New ways of wishing 'gd Shbs'

It is 11 years since a number of Israeli rabbis came out against their followers using the internet, and at least half-a-decade since they attempted to ban internet-enabled mobile phones.

Their concerns centred on the potentially "corrupting" material available online: initially pornography but increasingly, as the internet evolved, issues of freedom of information and of thought. Suddenly, the internet hosted numerous forums on which charedim could anonymously share their doubts about theology and lifestyle, and the news sites that exposed the political manoeuvring animating the rabbinic courts.

But now it appears that there is a new threat, and that is the technology itself. Mobile phones are so addictive that it seems the Shabbat experience is being jeopardised.

Over the past couple of months, the Orthodox blogosphere has been buzzing about the phenomenon of American religious teens who openly confess to keeping what they call "Half Shabbos" - that is, using mobile phones to text on Shabbat, and perhaps also tweeting or posting on Facebook. They claim to consider social media part of their daily verbal communication and are so addicted that they feel they cannot socialise without it.

Texting teens say they remain on the ‘Shabbat spectrum’

Of course, there have always been rebellious Orthodox teens who break Shabbat, either as experimentation they grow out of, or paving their way to a secular adulthood. But this group - which reportedly spans the spectrum from
the modern Orthodox to charedim - seems
different.

Once upon a time, the decision by a youth from an observant family to break Shabbat - to turn on a light, perhaps, or get into a car - was life-changing, and accompanied by a great deal of trepidation and guilt. These teens, however, openly discuss whether they keep "half-Shabbos" or "full Shabbos".

There is apparently no shame attached to this violation, at least among their peers (they may be less keen to confess to their parents). Yet texting and tweeting are by their very nature public activities, involving an audience, and even a time-stamp confirming to others that Shabbat has been broken.

Nor is this really a rebellion against their Orthodox identities because these teens have, with their "half-Shabbos" terminology, stretched the boundaries of the Orthodox fold. Yes, they may have sinned; but they still put themselves on the "Shabbat spectrum".

This is not entirely unrealistic. All observant people are on a "shomer Shabbat" spectrum of sorts. No one, no matter how religious, keeps a "perfect" Shabbat and we all manage to explain away, in our minds, our own violations, whether it be pushing a pushchair (another very public act), tearing toilet paper or making tea the wrong way.

People are capable of living with contradictions and, once committed to an Orthodox lifestyle, few people think that their own particular Shabbat sin (or a sin of any kind, for that matter) removes them from the category of "observant".

So why is the "half-Shabbos" challenge any different? In communal eyes, there still are a few sins that drop you off the Shabbat spectrum altogether, usually sins that involve public actions and/or technology, such as driving or turning on a light. Certainly, few Orthodox adults are likely to be terribly sympathetic to their offspring texting on Shabbat.

Now it is possible that the Shabbat texting is nothing more than a teen activity, and that those engaging in it will grow out of it - in which case, "half Shabbos" will probably have very little impact on Orthodoxy in the long term. But it seems to me that teens today attach an importance to social media that even those in their 30s do not quite "get".

It is so integral to their young lives, and their friendships, that it is entirely possible they will continue to rely on it into adulthood. Technology has become so easily accessible that it is almost an extension of personality. I speak, therefore I text.

In that case, we may see over the coming couple of decades a segment of the observant community using technology, more or less openly, on Shabbat.

This would be an immense challenge to halachah; to the definition of the boundaries between the various Jewish denominations; and, most of all, to our experience of Shabbat - the one day of the week on which it is possible to "switch off" from the electronic world.

Addiction-forming texting and tweeting now show, more than ever, precisely why the refuge of Shabbat is needed. But be prepared: it's probably only a matter of time until we hear about the new wave of teenagers, those who keep "quarter Shabbos" - texting, tweeting and smoking - coming up against their peers who keep "three quarters Shabbos"- all of the above, but only on Friday nights.

    Last updated: 10:27am, January 28 2011