The Shmooze

The Question of E-Reading on Shabbat

By Josh Tapper

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The idea that household appliances and electronic gadgetry should be adapted to fit the increasingly techno-centric lifestyles of Sabbath-observant Jews has always seemed a tad counter-intuitive. Shabbat, of course, means abstinence from light switching, button pressing, knob turning and any other action that initiates electricity from sundown Friday until Saturday night. But we live in an age of convenience. If an elevator can be tweaked so you don’t have to slog down the stairs on your way to shul Saturday morning, why not?

E-readers, however, pose an entirely new challenge, writes The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman. Unable to watch television, surf the Internet or go shopping, many observant Jews devote their Shabbats to reading. But print publishing, some argue, is on the verge of extinction. All reading – novels, textbooks, newspapers – might one day be digital.

“E-readers are problematic,” Friedman notes, “not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device – which causes words to dissolve and then resurface – an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.”

If e-reading becomes the norm, what’s an observant Jew to do? Friedman cites a few solutions, like printing reading materials during the week or developing an even more futuristic reading device that automatically turns pages.

E-readers, which don’t generate light and heat, are in fact permissible but, one Modern Orthodox rabbi argues, tread precariously close to forbidden activities. As products of our wired culture, e-readers undermine the Sabbath’s tranquility. The Bible’s original injunctions on Sabbath observance are notoriously contentious and it’s likely e-reading will become a matter of personal interpretation.

“The key for us,” says Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Eric Yoffie, “is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.”


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