The Shabbos App?

This article was written for the Centre News by Russell Harding. It explores the fascinating issues raised by the prospect of a ‘Shabbos App’ which should be out any day. As explained in the article below, numerous halachic challenges confront the creators of this app.

Much publicity and debate surrounds the Shabbos App (shabbosapp.com), due for release in February 2015. The app is designed to allow the use of a smart phone on Shabbos to connect with others. There are a number of Halachic issues which the developers faced.

What it does:

The app allows users to communicate via text message with others on Shabbos. The screen, which is turned on before Shabbos, remains illuminated at one per cent of brightness for the duration of Shabbos. Remaining lit avoids the Rabbinic prohibitions of turning appliances on or off. The keyboard is replaced with a library of whole words – 120 included in the app and the user can add a further 30 words. Texts are sent by selecting the words and putting them together in a text message. All sounds and other phone features are disabled.

Some of the Halachic Issues – This is, at best, an exploratory treatment of the Halachic issues involved in a product that we have not yet seen. The issues involved are more complex than can be covered here.

Muktzeh – Non-Shabbos required items

It is not permitted to handle weekday objects that do not have a Shabbos purpose on Shabbos.

Koteiv – Writing

It is not permitted D’Oraisa, to write on Shabbos. There is a leniency, however, if the writing is temporary. This is a Rabbinic prohibition.

Grama – Indirect Causation

There are 39 melachot that are prohibited on Shabbos. However, there is no Torah violation if a prohibited act inadvertently results from performing a permitted act. This is grama, which is a Rabbinic violation. There are various opinions around this. According to the Zera Emet there should be a pause between a permitted action and the prohibited act. The Ran holds that one should not have intention. It is not Rabbinically permitted to perform a permitted act with the intention of bringing about a prohibited act.

Shinui – Doing Something in an Unusual Way

Undertaking prohibited activities D’Oraisa on Shabbos in an unusual way removes them from being a Torah violation. They are still prohibited Rabbinically. The Gemara relates a story of a house catching fire on Shabbos. It is not permitted to extinguish a fire. However, it is permitted to act in an unusual way – such as watering a couch ahead of a fire so that it goes out by itself when it reaches the wet area. Finally, there is a Rabbinic prohibition against performing actions that appear as if one is doing prohibited work. Grama requires actions to be undertaken in an unusual way.

What does this mean for the Shabbos App?

Muktzeh – The developers of the Shabbos app believe this is addressed by locking out all features of the phone except the Shabbos app – giving it a dedicated Shabbos purpose. However, there are other factors that need to be addressed before an object can be designated as non-Muktzeh on Shabbos.

Koteiv – The developers address this issue by having a user form texts out of whole words. They believe this avoids this problem since koteiv is performed by forming words from letters. Forming sentences from whole words does not constitute writing. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach holds that words on a screen do not constitute writing at all. The screen is merely displaying pixels which combine in a way to fool the eye into seeing letters and words. However, if you do not hold this, the writing is temporary since it disappears once it leaves the screen. As noted above this is Rabbinically prohibited.

Grama is addressed by having a pause between selecting words and sending a text and the text appearing on another user’s screen.

Shinui is addressed by the developers by having the app require that the phone be held with the top of the screen to the bottom. This is different than the normal way a phone is operated during the week. Selecting whole words is a different way of writing from how I wrote this article.

However, using a smart phone on Shabbos looks like an activity which would be Rabbinically prohibited. It is difficult to overcome the problem of intention. While the construction and transmission of texts may done in an unusual way, the intention is to send texts which would ordinarily be prohibited.

Finally, is the use of the Shabbos App Shabbosdik? Do we really want to spend aquiet and peaceful Shabbos hooked up to our smart phones?

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