother of three teenagers. “I believe it’s 100 percent wrong. I think it’s taking the whole meaning of Shabbos out of the picture.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Shabbos is our day of rest. There is no other day like it; on Shabbos, serenity reigns. What makes Shabbos so special and beautiful is the fact that all weekday things must be set aside. All work must be put on hold. Business matters are not thought about. Instead we take a respite from our hectic lives, one day each week, and devote it fully to our Creator. Shabbos is gift from God. And here we are, throwing it back in His face for a shiny toy with lots of buttons and lights. To me, Shabbos with a cell phone is not Shabbos. It is indeed sad, and does not say much about us, if we can no longer survive a single day without a phone.

The Shabbos App is not a good thing. It’s a net, a trap designed to lure us in and slowly, but surely, lead to our destruction. If we keep making allowances, eventually, we will not be following any of the laws that make the day of peace and tranquility which we call Shabbos. Have we really become so dependent on cell phones? Who is in control? Us? Or the device in each pocket, a relatively new innovation, that is causing a nation to forgo their age-old traditions and customs?