Category Archives: Halacha

Is the Shabbat Smartphone app Kosher?

My students approached me asking for my opinion on the so called “Shabbat App” which – according to the developers – “allows you to Halachically use a Smartphone on Shabbos”.Shabbos app
After reading the material on their website, I discussed it in class. Below is a summery of my opinion, followed by 4 correspondences between myself and the app developers.

1. The foundational logic of it is false and very disturbing:

Currently, using a Smartphone on Shabbos is prohibited. Unfortunately, this does not stop many otherwise observant Jews from using their devices on Shabbos, and can make Shabbos harder for the more adherent observer that do not use a Smartphone. The Shabbos App will give us all a way to keep shabbos with all the stringencies and still take full advantage of the wonderful technology the world has to offer.

As I told the students, it would be like saying – since there are so many people who aren’t Shomer Negi’a (and/or “find it difficult to not be”), let’s come up with rules of how to minimize the חיבה (affection) aspect of touching – only through clothing, only after stipulating that it isn’t affectionate touching, etc… As one of the students said – “that’s ridiculous. No one who touches girls would care about any of those things”. Exactly. I don’t believe there is anyone out there who is texting on Shabbat but at the same time is stringent with Brachot before and after eating. Meaning, people who are texting on Shabbat do not do so because they find it difficult to manage without cell phones.
They do so because they do not care enough about Shabbat and are violating other איסורי (prohibitions) of Shabbat as well. There is a concept in Halacha called הלעיטהו לרשע וימות – we do not have a responsibility to minimize an איסור for people who intentionally violate Halacha. Furthermore, if we did do this – it would serve as a destructive blow to Shabbat as it would open the door for other people – who wouldn’t otherwise dream of using their phones on Shabbat – to start doing so.

2. In their list of possible issues that using the phone on Shabbat entails, the writers miss the biggest issue. They list possible איסורים (prohibitions) – Mav’ir, Boneh, Kotev, השמעת קול, etc… but say nothing of the main issue – ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר – from which מוקצה and other איסורי דרבנן (Rabbinical prohibitions) come, of differentiating Shabbat from weekdays. For many Poskim this is also the reason we do not use many electrical appliances on Shabbat and not because there is any actual איסור מלאכה. Throughout history our rabbis made sure to maintain the unique distinction between Shabbat and weekdays, making sure that during Shabbat people not only not create but also not be engaged – in action or thought – in weekday endeavors. I can think of fewer things that would empty Shabbat from all that is beautiful about it. Think of the quiet of Shabbat, the quality time with family and friends, the Shabbat meals and songs, the special atmosphere in and outside Shul, the Drashot, classes and lectures and the long hours of rest. How much of that would continue if cell phones – the instrument which most isolates us from our immediate surroundings – were permitted on Shabbat?

3. The possible מלאכות and ways they are “fixed” through the supposed app are riddled with mistakes. To name two of them:
– The idea that a battery heating up is אסור משום הבערת אש is very childish. Fire is not an issue of heat. Like most Melachot, it’s an issue of (יצירה) creation.
– In the “solutions” it mentions that a גרמא (causation) system will allow typing to be delayed and random. This idea is one most well known from the Tzomet solutions. The obvious difference being that Tzomet comes up with solutions because there is:
A. An actual Halachik need to violate Shabbat such as for sick people, for security and safety and other similar situations.
B. An extreme loss of Oneg/Kvod Shabbat, such as disabled people and the like.
In order so people who have to violate Shabbat or cannot function normatively on Shabbat the Halacha has a solution: The Mishna says that גרם כיבוי is מותר, the רמ”א conditioned that this can be used only במקום הפסד (in a place where there is loss) and the Poskim of our generation have said that security and health needs qualify as מקום הפסד. Equating cell phone use to any of these is nothing short of a gross abuse of Halacha.

It was a great discCellphone on Shabbatussion with my students. Though they didn’t agree with everything, they understood the logic I presented as well as my claim that whoever is behind this is not coming at it will pure intentions by any means as they are completely disregarding the most problematic aspect of the question.

And if you need further proof that this has little to do with concern for Shmirat Shabbat and are wondering what is really behind it one may not have to look much further than the price of the app – 50 USD.

(SEE IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW 4 CORRESPONDENCES BETWEEN MYSELF AND THE APP DEVELOPERS)

29 Comments

Filed under Education, Halacha, Torah

Jews as slave owners(?)

Jacob_Levin_slave_auction_ad

The title of this post makes me cringe as I’m assuming it does any decent person reading it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth – the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah’s slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that – at most – a person could be a slave for 6 years and of course – even slaves have 1 day off a week and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls ‘slave’, we today call ’employee’, ‘maid’ or ‘cleaning lady’ or ‘nanny’.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less “PC” aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his – Jewish – daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc…
To call this approach an attempt at apologetics would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn’t. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower wabolish slavery MEDorker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such non ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that “slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people”. Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah  and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation – leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc…)
This approach is a penetrating and complex one which carries a strong moral call to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly…).

A third approach to the question, which I would like to suggest is based on Rav Kook’s discussion of the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses. He writes the following:

“The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem’s will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. We are pleased when such preventions exist, as we recognize that such is the will of the divine providence in such times”.
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring – it is not a coincidence that in a generation when the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the ‘mixing of the nations’ which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalekite nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for their renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah’s observance as a positive expression of a more developed state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical, one to a spiritual and symbolic one.
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being – how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women’s role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient – and even modern – world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral progression of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The – divinely directed – impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism.

So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying – Heaven forbid – that ‘they aren’t relevant any more’***? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing…)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner ‘slave’ and ‘master’

I believe this third approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and search for relevance. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.

(*** What this third approach may actually mean is this: due to a variety of changes and developments, Mitzvot can become, categorically, no longer relevant as normative behaviors. But – and this is crucial – it is not us, humans, who make it no longer relevant, rather, Hashem makes them no longer relevant. This idea can be part of a larger explanation of מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא “In the time to come – Mitzvot will be nullified”, again – not by us, rather, by HIM through changes in humanity, be they ethnic, national, societal, psychological or moral. Deserves its own post but couldn’t help myself…)

2 Comments

Filed under Halacha, Morality

Vampires, Superman and Modern Day Paganism

Billboards have been announcing the new season of a show called True Blood. I don’t follow it (as it is described as extremely inappropriate) but I do follow the phenomena it is part of:
Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Falling Skies, Green Lantern, Thor, The Avengers, Transformers, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and Byzantium are only a short list of programs and movies that have – or will shortly- come across our “cultural” dashboard. There have and will be many, many more.
All of these shows and movies depict characters who are stronger, faster and smarter than us. They come from above, below and beyond. They battle among themselves for dominance over us mortals and our world and we are powerless before them, at their complete mercy.
They are immortal, or close to it.
Think of how much time and resources we spend on them. Books, magazines, movies, reviews, shows, merchandise, costumes and debates (Remember the “Stand By Me” debate? “Who would win in a fight – Mighty Mouse, or, Superman?” with the answer – “Of course Superman! Mighty Mouse is a cartoon! he isn’t even real”!
Is this any different than ancient polytheistic Greece?
Do we not “serve” these fictitious super-humans with our money, time and creativity? do we not go visit them in their temple-theaters or at our home alter-screens? Do we not shower the priests who bring us their words- writers, actors and producers – with adoration, prestige and even gold statues? Are we not rewarded for our service with entertainment, inspiration and even hope?
One could argue – with some degree of truth – that Torah’s issue with polytheism was as much a moral one as a theological one. To them I’d say, are the stories of these modern made, false gods, not filled with violence, sexual misconduct and immorality? Does this not – on some level – legitimize these behaviors for us mortals, as well?
I can’t help but think that Western Civilization has not come as far as it thinks in abolishing idol worship and may have just substituted one form for another, more subtle, one.
Judaism’s call to attribute divinity, “other-worldliness” and – as a consequence – origin of morality, to any but God himself is as load and necessary as it ever was.
Pay close attention to what you – and your children – are watching.

1 Comment

Filed under Halacha, Theology

YU & YCT; what I discovered on Grad Trip

Last week I was in NY with my grade 12s as part of their grad trip. The first morning we davenned and had a Shiur at YU and the following morning – the same at YCT.

The Shiurim and students’ responses were, in my eyes, representative of the growing differences between the two institutions and their influence on North American Jewry.
At YU – a Shiur about Tfila. It’s categorization, meaning and effectiveness. The Shiur had all the expected key word: A חילוק of Reb Chaim, The Holocaust, a reference to Rav Soloveichik and mention of The State of Israel. Though wrapped in ethos and pathos and the lack of source sheets, the message was very traditional – our dependency on Hahsem in our private and communal lives and the role Tfila plays in that dependency.
At YCT – a Shiur about animal rights in Halacha. The Shiur had all the expected key words: Values, ethics, “Halacha Vs.” and “letter of the law”. Though it was all based on analyzing traditional texts the message was revolutionary – the possible inconsistency between Halacha and Torah values.
None of the students were familiar with the differences between the institutions. Most of them had never even heard of YCT and I didn’t discuss it with them. Their responses were fascinating.
All the students thoroughly enjoyed one of the Shiurim and thoroughly did not enjoy the other. It was about a 50-50 split, though, between which they did and did not enjoy. Interesting.
Personally, I both objected and enjoyed both of them…

 

2 Comments

Filed under Halacha

Cheeseburgers and Moral Sensitivity


God: “And remember, Moshe, to keep kosher, never cook a kid goat in its mother’s milk. It is cruel.”
Moshe: “God, so are you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together?”
God: “No, what I’m saying is, never cook a kid goat in its mother’s milk.”
Moshe: “Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs?”
God: “No Moshe, listen! I am saying, don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk!”
Moshe: “Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my questioning! Do you mean we should have a separate set of dishes each for milk and for meat, and if we make a mistake we have to bury that dish outside …”
God: “Fine! Just do whatever you want.”
This famous joke relates to two puzzlements with the Pasuk לא תבשל גדי בחלב אימו which appears in our weeks’ Parsha. Firstly, why does the Pasuk appear, identically, three different times (Mishpatim, Ki Tisa & Re’eh)? And more importantly, how did we get from “not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk” to the elaborate Hilchot Basar VeChalav at the foundation of Hilchot Kashrut?
Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook offered the following reflection to understand this Mitzvah and its apparent importance:
The act of cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk is cruel and sinister; the mother’s milk, intended to give sustenance and life to the kid is being used to kill it and turn it into food. How insensitive does one need to be to do such a thing?
Mixing meat and milk, explains rav Tzvi Yehudah, holds a similar cruelty. We attain meat from an animal by killing it while we attain milk from an animal by preventing/relieving its pain. Though both products are attained by taking from an animal one is an act of cruelty while the other, an act of kindness. The separation of meat and milk instill within us the sensitivity to distinguish between mercy and cruelty; that we should not confuse the two. We should not blur the fine line that many times exists between that which is positive, or even, ideal and that which is negative, or just permissible. Understood and followed correctly, Hilchot Basar VeChalav heighten our moral sensitivity furthering our moral and religious growth, as individuals and a collective.
As a side note – this is but one example of how a Mitzvah can (and should) be understood in a way which makes it relevant to our – and our children’s – lives; relevant, empowering and, in my opinion, even inspirational. May we always look – and find – the deepest of meaning and relevance in Torah and Mitzvot.  

2 Comments

Filed under Halacha