An Unvirtual Day
I was not just stir-crazy but screen-crazy. I was working on two computer screens—my laptop’s and the big one on my desk—and had my Kindle on my left and a document open on my tablet on my right, which made four screens, except when one of my kids texted me, when the phone made five.
I got on my bike. It was late afternoon, with a light Jerusalem breeze blowing. I rode along the promenade that overlooks the Old City, up to where it narrows into a path between tall evergreens, and found a stone bench where I could see the golden Dome of the Rock between the branches. I often come to the same spot on Shabbat, on walks with my wife.
Relief. I inhaled the scent of the woods and thanked God for green.
Then I pulled my phone off my belt. The motion felt like an involuntary twitch of my hand. Anyone watching might have thought that I was checking a news site, but I knew that the screen came first; the choice of what to tap came after. I realized what I had done, looked at the rectangle of glass and plastic and stuck it back on the belt clip.
I thought, “This does not happen to me when I come here on Shabbat.”
I don’t use screens on Shabbat.
It has been such a short time since screens were bulky boxes that we only used at our desks. Then they got smaller and lighter. It is so convenient to be able to take a laptop anywhere—look at me! I can answer my boss while sitting on the porch—especially when the laptop shrank into a tablet and a phone.
Today, the biggest hazard in biking in Jerusalem is no longer the drivers but people texting while walking who do not see me. Nor do they see flowerboxes on housing projects or beggars on downtown sidewalks.
I take the bus from South Jerusalem to Mount Scopus in the north. Even the tourists do not look up from their phones to notice the Old City walls passing by. They could be on a bus in Topeka. I go into a café. A young woman who is clearly considering what to wear tonight sits across from a guy and both tap their phones. As I write this, my hand twitches toward my pocket. Are there new messages? News alerts? Tweets?
But on Shabbat my screens go dark. The custom in Jerusalem is to start Shabbat 20 minutes earlier than elsewhere, which means that there are a full 25 hours from candlelighting to havdala—hours in which, by choice, I am left without my own devices.
I personally know people who wonder how an educated and skeptical person like me could not only feel bound to a bunch of laws derived from an ancient text—but could even think that those laws apply to devices that hit the market this year.
Let them wonder. For 25 hours each week, everything I see is real, not pixels, and I live in a world of things that can be touched as well as seen and heard. I see the trees on the promenade rather than on my screensaver. Songs are something people sing, not YouTube clips.
For six days, I am a compulsive screentapper. On the seventh I belong to Screentappers Anonymous. “Hello. My name is Gershom, and I have been offline for three hours and 12 minutes.”
I did not fully think about my technology habits until I spent a semester in New York as a visiting professor. It was the first time I had lived in America in over 30 years. In Israel, people sometimes immediately and mistakenly think they know everything about me when I tell them not to phone me on Shabbat, but the concept is not new to them.
At Columbia University, I explained to grad students of five religions and multiple nationalities that between sunset Friday and nightfall Saturday I did not answer texts, calls or anything else electronic. Hoping to provide a spark of recognition, I referred in my syllabus to the film The Big Lebowski, where Walter, the big bowler who declares his loyalty to “3,000 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” defiantly insists, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”
Some of my students had never met an observant Jew. If they had seen Lebowski, that line passed them by. They responded to my announcement with wonder and curiosity. What if your phone beeps? (It’s off, I said.) What if your Significant Other texts you? (She doesn’t.) How is it possible to be unavailable all that time, to not communicate?
I’m grateful. They made me articulate what I think about communication and Shabbat.
Communication has become ever more pervasive and ever more diluted in our lives. On the phone, you do not see someone smile or look at you blankly. Email eliminates the tone of voice. Emoticons are not a substitute. Email is abrupt, and text messages even more so. Besides, have you noticed that people often only read one screen’s worth of text, so that the effective length of email has shrunk with screen size?
And surely you are aware that someone friending you on Facebook does not make her a friend, and that what an actual friend writes in their status on social media is thinner than what she would say in person?
The more we communicate, the less we are in touch.
I cannot cut myself off from all this all the time. Tapped and typed messages are essential to my livelihood and personal life. Besides, like everyone, I live the constant illusion that somehow I will reach through the screen and feel that I am actually with someone. I am like a cat trying to get to a bird on the screen. (There must be a YouTube video of a cat doing that. I’ll text my daughter and ask.)
But I have this as an anchor. I am only connected six days out of the week. On the seventh, in accordance with rules rooted in parchment, every person I talk to is real, is with me and is flesh and blood. I see a living face.
The French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas puts seeing another person’s face at the center of his philosophy and of life. When you look into a face you know that there is someone other than you, he wrote. Ethics are a response to looking at another person’s face, and the recognition of Someone infinite grows from there.
On Shabbat, everyone has a face.
I learned something else about Shabbat at home in Jerusalem, but from foreign visitors. My shul often hosts visiting interfaith groups. One Friday night, a couple from California had dinner with my family. Late in the evening, we walked them back to meet their group. On the way, we met friends and said, “Shabbat shalom.” At the traffic light we talked to a couple of other families who were returning from Shabbat dinners. One of our guests suddenly said, with surprise, “Oh, so you know your neighbors!”
I weighed the possibility that she was pointing to the difference between Jerusalem and California, or between a city and a suburb. But there was something more. My guests had a church community to which they were closely tied, but it was spread across a large town. The halakhic prohibition on driving has an effect not written in halakha: It creates religious communities that are no larger geographically than walking distance.
If you do not drive on Shabbat, you look for an apartment or house close enough to a synagogue that you can walk there. You live close to members of your community. The space around you is less strange.
The technical reason in Jewish law for not driving a car on Shabbat is that lighting fire on the seventh day is explicitly forbidden in the Torah, and an internal combustion engine constantly lights fire. The technical reason for not riding a bicycle—that you might fix it along the way—is less convincing. The reason given in the Talmud for not riding a horse on Shabbat—that you might break off a branch to use as a switch—well, come on, is that serious?
The technical reasons are not the point. As my son explained to me one Friday night, the discussions of the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud resonated with the line in Exodus, “No man should leave his place on the seventh day.” The context in the Torah is Moses telling the generation of the desert not to gather manna on Shabbat. But the rabbis saw a lasting principle in “don’t leave your place.”
There are two, complementary, ways to understand this. One is that Shabbat is designed to take you out of the world of business. The Mishna lists 39 categories of activity forbidden on Shabbat. Taken together, they constitute the major elements of producing and marketing things two millennia ago.
Horseback riding is not on the list but fits the same idea. Most people who went by horseback did so for business. Shabbat is meant to take you out of all the activities that define you as a producer, seller and buyer. It is meant to make you a human being, not just an economic unit.
The second understanding is simpler: “Don’t leave your place” means “have a place.” Have a neighborhood.
Rabbi akiva knew about horses, but could not dream of electricity, much less touchscreens. I know Jews—some religiously inclined and some scornful—who think that modern rabbis are Luddites or loony to think that the prohibitions of Shabbat apply to texting.
I submit that in this case, modern rabbis have gotten it right.
In fact, I have to say that the prohibition of checking your screen and tapping it was there, hidden, waiting 3,000 years to emerge and that its presence is a sign that the text on parchment echoes Divine wisdom and is eternally unfolding.
All along, the text has waited to tell us: For one day, look away from the screen. Look at people’s faces, listen, feel wonder.
Shabbat is not a guarantee you will do that. But it is a path. Thank God for that.
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