iPhone Shabbat Mode

January 24, 2013Karen White

As a Reform Jew, I lead a largely secular life. Most of my friends aren't Jewish. My daily schedule is governed more by school hours and work demands than it is by rituals of worship. And the synagogue plays only a peripheral role in my life.

Nonetheless, I have been wondering how to make Shabbat a presence in my week, in a way that honors the spirit of the commandment but also works for my family and for my life. To date, I have been largely unsuccessful in this mission. I have given it plenty of lip service and little effort.

Last Friday, I decided to try something that would truly make Shabbat feel different: I left my iPhone at home.

It sounds insignificant, but my phone has become somewhat of an external organ. And I know I'm not alone in this phenomenon. You see it everywhere. I was standing on the train platform not too long ago, marveling at how no one was looking at each other; everyone was absorbed in their own little palm-sized rectangle, drawn away from the physical world like Frodo with the Ring. There has been plenty of publicity around fatalities related to texting while driving, but it doesn't stop there. Even pedestrian injuries and deaths related to texting are on the rise. It's distracted living that's really disturbing.

So, when I left Friday night to meet the kids for sushi- a ritual that truthfully is much more core to our Shabbat observance than lighting candles - I left the phone plugged in to the charger, sitting on the kitchen counter. I didn't unplug it until Saturday night. I allowed myself to answer it, and to check it if there was a message waiting - but for 24 magical hours, it was simply a telephone, tethered to my house just like the one we had as a kid. All it was missing was the rotary dial.

The contrast from daily life was remarkable. Without the distraction of the phone/camera/watch/Gameboy/map/notepad/computer in my purse, I felt liberated in a way that I had not anticipated. As I navigated a local town without a map, the grocery store without a list (and no way to get one via text), and photo opps without a camera, I felt something in me relax. I was unencumbered. In one small way, I had released myself into the moment. Maybe all that information at my fingertips wasn't so critical.

At one point in the afternoon, I realized that I had nothing that actually needed doing right away. One child was at a birthday party, the other was off learning to ride a bike with her dad, and I sat there on the couch, wondering what to do with myself. Words with Friends was off-limits. I couldn't watch the world go by on Facebook. I had already gotten in a workout. So I picked up a book-a huge novel that I have been working through for several months-and read. Novel, indeed.

On the Union of Reform Judaism's website, there is an excerpt from a speech by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the 69th General Assembly, back in 2007. He speaks about the Reform movement's struggle to define a Shabbat ritual that works for its members, and yet a growing openness to Shabbat observance, "even among those who never attend services." He continues:

Why is this happening?

Because we now understand that Shabbat was always central to Reform Judaism. Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers. And most important of all, because Reform Jews need Shabbat.

In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave? When work expands to fill all our evenings and weekends, everything suffers, including our health. Families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with email as playing with his children.

For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah's mandate to rest is relevant and sensible... We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.

And this most of all: On Shabbat, whether in synagogue or at home, we are asked to give our kids, our spouse, and our friends the undivided attention they did not receive the rest of the week. On Shabbat we speak to our children of their hopes and dreams. We show them that we value them for who they are and not for the grades they get or the prizes they win. During the week we pursue our goals; on Shabbat we learn simply to be.

For me, the simple act of abandoning my phone was a small step towards learning to be (or re-learning it.) It removed a notable stress from Shabbat. I'm going to try this out for a while to see where it goes. And I'm inspired to find other small changes; if this one was sitting right under my nose, what else could be?

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