When Hal Freed travels to Boston next week for the international convention of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, he plans to take his e-reader along. And during Shabbat services, Freed, a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, will use his tablet to study the day’s Torah portion.
“I’m going to try it. I’m very curious,” said Freed, president of the FJMC’s Seaboard Region, which includes Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
In a movement that is devoted to Jewish law, the use of e-readers on Shabbat is seen by some as a departure from halacha. But to proponents like Rabbi Charles Simon, the FJMC’s executive director, a carefully circumscribed use of e-readers is an acceptable tool to help younger Jews who do not necessarily rely on printed books to connect with the liturgy.
“What’s going to happen when our children and grandchildren go into synagogue in 10 years?” he said. “They use e-readers.”
Simon invited attendees at the convention, to be held July 24-28, to participate in the experimental use of e-readers during Shabbat services. He asked participants to download the Torah portion before Shabbat, so there will be no need to access the Internet once Shabbat begins.
Last year, as the movement was debating the issue, Simon wrote in CJ Kolot magazine that adopting e-readers was a necessary innovation.
“If we desire future generations of modern Jews to attend and become more comfortable … in our sanctuaries, we need to recognize that the definition of a book is changing,” he wrote. “We have to figure out how we can incorporate this technology and at the same time maintain our sense of the holy.”
At the same time, few texts, including the Conservative prayer book, are available for download, he said.
Freed said he has mixed feelings about the innovation. “It could be very good. You could have visuals, you could bring up commentaries. There could be a different version for younger people. The downside is you’ve got to control people not to surf the web.”
That was also Rabbi Daniel Nevins’ concern. Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in a teshuvah (rabbinic response) last year, in which he said that the use of electronic devices is not permitted on Shabbat. The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved the ruling 17-2, with two abstentions.
E-reader use raises concerns about the commandment against creative work on Shabbat and the commandment to promote a Shabbat-like atmosphere.
Nevins wrote that a tablet’s electronic circuitry doesn’t violate Shabbat. The problem with an e-reader is that “beyond displaying text, they also provide users with the ability to record notes and to download additional content. Both of these activities are forbidden under the biblical category of toledat koteiv, a derivative form of writing [which is forbidden on Shabbat].”
The use of e-readers is also a breach of the spirit and distinctiveness of the day, he wrote. “Even if some electronic communication devices are not forbidden as a form of melakhah [productive work], the tranquility of Shabbat may be compromised by such activities.”
Rabbi Jack Moline, of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, believes that the use of e-readers at the FJMC convention is premature.
“If you accept Danny Nevins’ suggestion that all of these devices detract from Shabbat, that ends the discussion,” he said.
Moline said that technology must first be developed that would make it impossible to download onto a tablet during Shabbat. Until then, the movement should stick to print books. “I don’t think we have a reason to get ahead of the technological curve.”
He added, “Even if I agreed with Rabbi Simon, I would not do what he is doing without support of a broader cross section of rabbinic authority.”
Rabbi Charles Arian, of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, agrees with Simon.
“The bottom line is that I come to the same halachic conclusion as Rabbi Simon, that is, that the use of an e-reader is permissible on Shabbat provided it is not connected to the Internet,” he said in an email, “and that further it’s necessary to permit this since e-readers are clearly the wave of the future and we want to make Jewish learning broadly accessible.”
Still, because synagogues generally have enough prayer books and Chumashim (Five Books of Moses) for all, “I am not sure I see the need for it now, though it may well be a more pressing question some years down the road,” he wrote.
Simon also found support from Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin, Calif. In a dissent to Nevins’ paper, Spitz argued that the e-reader is a “technology of most value for our constituents and we should offer guidance to offer Shabbat access now.
“Reading, warming, and conversing add to the joy of Shabbat,” he added. “As with the use of electricity, electronic devices may enable us to both have greater comfort and knowledge and enhanced connection to loved ones.”
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