Shabbat in a technological world
New digital technology has had a huge impact on our lives. No area has been unaffected. We order things online and read e-books. Our smart houses turn on the lights when they sense us arrive; doors lock themselves when we leave. If these innovations are not here today, no one doubts that they are just around the corner. What impact will this have on Jewish law?
This is both a new and an old question. It’s new because these changes are happening as we speak. It’s old because technological change has always been with us and halacha has always needed to adapt. Indeed, the idea that Halakha will adapt to a changing environment is built into the system. Just as halacha has responded to changes in the past, so it will adapt to the changes of our generation.
The main area of Jewish law to be impacted by digital change are the laws of Shabbat, and the closest thing to the changes we are dealing with today was the invention of electricity almost two centuries ago. When electric lighting was first introduced, the majority of rabbis ruled that it was something new and different, and so permitted its use on Shabbat. They subsequently understood the impact of electricity. Electricity replaced fire as the main source of energy. It became the way to heat homes, cook food and illuminate our environment. As the Rabbis understood the place of electricity in society they regulated its use on Shabbat. This has continued up to our day.
The digital revolution will follow the same pattern. Electronics have become so central to our lives that it is impossible to pretend that one can go through Shabbat without them. Electronic devices accompany us everywhere. They control the lighting and the locks. They enable the hard of hearing to participate in society and the immobile to get around. It is neither possible nor desirable to prevent this.
It is impossible to say what Shabbat will look like in the future. But we can see some trends emerging. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a member of the Law Committee of the Conservative movement, has written a comprehensive paper, charting the direction of electronic technology on Shabbat in the Masorti movement. He suggests that the central consideration will be the act that is being done, rather than whether it is done by technology. For instance, if it was previously permissible to unlock a door, then it will continue to be permissible to unlock doors, even using an electronic key. If it was forbidden to cook on Shabbat, it will continue to be forbidden to cook, even if technology enables us to cook without touching any buttons. We will look at what is being done, not how it is being done.
Another prediction is that even if more work is done by machines, Shabbat will not become irrelevant. The idea of Shabbat is that we need a time of rest; to stand back from our work and enjoy the fruits of our labours. Technology will change; people will not. The need to rest, stand back from the world and turn off, will remain.
Shabbat isn’t about machines; it’s about people. It is about the place of work in our lives. It’s about rest, holiness, and spiritual endeavours. In the world of the future, technology will be different, but it will still be forbidden to work, shop, cook food or any of those everyday things. We will still need a day dedicated to holiness, family and community. As technology enters ever deeper into our lives, we might discover that we need Shabbat more than ever.
The technological revolution has profoundly changed our lives, but it has not changed what it means to be human. In the future, halacha will define the laws of Shabbat so that the central ideas of Shabbat remain attainable. Because, in the future, Shabbat will be even more important.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.