Too much technology can switch off Shabbat

New devices may make Sabbath observance easier, but they are not what we need to enjoy it


In recent months social media was buzzing with news of a revolutionary invention for Jewish homes: the KosherSwitch. A new frontier has been pushed back in halachic history - no longer may it be forbidden to turn on the electric lights on Shabbat and festivals. For observant Jews, reining in the everyday impulse to flick on a switch is a central pillar of how Shabbat is different from a weekday. Jews have acclimatised to the convenience of pre-programmed machines such as hotplates and lighting, but now leading rabbis are giving their assent to the normal use of electricity, albeit with a small but significant adjustment.

The halachic basis for using electric appliances on holy days is based upon the concept of grama, the indirect operation of the appliance. Five years ago, the inventor of KosherSwitch, Menashe Kalati, took this concept one stage further. What if the flick of a switch did not actively turn on a light but merely raised a small bit of plastic, thus allowing a randomly emitted light pulse to allow a circuit to complete? Thus, Mr Kalati coined a new halachic phrase, "un-grama", the act of moving a piece of plastic, which achieves nothing at the time of activation but indirectly allows the restoration of light to a home plunged into darkness.

Online, Mr Kalati expressed the urge to invent the switch thus - "We live in the 21st century!" My objection to this claim is that neutralising prohibitions through tweaking circuitry and replacing actions with non-actions - flicking the switch does not actually turn on the light - ruins the atmosphere of a day of rest. Beyond the technical aspects of halachic concern is the toll that modern commodities exert on the spirituality of Judaism.

While any halachic innovation to ease the enjoyment of Shabbat should be encouraged, sometimes they suck the soul out of the spiritual experience of Shabbat altogether. It is not the technical observance of halachah which is at risk nowadays, but its spiritual observance. The koshering of technology must not be allowed to perpetuate our dependency on technology seven days a week.

Recently, a very young member of my congregation asked whether it was permitted to spend Bank Holiday Monday going to the funfair - or stay at home and play on her electronic toys. As Bank Holiday coincided with Shavuot, the issue to resolve was whether attending a funfair was less compatible with the holy day than playing virtual games all afternoon. I could have reasoned that below the age of barmitzvah, a modern rabbinic interdiction on using electronics was easier to permit than going off to a funfair. Neither is halachically preferable, but given the choice, my view is that a funfair is much more conducive to Shavuot than Candy Crush Saga.

New Shabbat-friendly technology can ruin the atmospher of a day of rest

In my opinion, Shabbat is not a good reason to miss out on family experiences. Last year, my family attended the Southport Air Show; I planned ahead to accommodate any halachic requirements. Entry tickets were kept for us at the entrance and we did not have to trade or carry anything in public.

The rationale behind my approach is that anything we can do to avoid either boredom or babysitting boredom with screens, whether on Shabbat or during the week, is to be promoted. It is far preferable for a child to be outdoors with the family and enjoying time with siblings at a music festival, an educational theatre or at a museum than whiling away time isolated and remote from nature, family and society, imprisoned in imaginary worlds.

Furthermore, boredom on Shabbat is a terrible curse for children in observant families who, instead of wishing Shabbat would never end, constantly watch the clock eagerly, expectant for the moment they can check WhatsApp or leave home to watch a film. Shabbat is a day to put away the toys that divorce us from each other's attention, but there is also a real need to permit activities in a way which are not only inoffensive to halachah but also create an anticipation, not a dread of the seventh day.

If we are not careful, we will soon have Kosher Phones Facebooking our chicken soup across continents in real time. This is not what Shabbat was created for. Shabbat is about synagogue, study, good meals, prayer and a good social experience. But if the lights go out on a long winter's Friday evening, there are even longer-lasting candles already burning to restore the atmosphere of what Shabbat is supposed to be all about.

The togetherness one can experience huddled around the Shabbat "camp-fire" is much more conducive to the spirit of unity than a plastic switch to rescue us from our dependency on instantaneous power supply. Our ancestors have told stories and sung songs in near darkness for millennia. This is the best way to spend time in closing shadows of a late summer Saturday evening.

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