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The Use of Computers on Shabbat and Holidays in the new COVID-19 Reality

March 25, 2020

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

Dear friends,

I hope that you and your families are well, and finding ways to remain grateful, connected and even joyous as we live now in physical isolation.

The reality we now inhabit is significantly virtual. Shabbat is the day when we rejoin in purposeful and joyous community, whether at long, lingering s’eudot, meals, large services, or energetic Kiddushim, communal lunches. Is it permissible then to use computers, at least in this exigent time, to create community on Shabbat, especially for those who live alone? We are also now planning for Seders. I pray that all of us will at Seder strictly observe the six foot rule and other precautions. These measures will also drastically reduce the attendance at our Seders. And so the question of virtual Seders has also come up.

I will in this responsum address what I see as permitted, and what is still prohibited, in our new COVID-19 reality. I am not essentially addressing our practice when life returns to normal. I will focus on technological usage on Shabbat, although you may assume that in this regard, anything permitted on Shabbat is also permitted on Passover. I am deeply indebted to a Responsum by Rabbi Daniel Nevins (who taught in our Beit MIdrash this past year), entitled “The use of electrical and electronic devices on Shabbat” and approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly in May, 2012.

First, be aware that when we discuss Shabbat observance we are discussing the integrity of the most important religious tradition in Judaism. Shabbat is critical to the viability and meaning of Jewish life. The Talmud famously teaches that keeping Shabbat is equal to keeping all of the mitzvot of Torah. So, to this day an observant Jew is generally called a Shomer Shabbat, a keeper of Shabbat, not Shomer Mitzvot, a keeper of (presumably all) the commandments. And the atmosphere of Shabbat is delicate and fragile. So, I regard very carefully any proposal to allow activities which we normally refrain from in order to protect that tranquil, precious but also vulnerable atmosphere.

I will discuss two aspects of Shabbat observance, first, the halachic, or legal, concerns,, and second, the spiritual importance and impact of the day.

The Halacha of the Shabbat Day

There are two major realms of work forbidden on Shabbat. There are, first, 39 primary categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat. These are derived from the Bible and are called Avot M’lachot (the fathers of labor) or simply m’lacha. There are other forbidden activities derived from the Avot/fathers and these are called Toladot, or “the generations” of labor. For example, zorei’a, sowing seeds is a primary m’lacha, forbidden on Shabbat. Watering a plant in the soil which has the same purpose of making the plant grow is considered a toladah, a derivative form of labor, but still prohibited. Toladot have a different process than their avot but the same purpose and result.

The issue before us is one of computer usage and communication via the web. The key relevant m’lacha here is k’tiva, or writing, as some feel that is involved in tapping on the keyboard or otherwise causing text, images, or sound to be transmitted. In the Talmud, the central and problematic feature of k’tiva is durability. So, Mishna Shabbat 12:1 teaches that “anyone who performs work and his work is stable or endures on Shabbat is culpable”. Creating durable changes is also relevant to other forbidden m’lachot on Shabbat, for example, koshair, or tying. As you may know,, tying a “permanent knot “ designed to last 24 hours (also called a “sailor’s knot”) is prohibited. Tying one’s shoelaces is not.

The underlying concern and caution are that on Shabbat we refrain from creating or aiding in the creation of any new product. We enjoy the world we are given, and refrain from manipulating or transforming it , as we will explore further when we turn attention to the spirit of the day.

Does the use of a computer, including tapping on the keyboard, speaking into a mic, projecting one’s image through web cameras, or otherwise causing digital transmission of text, voice and image, constitute a “durable” change, and therefore should be prohibited on Shabbat?

My understanding is that the kind of data, images, voice etc. created by such usage –provided they are not intentionally preserved–are volatile and constantly being created, refreshed and erased. So, they do not involve creating the permanent forms assumed in the Rabbinic definition of the m’lacha of k’tiva/writing. They do not meet the Talmudic criteria for prohibition which is “writing something with a durable substance on a durable surface” (Tosefta Shabbat 11:8). So, the simple usage of a computer, as people generally use today to remain connected, is allowed, provided that it does not harm the spirit of the day, which we will discuss imminently.

For the same reason, however, audio or video recording on Shabbat, for the deliberate purpose of creating and preserving a permanent record, is prohibited, unless set up before Shabbat to operate automatically or initiated and controlled on Shabbat by a non-Jew.

The Spirit of the Shabbat Day

We must also appreciate the spiritual importance of Shabbat for the individual, the community, the people Israel and, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught in his exquisite masterpiece, The Sabbath, the world. As we’ve seen, when the Rabbis presented the 39 categories of labor , they meant to avoid permanent or even durable changes in one’s physical environment. Shabbat was a day of oneg, of delight and fullness, when there should be no reason to feel physically lacking or emotionally distraught. So, there was no need to manipulate our environment as we do during the week of work. Rather than changing our world, we spend a day focusing on its grandeur and the gifts we enjoy, especially life (so Shabbat recalls creation) and human dignity (so Shabbat recalls the Exodus).

Digital technology has in some ways liberated us, but it has also become a new “Pharaoh”, adding to constant work, pressure, distraction, and personal alienation. How many families today on “vacation” lay out on the beach and immediately get “connected”, each parent or child quickly apart and lost on their personal device?

The Shabbat, when we set aside electronic devices, becomes a day to escape their tyrannical control and allow ourselves to enjoy the blessings of family and social intimacy. By “disconnecting” on Shabbat, we can look our family and friends in the eyes, enjoy unbroken conversation, read, sing, pray, take walks, etc, Most of all, as regular Shul goers know, we are an am m’kadshei sh’vi’i, a people who by sanctifying the seventh day restore in our community a sense of purpose and joy.

So, to preserve the holy, tranquil atmosphere of Shabbat, to bring families and communities back to face to face, I-Thou communication we have as a community forbidden on Shabbat the use of electronic devices at Kane Street. Some of these are actually permitted by many Conservative Rabbinic opinions. TV and radio are examples. Still, I oppose their use at Shul because they harm the atmosphere of Shabbat. They pull us away from each other and they bring into our environment all manner of things—“breaking” news, advertisements, competitive sports—which take us away from the under-appreciated blessings of our surroundings. They threaten the tranquility of Shabbat which needs especially in our overheated world to be protected.

But, now, everything is upside down.

A dangerous and uncontrolled virus has atomized our communities and rendered the creation of a holy, physically intimate Shabbat (and soon Pesach) community impossible. So, I argue for the allowance of some electronic devices on Shabbat for the same reasons for which they are generally prohibited, to create on the Seventh Day, as best as we now can, “face-to-face” communication, and delight, joy, prayer, study, and reflection in holy community.

Matters of Sickness and Health

Finally, I have found some of the halachic rulings of Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis about Shabbat allowances for disabled people very helpful in this consideration. Our movement in particular is lenient when telecommunications can help a person who must be physically isolated still “make Shabbat”’ and join electronically in prayer, study or social connection, Without minimizing the seriousness of such conditions, we are all now, at least temporarily, suffering from such disability. Radio transmitters for the hard of hearing during services, motorized chairs, electric lifts, etc. have been permitted on Shabbat because of the paramount Jewish value of k’vod habriyot, honoring every person and preventing humiliation and unnecessary isolation. We do whatever we can to include all in Jewish community. In the aforementioned responsum, Rabbi Nevins writes that “the benefit of the doubt in matters of health must always be towards leniency, and the judge of medical necessity must be the patient or their medical surrogates”. I would argue that the need for self- and household-isolation, whether one is known to be infected or not, renders us all “patients” at this time.

So, with the limitations noted earlier, especially the prohibition of durable, permanent recording or saving of data, images, or sound, I allow the use of computers because of the unprecedented reality of community atomization which Covid-19 has imposed. This is only an allowance for this period when we must spend Shabbat separate in our homes. When G-d willing we return to more normal life and social intercourse, I strongly urge you to put electronics away on Shabbat, to preserve its sanctity and that of our people.

I pray for your continued health, and for the healing of those who are ill. I look forward to continuing to come together, as we safely can, to study, pray, and serve our community, city and country.

Shabbat Shalom, v’Chag Kasher, Samei’ach, U’Bari—a happy, kosher, and healthy Passover

Rabbi Weintraub

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