Texting on Shabbos
I. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach
A significant element of the evolution of Jewish law in the twentieth century was caused by the development and proliferation of radically new technology, the like of which our ancestors never saw. At the front of the curve was a traditional Jerusalem scholar, raised and educated in the old world but respected in and open to the new. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) was a child prodigy in the Torah center of pre-State Jerusalem. As he rose in accomplishments and stature, he became one of the primary addresses of complex halakhic questions, particularly those dealing with new medical and electronic technology. He surrounded himself with expert advisors and acquainted himself with the details of these new developments. In the wake of recent articles on the alleged “Half Shabbos” phenomenon, in which otherwise observant teenagers text on Shabbos, commenters on this blog called for a re-evaluation of the attendant halakhic implications based on R. Auerbach’s views. Who else could so fully handle both the technical and halakhic aspects? The following is my admittedly limited attempt to uncover what his view would be.
In 1935, the young R. Auerbach published a book exploring the halakhic implications of electricity. Me’orei Eish boldly disagreed with established scholars based on an intimate understanding of the new technology and a world-class set of Talmudic arguments. Extremely popular in scholarly circles, the book raised the young scholar to fame and set him on his life course of halakhic decision-making on technological issues. In 1980, after 45 years and numerous technological revolutions, R. Auerbach published an updated edition of the volume. After another 30 years, in 2010, R. Auerbach’s children and grandchildren published a further updated edition, adding letters, some from manuscript, and published testimonies of R. Auerbach’s views.
The new edition also includes a 240 page study by R. Zalman Menachem Koren, explaining the various new technologies and their detailed evolution throughout R. Auerbach’s life and beyond. I don’t know his credentials but he seems to have meticulously researched both the engineering and Torah aspects of the subject. R. Koren proceeds by topic and collects everything R. Auerbach wrote on the subject, noting where technology changed in R. Auerbach’s life and since and trying to place everything in its proper context. R. Koren’s study is exhausting because he explains all the technology from first principles. But this thoroughness makes it an essential work, one on which I draw heavily in trying to determine — albeit tentatively and subject to review by greater experts — what R. Auerbach would say about texting on Shabbos.
In 1946, R. Avraham Karelitz published his Chazon Ish on Orach Chaim in which he forbids completing an electrical circuit because it constitutes the forbidden labor of building (boneh). As already mentioned, R. Auerbach had written on the subject a few years earlier and had reached a very different conclusion. R. Auerbach exchanged letters with the Chazon Ish but neither changed the other’s mind. R. Auerbach was convinced that boneh does not apply to an electrical circuit that is frequently opened and closed in the course of normal usage. However, he carefully noted where he and R. Karelitz agreed. In particular, someone who normally leaves his computer on for days at a time (as I do) may violate the labor of boneh by turning it on even according to R. Auerbach (R. Koren, pp. 865-882, 971).
Significant for our purposes, R. Auerbach explicitly forbade turning on a fluorescent light on Yom Tov because it constitutes generating (molid) light (see below). But R. Auerbach rejected the generalization of this prohibition to apply to all usage of electricity, as some such as the Beis Yitzchak did.
Sometimes electricity causes unquestionable labor to occur, such as an electrically controlled sprinkler that waters grass. R. Auerbach argued that the person pushing the button, so to speak, is culpable for the resultant labor despite the electrical force in between. Yet even in other cases, where pushing a button does not cause forbidden labor, R. Auerbach still forbids using electricity because people will get confused and fail to differentiate between permitted and forbidden usages (Minchas Shlomo, vol. 1 no. 9 sec. 7; R. Koren, pp. 882-886). It seems to me that this reason is well suited to texting on Shabbos.
In the context of using personal computers and laptops on Shabbos, R. Koren (pp. 940-946) distinguishes between three types of screens/monitors — cathode ray tube (CRT), plasma and liquid crystal (LCD). R. Auerbach only discussed the first kind but from his logic we can deduce what he would say about the lattter two. The first issue is the prohibition of writing on Shabbos. Does causing words to appear on a screen qualify as writing?
R. Auerbach told Dr. Avraham Sofer that writing via an electron stream is not considered writing on a biblical level (Nishmas Avraham, vol. 4 p. 55ff.). One could infer that he held it to be writing on a rabbinic level. However, in a responsum to R. Ephraim Greenblatt regarding closed circuit security cameras, R. Auerbach wrote that because the image only remains for a brief moment until it is reconstituted on screen, it is not considered writing at all (Rivevos Ephraim vol. 3 no. 247). He explicitly distinguishes between writing on a screen and writing in fruit juice. The latter disappears quickly and is rabbinically prohibited but the former disappears instantly and is still rabbinically forbidden (if not for other reasons to permit) but not because it is writing.
R. Auerbach similarly distinguished between thermometer films, on which a fever causes the numbers to turn red, and a computer screen. He prohibited the former rabbinically as writing but not the latter (Nishmas Avraham, ibid.).
R. Koren (pp. 943-946) deduces from these rulings that R. Auerbach did not consider typing words or causing pictures to appear on a CRT screen to be prohibited writing at all. R. Koren then proceeds to apply this conclusion to plasma and LCD screens, stating that the same applies to them. However, he cautions about a recently publicized type of LCD (presumably ZBD) in which the screen retains what is written on it even after being turned off. The user merely changes what is on the screen. Writing on this type of screen would be biblically prohibited because the text (or picture) is created for what could be a long period of time.
IV. Lighting Screens
Screens present a further issue. The Gemara (Beitzah 23a) forbids (on a rabbinic level) spraying perfume on a garment on Shabbos because it creates (molid) within it a fragrance. While R. Auerbach disagreed with the view that causing electric current to flow is considered molid, he did not entirely reject the concept. His different discussions of the subject seem to contradict each other, although R. Koren reconciles them nicely (pp. 882-886).
R. Auerbach stated that this prohibition cannot be extended to cases beyond the one mentioned in the Gemara. However, he also wrote that it applies to a spark that will last (i.e. does not immediately disappear). He specifically stated that something that is changed from dark to light, such as a fluorescent lightbulb, is considered forbidden as molid even more than perfuming a garment (Me’orei Eish, ch. 2 sec. 7 p. 160). R. Koren suggests that R. Auerbach was stating that unrecognizable changes cannot be considered molid but lighting a dark object is rabbinically prohibited.
Applying this to screens, both CRT and plasma screens involve lighting pixels in one way or another. R. Auerbach would therefore consider their use on Shabbos rabbinically forbidden because of molid, just like he forbade turning on a fluorescent light. LCD screens are backlit. If the backlight is already on, then using such a screen only blocks or modifies light and does not turn it on. Therefore, molid does not apply to LCD screens unless you turn on the backlight. However, I can’t imagine a cellphone with the backlight continuously on. Therefore, even LCD screens are rabbinically forbidden, according to R. Auerbach, because of molid.
In the addenda to R. Yehoshua Neuwirth’s Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah (ch. 66 n. 211), R. Auerbach writes that saving onto a disk files that will be used for a long time is considered building (boneh). R. Koren (pp. 974-979) explains that R. Auerbach was writing in a time when computer programs would be saved on floppy disks and then used for years in that way. When you saved a file on a disk, you set the disk’s use and long-term contents. We don’t treat disks that way anymore and therefore saving files on a disk is no longer forbidden as boneh. Perhaps burning a CD or formatting/imaging a hard drive is today’s equivalent.
However, R. Koren suggests that perhaps saving information in an archive is considered boneh. While you are not completing the disk’s form because you will continue adding to the archive, you are still storing the information permanently for potential retrieval. He leaves this crucial question unresolved (p. 977).
When you send a text or e-mail, you are causing it to be saved not only on your phone or computer (usually) but also on intermediary servers. The text or e-mail is permanently stored electronically and will always be available for retrieval (e.g. by the police). It seems that this falls under a safek de-oraisa, a question of a biblical prohibition.
VI. Texting is Forbidden
My conclusion from this research is clear. As I understand the technology and halakhah, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would forbid texting on Shabbos due to a questionable biblical prohibition, a certain rabbinic prohibition and an important public policy reason. While I welcome corrections on both the technology and the halakhah, I add a further note of caution. Even if you can construct a halakhic argument to permit texting on Shabbos, you may not want to travel down that path. Not everything that can be done, should be. As the general public struggles to survive the crushing burden of constant connectedness, often by unplugging for a day or time on a regular basis, why would Orthodox Jews head in the opposite direction?
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