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Can Electronics Ever Mix With Shabbat?

Can Electronics Ever Mix With Shabbat?

We are increasingly choosing to read our novels, magazines, newspapers and even children’s books on e-readers and tablets. But is it permissible to do this on the one day of the week that Judaism commands us to unplug?

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently published a teshuvah (religious response) regarding the use of electrical and electronic devices on the Shabbat. [Full disclosure: This reporter is a Conservative rabbi and 2004 graduate of the JTS rabbinical school.]

In the teshuvah, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Nevins ruled that while the operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden according to the laws of Shabbat, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs melachah (the category of forbidden activity on Shabbat) with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is forbidden in the Torah. Rabbi Nevins answered some questions about his research and how he arrived at his legal decision.

Q : What made you decide to take up this issue now?

A: I’ve been thinking about electricity and Shabbat for decades. I started researching the halachic [Jewish legal] issues involved, and I found that there may have been a consensus in the Orthodox world that no electricity was allowed, and yet there was no agreement about why. Technology has become integrated in a rapidly accelerating fashion in our personal lives, and the lack of clarity about the halachic issues were creating a bit of chaos in people’s understanding of what the laws of Shabbat have to say about electronics, and moreover, what the culture of Shabbat should be.

What was your intended outcome in writing this? Were you trying to make Shabbat easier for people?

I will say that I’m not looking for stringencies in life, but I am committed to the integrity of Jewish halachic practice. So, if my study had led me to the conclusion that there is no issue with use of an e-reader, then I would have been comfortable coming to that conclusion. But, I was actually almost looking for such a thing because I’m concerned that, increasingly, digital media may be the only way to access written content.

So, what happens in the future if the only way to read a book really is electronically?

If the only way to read a book on Shabbat is eventually on an e-reader like the Kindle, then I would say we will need to explore ways to modify them to be operated without downloading new content or creating permanent records.

Describe the difference between an electric sink or automatic door and using a Kindle or an iPad on Shabbat.

Electronic devices are embedded everywhere, making it almost impossible to avoid electronic interaction. That’s the core of my paper. The difference that I see between those two is that motion detectors that open doors and turn off taps and lights do not leave any permanent record.

I understand melachah to be about transforming material. A Kindle, which downloads information from the Internet and also tracks usage so that it knows where a [human] reader is and where they left off, seems to be to be more akin to writing, and therefore involves a transformation of material reality. For that reason, I think use of a Kindle and other electronics as being prohibited under the category of kotev, of writing.

What about some exceptions to the rule?

Let’s say someone is disabled and the only way of reading is through a Kindle that enlarges type, then you might say that his human dignity would supersede the lesser-level concerns like shvut, the “Shabbat atmosphere.”

Aren’t these gadgets just a way of life and Jewish law has to adapt?

Yes, that’s true, but we need vacations from routines now and then, and Shabbat is about challenging us to change our routine one day a week and experience life a bit differently.

Rabbi Jason Miller

The complete teshuvah can be accessed at

Rabbi Miller writes the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week. Twitter at @RabbiJason.

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