Religion & Beliefs

Texting on Shabbat? There’s an App for That.

“Shabbos App” sparks controversy, delight, outrage. We interview developer Yossi Goldstein. Read More

By / October 13, 2014

Texting on the Sabbath? There’s an app for that.

The appropriately named “Shabbos App”—which is in development right now—will hit the market in 2015, allowing users to text on Shabbat within the confines of halacha (Jewish law). This is no cynical, gimmicky ploy: the developers (themselves observant Jews) have outlined all of the potential problems with texting on Shabbat, and explained how each one is circumvented by the app. For example, the app prevents the phone screen from turning off, skirting the prohibition against turning electrical items on and off.

The app has already stirred up debate over whether this would violate the spirit of the Shabbat, even if it is technically permissible. Rabbi Moshe Elefant of the Orthodox Union told Vos Is Neias that “it is very distasteful and not permissible on Shabbos.” Others were unconvinced: the concept struck Rabbi Yaakov Menken as so implausible that he described it as a “farce.”

But The Shabbos App is indeed real. One of the developers, Yossi Goldstein, sees it as the next step in what has been a long tradition of adapting technology around halachic restrictions. In a phone conversation, he compared the app to other items that have been permitted and accepted by the Orthodox community over the years, even if they were at first regarded as controversial. “Look at the Shabbat-mode ovens that are becoming popular, or Shabbat-clocks. Rav Moshe Feinstein [an influential 20th century Orthodox rabbi] prohibited Shabbat clocks. Yet many many people use them today.”

This is Goldstein’s first time developing an app and the only one that he and his team, which includes programmers, marketers and rabbis, are working on. A Kickstarter campaign to raise money and gauge interest went live before Sukkot, and will conclude on December 5. (To date they’ve raised $2,000 of their $30,000 goal.) Come February, the Shabbos App will be on the market for iPhone and Android users for a cool $49.99.

So far, reactions in the press and on social media have been mixed, varying from outrage to delight. There’s even a Facebook page called “Ban the Shabbos App.” (Ironically, the URL ends in “banshabbos”.)

Most responses seem to take issue with how this will impact the tone and feel Shabbat, which many Jews—Orthodox and otherwise—cherish as a day of rest from screen time. Goldstein recognizes that this is something that people will feel “won’t be in the spirit of Shabbos,” although that’s “the only” issue he sees as a possible problem. One commenter by the name of Yoni, wrote that “one of the things I love about Shabbos is that it forces us to disconnect from the outside world so that we can focus on Hashem and the holiness of the day.” Kate Barnes, who does not “keep Shabbat in an Orthodox fashion,” believes it is an “improbable excuse to try to technicality your way out of observing Shabbat properly.”

Writing in The Forward, Julie Sugar framed the Shabbos app as a tool that may draw people closer to Shabbat observance: “we’re making a grave mistake when we judge someone who is already struggling with Shabbos and is seeking a kosher balance.”

Goldstein, who plans to use the app, argues that not only should it be permitted by the rabbinical authorities, it should be openly embraced. He makes a strong case, pointing out the fact that many Shabbat-observant teens are already using their phones on Shabbat anyway. “People realize today most teens are already texting on Shabbat,” he said, “so how do we create something that allows them to do so in a halachic way?”

There’s room yet for consensus. Exceptions to halacha are routinely made for life-saving situations and medical emergencies. Tiffanie Yael Maoz, another commenter, wondered if this “would this allow parents of special needs kids to set up a geo-fence to notify them if their kid wanders too far?”

Goldstein believes that most of the controversy surrounding the creation of the app is a classic case of the “old guard” taking a stand against something new. He encourages people to keep an open mind about the app and see how it can enhance the Shabbat experience, instead of detract from it. “The real question is,” he said “do we embrace change or do we fight it?”

We should know by December 5.

Related: Shabbat Is a Day of Rest—But Does That Mean I Can’t Text My Friends?

(Image via Shabbos App/Facebook)