Only the most traditional interpret Judaism’s prohibition on working, or creating, on the Sabbath as prohibiting the turning on of electricity and electronics, encompassing such activities as flicking a light switch, heating up the oven or driving a car between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.
But the idea that technology in spirit can present a threat to this sacred commandment has permeated much of American synagogue culture, even for liberal Jews such as Simon. Many still consider the sight on Sabbath of a cellphone, tablet or a flashing screen disturbing when they come to services.
As a result, American synagogues have been cautious on technology. Meanwhile, much of institutional religion, hoping to lure back a wandering America, has been using technology to reach more people, experimenting with things like launching church DJs or holding services via Facebook.
But the digital revolution is now chipping away at a millennia-old barrier: The Jewish Sabbath.
Reform synagogues — a large, liberal part of Judaism — are expanding their use of technology on the Sabbath, experimenting carefully with live streaming services and projected images. The Conservative movement, long considered the middle road of institutional U.S. Judaism, had an intense back-and-forth this summer over a proposal to use e-readers to pray on the Sabbath. And while Orthodox Jewish leaders are unanimously opposed to turning any device on during the Sabbath, reports are being widely shared in the past year or so that huge numbers of young Orthodox send text messages, seeing it as socializing, not work. They call it “half-Shabbos” (Shabbos is the Yiddish word for Sabbath.)
The issue will be highlighted this weekend because of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and one of the few times a year most U.S. Jews go to synagogue. Sabbath rules apply on Yom Kippur, which happens to fall this year on the Sabbath.
Beliefs and practices around technology and the Sabbath differ widely among U.S. Jews.
The Orthodox believe the process of electricity constitutes “creating” something and have systems of timers for things such as stoves and air conditioning, and avoid electronic doors and hotel key cards. Many ultra-Orthodox are opposed to use of the liberal Internet altogether and use “kosher phones” that don’t connect to the Web. Reform rabbis are fine with electricity and many have long used electrified musical instruments and screens to broadcast crowded services into overflow rooms, but have been hesitant on video cameras, e-readers or screens in the sanctuary. Conservative rabbis are somewhere in the middle, and are divided on much of this.
The questions are all new. Jewish law bans writing on the Sabbath, but are pixels — or the digital record of them — writing? If you type a search term into an iPad that holds scripture you’re using to pray, did you just write? Does downloading create a record the way writing does, even if you’re downloading some Talmudic analysis? If your community is on Facebook, are you connecting or disconnecting on the Sabbath if you post there?