The Jewish relationship with books goes back to Moses. We are known as the People of the Book. So it’s a fair bet that Jews will play a significant part in the massive upheaval that the Kindle and other digital book readers are bringing about in the publishing world.
In 2008 revenues from e-books at the multinational publisher Hachette accounted for about one per cent of their total income. Last year they were 20 per cent. Amazon launched the latest version of its Kindle in mid-November. By the end of 2011 they had sold five million.
E-readers and e-books are big news, and they are changing the way we read. We are not all happy about this, many of us do not want to give up the tactile experience of handling a book and turning the pages. But others are thrilled to be able to carry their entire libraries in their pocket or handbag, flipping between books, newspapers and magazines at the press of a button.
Whatever our preferences, there is little doubt that, like computers and mobile phones, we will in time all possess a digital reader.
So, are digital readers good for the Jews? Well, not necessarily, if you are an observant Jew. Or at least, they can only be a good thing for observant Jews six days a week. Because they cannot be used on Shabbat.
It is well known that observant Jews have lots of books. The frummer we are, the bigger the library needs to be. All those Gemaras, Shulchan Aruchs and commentaries take up a lot of space. Most e-readers can hold over a thousand books. How wonderful then to be able to put one’s entire library on to a digital device, have them at hand wherever we go and dispense with all those bookshelves that clutter up the place. But we cannot, not if we are frum and want to use our library on Shabbat.
Machinery generally does not present too much of a problem to observant Jews on Shabbat. We have workarounds. Time switches are wonderful things. As for those technologies that we cannot overcome, like driving a car, well they show just how profound Judaism is; one day a week we cannot go out into the traffic, and we’re glad.
But e-readers will challenge us. They allow us to read, which is one of our favourite activities. They do not pollute or aggravate. It is hard to think of a reason why we would be glad not to be able to use one on Shabbat. But still we cannot.
The halachic problem with e-readers is not the reading of them; there is no prohibition against looking at a screen. The problem is in turning the pages. To do that we need to press a button, which in turn activates an electrical circuit.
The obvious solution is an e-reader that switches itself on a preset time and slowly scrolls from one page to another automatically. Unfortunately it would be hugely inconvenient, we would always have to read at the same speed and we could never take our eyes from the screen in case we missed a page turn. We would not be able to go back a page if we had missed something. We might like reading, but we do not want to do it non-stop.
It is quite likely that technology already exists to allow essential use of an e-reader on Shabbat. The Tzomet Institute in Israel has developed technologies that allow, for example, a doctor or security officer to use a telephone or a computer keyboard in an emergency. The principle behind this is known as gramma, or indirect action. An example of this is extinguishing a fire indirectly by placing a fire-break around it, so that it burns out, instead of pouring water directly on to it.
The electronic technologies that Tzomet use send out a short pulse every few seconds to check whether a switch or setting on a Shabbat-compliant machine has been changed. Pressing a switch has no effect until it is checked by the electronic pulse. When the pulse finds that the switch has been thrown, it allows the desired action to occur. Since the switch was flipped before the pulse checked it, the action is indirect and regarded as gramma.
Sadly, halachah only seems to permit gramma when essential, typically when there is a medical or security need. It is hard to argue that our leisure reading is an emergency. Apart, of course from the JC, which many regard as time-hallowed, essential Shabbat reading. So perhaps a digital edition of the JC on our Shabbat Kindle would be ok.
Still, we Jews are resourceful people. Technology is there for us to master, we do not let it master us. Sooner or later someone is bound to invent a Shabbat-compliant e-reader. It might even come pre-loaded with all the seforim (sacred books) we could possible want. I just wish they’d hurry up.