metro >> on the cover / jews in the digital age
Can we accommodate our electronics
dependency on the day of rest?
CONTINUED FROM PAGE
Rabbi Miller: What made
you decide to take up this
Rabbi Nevins: I've been
thinking about electricity and
Shabbat for decades actually;
since I really began observing
Shabbat. I started research-
ing 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 sense about why.
It was worth clarifying what the consid-
erations were. In recent years, I've come
to feel that technology has become inte-
grated in a rapidly accelerating fashion
in our personal lives and the lack of clar-
ity about the halachic issues were creat-
ing a bit of chaos in people's understand-
ing of what the laws of Shabbat have
to say about electronics, and moreover,
what the culture of Shabbat should be.
How do the issues of electronics use
on Shabbat affect you personally?
I'm a parent of three teenagers and
creating policies for our family that pro-
tect the special atmosphere of Shabbat
so that we'd have one day to look at each
other in the eyes and not constantly be
looking down at glowing screens. That
was part of the motivation, which I think
is shared by many families that are try-
ing to preserve some element of inten-
tional family time that is not distracted
by all the other devices that constantly
call our thoughts away.
When you started writing this teshu-
vah, which electronic devices did you
have in mind?
Certainly computers and cell phones
were significant; those are probably
the most important ones I was think-
ing about. The iPad wasn't out yet. I did
begin thinking about the Amazon Kindle
fairly early in the process, but I had not
yet focused on one specific brand. I tried
8 July 26 • 2012
to focus less on the brand
names than on the technol-
Rabbi Daniel Nevins
What was your intended
outcome in writing this?
Were you trying to make
Shabbat easier for people?
I will say that I'm not look-
ing for stringencies in life.
But I do look for integrities
and interpretations of prac-
tice. 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, as I say in the
paper, I was actually in a way almost
looking for such a thing because I'm
concerned that, increasingly, digital
media may be the only way to access
As I said in a CJLS meeting, read-
ing is a significant part of the culture
of Shabbat, so if we got to the point
where the only way to read new con-
tent was by some sort of electronic or
digital medium then we would really
lose something with Shabbat. So I'm
concerned about that, and I described
these issues a few years ago in an article
in The Atlantic titled "People of the
So, what happens in the future if
the only way to read a book really is
If the only way to read a book on
Shabbat is on the Kindle, then I would
say we need to come up with ways for
the Kindle to be operated without down-
loading new content or creating perma-
nent records. If there's a will, there's a
way technologically, not just halachically.
Where there's a halachic will there's
a halachic way?
I'm not so comfortable with that
statement. Where there's a halachic will,
then there's also a halachic way. If you're
committed to the integrity of religious
where, 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 detec-
tors 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 reader is and where they left off,
seems to be to be more akin to writing,
and therefore involves a transformation of
material of reality. For that reason, I think
use of a Kindle and other electronics as
being prohibited under the category of
kotev, of writing.
Radio, television, and comput-
ers have been around for a while.
Why now, with the proliferation of
Smartphones, tablets and e-readers
are you bringing this up?
practice, then at some point the answer's
going to be "no."
Would your teshuvah be categorized
as meta-halachic since you're not
halachically opposed to electricity on
Shabbat? You're prescribing a break
from the workweek, so how is this
teshuvah different from the various
"un-plugged" campaigns and Sabbath
Well, I've spent dozens of pages work-
ing on halachic sources and making
conclusions for halachic reasons. Meta-
halachah implies there's something out-
side of the Halachah; an external body,
but that's the opposite of my belief.
Describe the difference between an
electric sink or automatic door and
using an Amazon Kindle or an iPad on
Electronic devices are embedded every-
Well, already 60 years ago, Rabbi
Arthur Neulander began talking about
the use of electronics, and I quote him in
the paper and basically agree with him.
He discussed TV and radio, not comput-
ers at that time in the 1950s. I basically
think that turning on a television and
turning on a radio do not involve writ-
ing and therefore are not prohibited as
forms of melachah. However, I question
whether they are appropriate to the
atmosphere of Shabbat, which we call
sh'v ut, in terms of resting.
Computers, I believe, do involve down-
loading content, even without the user
being aware of it. Every time you browse
to a new web page you're downloading
information, you're sending cookies, and
you're doing all sorts of processes that
you're not thinking about.
Part of Shabbat is getting people to
think more about the impact of their
behavior. On Shabbat, as I say in the
paper, we try to emphasize personal
interaction. Our digital technology iso-