Rabbi Avi Weinstein

On Keeping “Half Shabbat” or Teenage text addictions

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Jewish Week has uncovered a new scandal.  Frum adolescents keeping shabbos except when it comes to texting.  They call it keeping “half shabbos”, maybe they should say “sho…shabbos” without the “mer”, or maybe it should be a faux shabbos.  Two people on my facebook page linked this story for dramatically different reasons. Shades of Rashomon.  One poster, an Orthodox rabbi who works with college age youth, and the other, a less than halachic Jewish communal professional.  The latter found the issue somewhat laughable. Kind of like, “Seriously, this is what’s got their knickers in a twist? Plllleasse!” The former wondered why these high schoolers find it so difficult to lay off their cell phones for one day a week, and why they text instead of just making a phone call? Even though boredom is given as one of the reasons, that doesn’t explain why texting was prevalent at a shabbaton. Presumably, there were many people to hang out with. What was the temptation?  As the article recounts:

At a recent campgrounds Shabbaton sponsored by a local Modern Orthodox high school, the teenage participants broke into small groups after the meals, as is usual, to talk with their friends.

On their cell phones.

Of the 17 students who attended the weekend program, said 17-year-old Julia, a junior at the day school, most sent text messages on Shabbat…

For some reason, a face to face conversation was deemed less fulfilling, or not fulfilling enough, than  composing a hackneyed 160 character missive in real time.  Well, kids will be kids, and as rebellions, or compulsions go, although sad and disappointing, it should not surprise, or scandalize anyone.  It does, however, raise some interesting questions.  Is compulsive texting a phase that is a consequence of having lots of time on ones hands, or will it remain a vital form  of communication that is tacitly permittedwell into adulthood?

I find texting useful when I need to convey information and do not wish to disturb the textee.  Say, I wished to announce that I had arrived safely, I would text “Landed”.  Similar terse messages are useful and efficient.  I would, however, find it profoundly annoying to use this medium as a primary form of communication, but obviously these kids do.  I cannot conceive how someone can rack up thousands of messages a month which means I have absolutely no handle on the nature of this phenomenon.

I do know, however, that if this is the part of shabbos one chooses not to keep, s/he is missing the point of shabbos altogether which is for a person to retreat within reason from all the technology around him and look inward.  One may argue that no Torah prohibition has been violated here (although that is not certain), but the individual has guaranteed that shabb0s as a totality will have less meaning and no impact on him in the largest sense.

The point of confining activity is so that habits of the spirit replace mundane daily routines.  If we only restrict ourselves, without replenishing our hearts and minds with reflective alternatives i.e. prayer, study, guests, and rest, then we have succeeded in making shabbos observance a misery.  The fact that the need to text is so overwhelming indicates a vacuum within a halachic framework that makes shabbos an empty shell that needs to be filled with something. Unfortunately, texting undermines the purpose and the essence of that structure.

Because I find it hard to imagine how anyone could send two thousand texts a month, I called my twenty-four year old daughter who during her undergraduate years was a serial texter. She is now married with a day job. I asked her if, now that she is married and a working adult whether the volume and the quality of her texts had changed.  She answered that she texts significantly less, and that she uses it primarily for making and confirming plans.  In college, it was the preferred medium for sharing news, and real time “conversation”.  Might this indicate that this is a phase that will burn itself out with more responsibility?

What she found disturbing about the new phenomenon was the brazenness of doing it out in the open at an organized youth activity.  Our house was a social center on Friday night when my daughter was in high school.  She said that even those who were not shomer shabbos wouldn’t have used their phones when they were hanging out in our basement because they respected where they were.

Ironically, it is the educational focus on halachic minutiae that contributes to minimizing the severity of this behavior.  If in ones head it is not  a significant transgression, then one can have her text and shabbos too–meaning that there is no difference between how one outside the shabbos framework and those ostensibly inside view the observance and desecration of shabbos.  Both say, “I don’t do drugs, I’m a good student, and I’m not so sexually active, so not only am I a good kid, my half shabbos identity makes me a good Jew. Driving on shabbos is technically a far more severe prohibition, but it does not invalidate the experience of shabbat any more than texting does.  The”Half shabbos” practitioners are measuring themselves by the values of the general community with pseudo-halachic ammo.

They also look ridiculous to the community that is now defining who they are. Why don’t you IM if you text? Your Ipad probably uses less electricity than your cell phone, so why not watch a movie? Does God want you to be bored on shabbos, how stupid is that? How, indeed?

When the Orthodox community was populated with smokers, most of them, managed to hold off for twenty-four hours a week from what is considered one of the most notorious of physical and psychological addictions. Shabbos, for them, was that important.  If one who cares enough about shabbos to keep at least “half”, but not enough to withdraw from their cell phones, one wonders what they think they are doing? Is the half kept out of personal commitment, convenience, parental pressure?

I can hear the educators query. “What would you have me do, invalidate their entire practice?” For someone who is newly introduced to Judaism, certainly not, but for the student who would not thinking of davening without a mechitza–



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