In the wake of the Atlantic article about e-readers and Shabbos (link), I’d like to examine why they cannot be used on Shabbos and how they can be adjusted for such use. All of this assumes that the reading material is appropriate, whether for weekday or for Shabbos (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 307:16-17). If not, then you have another reason why you should not be using an e-reader.
The issue of electricity in halakhah is complex. The clear practice is to forbid adjusting electric currents on Shabbos, although there is a range of opinions as to why. This comes to the fore in the literature regarding hearing aids. Ruling entirely strictly on Shabbos causes extreme hardship to the elderly. The consensus seems to be that unless there are extenuating circumstances, we follow the strict views. When there is a need to rule leniently, we take into account the lenient views (see R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Eidus Le-Yisrael, nos. 20, 56). Unless we are discussing a doctor or soldier using an e-reader for their work, or some similar extenuating circumstance, we cannot permit the electronic use involved in utilizing an e-reader on Shabbos.
The biblical prohibition against writing on Shabbos only applies to ink (or the equivalent) that lasts on a parchment (or the equivalent) that lasts. If you write with fruit juice, which doesn’t last, you only violate a rabbinic prohibition (“last” means either until the end of Shabbos or for the time people normally write things — see Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 303:68; Bi’ur Halakhah 340 sv. be-mashkin). Similarly, writing on a vegetable is only rabbinically prohibited (Mishnah, Shabbos 104b).
R. Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 6:37), writing in 1983, ruled that creating letters on a computer screen is biblically prohibited. The screen will not dissolve or rot, and is therefore the equivalent of parchment. The letters, also, will remain on screen permanently unless someone actively removes them. Indeed, in that period before screensavers, it was common to see letter burned into a computer screen, visible even when the screen was turned off. I suspect, but am not certain, that the advent of screensavers, which automatically erase the letters in a few minutes, should change this evaluation.
One might argue that on a computer screen, there is no ink on top of a parchment. The ink and the parchment are, essentially, one and the same (I’ll let the engineers correct me if I am wrong in this simplification). However, that is also true about engraving and photography, both of which are clearly prohibited. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote, in a 1979 responsum to R. Ephraim Greenblatt (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:40:10): “Anything that creates the act of writing, and in any manner that one performs the act of writing, is considered writing because the result of his action is that there are letters he wanted and he made them in the normal way of the act.” Similarly, Dayan Yaakov Posen writes in his Kitzur Hilkhos Shabbos (35:4): “It doesn’t matter with what the writing is made, just that what he writes should be subsequently visible.”
III. Rabbinic Writing
R. Nachum Rabinovich (Melumedei Milchamah, nos. 57, 63) argues that writing on a computer screen is not a prohibited form of writing because neither the letters nor the background will last. You will eventually turn off the electricity causing everything to disappear, and even if you do not the batteries or generator will eventually lose power and turn the computer off. Additionally, writing by typing is like writing with your left hand — it isn’t the normal way to write.
I fail to understand the argument. The screen, even if turned off, remains in place. Only the letters disappear. Therefore, writing on a computer should be rabbinically prohibited. Additionally, the Mishnah Berurah (340:22) writes that even if neither the writing nor the background will last, the writing is still rabbinically prohibited (that seems to me to be the simple understanding of the Yere’im and Semag on this subject).
The electricity argument is difficult at a home or office where the computer is connected to enough electricity to last multiple lifetimes. But even battery-operated screens do not dissolve. They merely turn off and can be turned back on. Only the letters disappear. And regarding performing a forbidden act by pushing buttons, the Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim, 36) established quite convincingly that plowing a field by starting the electricity is equivalent to doing it by hand. By pushing the button, one violates a biblical prohibition. I’m not sure why typing should be any different (see the She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah (80:58) who quotes sources prohibiting telegraphs and stenography).
IV. Electronic Writing
Regardless, R. Rabinovich concludes (p. 187) that typing on a computer is rabbinically prohibited because it is similar to writing. He also quotes R. Moshe Feinstein (Techumin, no. 14 p. 432) and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as saying that it is at most rabbinically prohibited (see also Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 66:55 where R. Yehoshua Neuwirth clearly implies that writing on a computer consists of text that does not last on a screen that does; and see Chol Hamoed, p. 91 n. 43; Shulchan Shlomo 340:10-11).
This means that using an e-reader or texting is doubly forbidden rabbinically on Shabbos — because of manipulation of electricity and writing.
V. Uvda De-Chol
There is a vague prohibition of uvda de-chol which forbids “weekday” activities. It cannot prohibit everything we do during the week because then we would not be allowed to eat or talk. R. Dovid Ribiat (The 39 Melochos, vol. 1, Introduction, n. 523) explains the views of three leading authorities of the late twentieth century on what is forbidden as uvda de-chol. According to R. Moshe Feinstein, the act is best performed in a forbiden way and the alternate, less intensive way one performs it on Shabbos is not readily evident. According to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, something that is normally done in a forbidden way. According to R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, something done on a large scale rather than just for Shabbos. Because using a computer is forbidden, using an e-reader in a uniquely permitted way (see below) might be an uvda de-chol according to R. Auerbach. I don’t think R. Feinstein or R. Kamenetsky would consider it an uvda de-chol.
VI. A Shabbos E-Reader
What follows are initial thoughts on how to devise an e-reader that can be used on Shabbos. I leave it to leading rabbis to fully and conclusively evaluate any proposal. An e-reader cannot be adjusted on Shabbos but it can be programmed to start a book at a certain time and turn the page at specific intervals (e.g. every 30 seconds). You can schedule a book for, say, 3pm on Shabbos afternoon.
All buttons would have to be automatically disabled so a reader cannot accidentally (or intentionally) adjust the reader. If you miss a page, it’s like going to the bathroom during a TV show (back, before DVRs) — you missed it. Additionally, the e-reader would have to glow on the outside or change colors so that anyone looking will know that it is operating in Shabbos mode.
Would anyone want this when they can buy or borrow a hard copy book? Right now, I can’t see why. But if and when a generation arises that only knows e-books, its members might want one. Until then, we’ll stick with traditional books for Shabbos.