Prayer on the Go? There’s an App for That!
12/08/11
Jewish Week Online Columnist

I slowly walked down the stairs, brain still half asleep, eyes half-closed. I saw my dad seated at my dining room table, wide awake, staring intently into his Kindle. My parents were in town for the High Holy Days, a time of year we hadn’t spent together in a long time. “Whatcha reading?” I mumbled, mid-yawn, and he promptly told me that he was enjoying his early morning Rashi. Rashi – on his Kindle! And then he was planning on studying a bit of Talmud before continuing with his day. I wondered aloud what Rashi would have thought about his words being available on an e-reader.

It’s not new, in late 2011, to have Jewish texts available in multiple electronic forms. The Internet has made many available for years, both in the original Hebrew or Aramaic, and in translation. E-Readers, like the Kindle, have many texts for free or minimal costs. And, since the proliferation of the Smartphone, many siddurim (prayerbooks) and other holy texts have been available, often for free, for both Android and Apple phones.

And, despite this familiarity with Jewish apps, I was so excited to see that the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Press, under the leadership of Rabbi Hara Person, just released its Tefilah: Mishkan T’filah App  for the iPad. It includes the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy for Friday nights, and more services are planned for the future. Immediately, my mind started racing with questions: How might one use the App? What would it be like to pray from it? Who would most benefit from its availability? And WHY DON’T I HAVE AN IPAD YET? (Anyone is welcome to get me one for Chanukah, hint-hint). 

Rabbi Dan Medwin, Publishing Technology Manager for the CCAR, and fellow Brandeis Alum, created the App. I asked him some of my questions, and he shared with me his thoughts. “It will be a way for folks who might not have purchased their own copy of Mishkan T’filah, or been willing to "borrow" it from their shul, to have access to the prayers and readings at any time.” Its introductory price of $4.99 certainly makes it an easy addition to one’s virtual library.

In addition, Rabbi Medwin emphasized the App’s portability, as well as the reader’s ability to personalize the prayer experience that much more. Many worshippers have complained about Mishkan T’filah’s heaviness, as well as the small font, and the App would eliminate both factors. Hopefully, one day, the App would allow users to customize the service by including extra readings, poems, or one’s own liturgical musings. Most symbolically, the creation of the App, for Rabbi Medwin, demonstrates the Reform Movement’s active involvement in 21st century Judaism.

I’ve been fascinated by my colleague’s responses to the App. Rabbi Eleanor Steinman (also a Brandeis Alum – we’re everywhere) shared some of her reactions on her blog.  She writes: “I personally am really excited to have a siddur on my iPad. There are moments when I want to pray using the fixed liturgy (I can pray anytime I want using my own words and so can you). Hooray for convenience! I think this app is a great thing. It provides Jews with access to liturgy on the go, creates different and perhaps better accessibility options (the print can be really big!), and so much more.”

Yet, other colleagues have raised important spiritual and religious concerns with the App. Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who writes a blog as “Frume Sarah,” shared her feelings: “I have written before about my love/hate relationship with the e-reader. And I really do feel that Shabbat should be a sacred, unplugged time and space. The idea that the People of the Book should begin the slow process of moving away from the physical relationship with the printed word and towards the screen is disheartening.

How do we find the balance? Would praying on an iPad during an Erev Shabbat service lead us to feel that we never truly disconnected from the work week, and that we are still inextricably dependant on our electronic devices? I think that both Rabbis Steinman and Schorr bring up important issues: accessibility and convenience of the prayer service, while still maintain a sense of Shabbat’s kedushah, holiness.

Ultimately, of course, it is up to each of us to feel out our own comfort levels. The next generation of Jews, who have grown up with an iPhone at the ready, will probably be surprised that any of us expressed discomfort with the concept. Likewise, many of my colleagues have begun to deliver sermons or even officiate at weddings directly from their tablet devices. Praying from them is a natural next step. I applaud the CCAR for maintaining its forward-thinking stance. But we must all follow our kishkes and decide what works best for each of us. I look forward to experimenting with the App, exploring all of its various possibilities, and figuring out its place in my own sense of spirituality. I look forward to hearing from those who try it out – let me know what you think! 

Last Update:

05/08/2012 - 15:46

Comments

For a couple of years I haven't been able to hold the prayer book during services, especially while standing. Weak hands and eyes dictate that I must use something lighter. So I have just had to recite and sing everything by heart. I love the new app and can hardly wait for the shabbat morning edition. I also use it during Torah study before the morning services, able to quickly stay on track with Davka's Tanach. Since it's a very long drive to Temple I only go in the morning and wish I had the morning prayers for Shabbat already! It will be very welcome when it finally is issued for download.

My initial thoughts: I need an iPad! And when will the app be available for the iPhone? (I did a search immediately, only to come up with a list of unrelated apps.)

Now to get serious. For me, there are at least two major advantages to eBooks. I love having access to certain books right in the palm of my hand. Several months ago, I desperately needed a textbook for one of my classes but was unable to find it in a bookstore. I was able to download the Kindle edition of the book to my laptop and to my iPhone. Sometimes I would read my assignment while riding on public transportation. My backpack is already heavy enough, I don’t need to add to my burden.

As for the Mishkan Tefilah (or other prayer books, Bibles, the Talmud, etc), I would only use it while traveling. Sure it would feel weird praying from a Kindle. Would I replace my siddurim? Absolutely not. At home, I would use “the real deal”.

The second benefit is that I reduce the amount of clutter in my home. Trust me, my space is crowded enough! I don’t need to add to it.

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