For Many Orthodox Teens, ‘Half Shabbos’ Is A Way Of Life

Texting on Saturdays seen as increasingly common ‘addiction.’

06/22/11
Staff Writer
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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 – a violation of the halachic ban on using electricity in non-emergency situations.

“Only three [of the 17 students] didn’t text on Shabbos,” Julia says. Most did it “out in the open,” sitting at picnic tables. “They weren’t hiding it.”

The students at the Shabbaton were not the exception for their age group. According to interviews with several students and administrators at Modern Orthodox day schools, the practice of texting on Shabbat is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially, but not exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens.

It’s a literally hot-button issue that teachers and principals at yeshiva day schools, whose academic year ends this week, acknowledge and deal with it in both tacit and oblique ways. For the most part, they extol the virtues of keeping Shabbat rather than chastising those who violate it.

The practice has become so widespread – some say half of Modern Orthodox teens text on Shabbat – that it has developed its own nomenclature – keeping “half Shabbos,” for those who observe all the Shabbat regulations except for texting; “gd Shbs,” is the shorthand text greeting that means good Shabbos.

Not surprisingly, because of texting’s high-tech nature, it is the frequent subject of bloggers and discussion groups on the Internet.

Schools are still looking for ways to deal with the issue, how to recognize the extent of the problem without issuing directives that are likely to be ignored.

Bottom line: The teens who text probably won’t stop.

“It’s a big problem,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth group. Teens who text on Shabbat are an open secret in their schools and social circles, he says.

“Adults don’t know how common it is,” one student at a local yeshiva day school says. “Everyone is doing it.”

Someone who identified himself as PJS wrote last year on the kavvanah.wordpress.com Website of an encounter with Shabbat texters: “On the first night of Rosh Hashanah I was walking home after dinner at friends. Passing through a neighborhood park, I passed a group of clearly frum kids – boys and girls – whose faces were illuminated by the lights from their cell-phones, iPhones etc as they texted away.”

The Shabbat texters, according to anecdotal evidence, include kids who grew up in less-observant homes as well as students from chasidic or so-called black hat backgrounds.

“People have been whispering about it for around a year or so … and only recently have begun about to speak about it out loud,” Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, headmaster at the Ramaz Upper School on the Upper East Side, wrote in a recent column to Ramaz parents.

They Can’t Stop

Open rejection of an Orthodox lifestyle, addiction or susceptibility to peer group conformity?

Orthodox teens’ texting on Shabbat is a little of each, students and administrators tell The Jewish Week. Some teens say they see their parents making their own compromises with the letter or spirit of Jewish law, and don’t think a text message on Shabbat is any different.

Mostly, they can’t stop texting, they say.

“It’s almost a problem of addiction,” says Rabbi Burg. American teens, according to surveys and anecdotal evidence, communicate with their friends during the week primarily by sending text messages on their cell phones. It’s hard to stop for 25 hours, the rabbi says, if they feel everyone else is doing it. “In high school, the world revolves around their friends. Everything is about your friends and your social group.

“They don’t think [texting on Shabbat] is that bad,” Rabbi Burg says.

In an email message, Rabbi Boruch Perton, educational director of the Hebrew Academy of Montreal, added: “The thing about texting is that it can be done anywhere. The bathroom or the bedroom are private places.”

Rabbi Perton said his day school recently tried to enforce a ban on using cell phones during school hours, “When we did take away a phone,” he said, “the amount of pain the student was in was literally unbearable. The parents would beg and scream because they were getting it at home from their kid and just wanted to end their own misery.

“If the students and their parents lose their equilibrium when a phone is taken away for a week, can such a child stop on Shabbos?” the rabbi asks. “I hope so, but do not know.”

Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for the London Jewish Chronicle, wrote recently that Orthodox teens “openly discuss whether they keep ‘half-Shabbos’ or ‘full Shabbos.’ There is apparently no shame attached to this violation.”

Texting on Shabbat has become a frequent subject of on-line discussions: “They are the failures of Modern Orthodoxy or they are the failures of Orthodoxy-lite.” (kavvanah.wordpress.com); “Children will text each other in stealth. Their divine service is external; if no human being sees them, it is as if it hasn’t happened” (Rabbi Steven Pruzansky’s rabbipruzansky.com).

The frumsatire.net Website carried a fictional report that Modern Orthodox rabbis “have begun to consider texting during shul on Shabbos to curb talking,” in order to keep synagogues quiet during religious services.

Teens who text on Shabbat rarely discuss its halachic propriety, said Leah, who identifies herself as Conservadox and attended a Modern Orthodox day school for several years.

“I know it’s breaking Shabbos,” Leah said. “I don’t feel guilty.

“My mother knows – I text her,” to let her mother know her whereabouts.

“It’s definitely a stage” that many teens pass through without necessarily leaving the Orthodox world, said Rachel, a recent graduate of a local yeshiva high school. “It’s not a defiant thing.”

“They still believe in God” and consider themselves Orthodox,” Julia said of her friends who text on Shabbat.

The Orthodox teens who agreed to speak about this subject asked that their full names not be used, lest their parents or teachers or more-observant friends find out.

The Challenge Of Technology

Chani said she is typical. A student at a New York area yeshiva high school, she started texting on Shabbat when she discovered that many of her Orthodox friends were already doing it. “I was just so bored” on Shabbat, she said. “I had nothing to do.”

Though she was going through a crisis of faith, texting on Shabbat was her only lapse from religious observance. “I was not driving” on Shabbat. “I was not eating non-kosher.”

Why did she text, when she wouldn’t do other prohibited acts?

“I had people to text,” she said.

Most of the teens who text on Shabbat do not weigh the halachic and spiritual implications, Chani said – they know it’s wrong, but do it anyway.

Chani stopped texting on Shabbat after three years, when her religious faith deepened. She said she knows many other teens who gave up Shabbat-texting after returning from a post-high school year in Israeli yeshivas.

For many Orthodox teens, keeping “half Shabbos” has apparently achieved the status of Orthodox men who do not wear a kipah on the job or Orthodox women who wear pants or do not cover their hair once married, both considered violations of outright halacha or established Jewish practice.

“If in previous generations the biggest challenge to Sabbath observance was making a living, today it is technology,” Rabbi Goldmintz wrote in his column to Ramaz parents. “These are kids from otherwise shomer Shabbat homes who nevertheless sneak into their rooms or down the street and use their phones or computers to text or tweet with friends. These are not (yet) necessarily kids who are so called ‘off the derech (i.e., who have wandered off the religious path) for they otherwise may not turn on lights or televisions, but they just can’t break the social habit. They keep Shabbat, but not all of it.”

“You can’t say that the kids who text on Shabbat are ‘off the derech,’” said Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who works extensively in the Orthodox community. Texting on Shabbat does not necessarily lead to other violations, she said. “This is a separate category.”

Lower Voltage?

While some teens reportedly rationalize their practice by claiming that texting uses a low level of electricity, thereby reducing the severity of the prohibition, texting is as forbidden on Shabbat as any other use of electricity, Jewish experts in technology say. “Pressing electrical buttons on Shabbat is prohibited. The only justification to permit this is in various security needs or medical conditions,” a spokesman for the Israeli-based Zomet Institute, which deals in matters of halacha and technology, told The Jewish Week in an email message.

“It is universally accepted in the halacha-respecting community that electronics are off-limits on the Sabbath,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America.

Some observers describe teens as experimenting with the limits of sanctioned and non-sanctioned actions in a Jewish version of the Rumspringa practice in which Amish 16-year-olds are free to engage in banned behavior before formally affiliating with the church and abiding by their community’s norms of behavior.

Texting on Shabbat “is probably more prominent [in the Modern Orthodox community], but it is by no means exclusively there,” Rabbi Goldmintz wrote. “Someone once suggested that it all got started when observant kids signed on after Shabbat and realized how much their non-observant friends had been communicating over Shabbat and they didn’t want to be left out ever again.”

Students from local Orthodox high schools say teachers and administrators usually handle this topic in a subtle way, talking about the beauty of Shabbat rather than ordering an outright ban on Shabbat texting. (Besides Rabbi Goldmintz, none of the rabbis or principals from several local day schools contacted for comment by The Jewish Week returned the newspaper’s messages.)

Preaching to teens would be ineffective, said Julia, who attended the Shabbaton where most of the students texted. “It’s a waste of energy to argue with the kids.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

08/01/2014 - 06:46

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"It's a big problem". Really? Texting on Shabbat is a "big" problem? I think the problem is the ridiculous and insane halachic interpretations of the Torah. That's what I think is a big problem. It should be clear to any idiot that walking five miles to shul is a hell of a lot more work than driving. No, I'm not going to win this argument with you black hats, nor will I try, but Judaism as a religion is going to disappear among all but the most restrictive and oppressive communities. Then modern society will simply dismantle those societies and put the parents in jail for being too oppressive and violent in forcing arbitrary interpretations of halacha. Voila, no more Judaism. THe big problem is that you people are killing Judaism by focusing on the ridiculous things that don't matter, missing the forest for the trees. I was once dismissed from an Orthodox gathering for bringing food from Hebrew National (triangle K not OU). Are you kidding me? I have devoted my life to stamping out religious idiocy and intolerance, adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. All you people are on my list and I won't rest until you bend to MY will...or break...

I have been a proud Jew for all of my 45 years. I live by the Ten Commandments, and I appreciate Shabbat and recognize that it is holy. And I am just fine and will be just fine. I don't need to follow every little thing that men came up with in order to prove my love to G-d or be a good Jew.

These "children" are all past Bar/Bat Mitzvah. They are responsible for their own observance and must learn and decide what they are comfortable with and how they want to observe Shabbat.

The reality is that teenagers are extremely social. Unless you can get over half the cool kids in any HS to stop texting on Shabbat, you'll never get the rest of them to. Don't scare them. Don't prohibit. Discuss. Talk about the prohibitions. Talk about why electronic communication is so much sweeter the rest of the week when we can engage in in-person communication and with-God communication on Shabbat. Don't lecture. Discuss.

I don't really understand why people are arguing exactly what prohibition of Shabbat texting violates. The reality is that is has been established and accepted NOT to use a cell phone (or any other electronic) on Shabbat.

First, we must address the issue of why high school students on a Shabbaton are feeling so left out that they need to be texting OTHER friends. If there are seventy kids on this Shabbaton, they should have more than their fair share of social outlets for 25 hours. If a bunch of kids are hanging out in a park, why are they not satisfied enough with that group that they feel they have to be texting other friends? What are these kids lacking? It's clearly something deeper than, "I was bored" or "I had people to text."

I agree with the several opinions that this is indicative of a greater issue in our community. Teenagers are growing more and more disconnected from and apathetic toward religion, and it seems that the position most high school educators take is, "Well, they'll straighten out in Israel." Guess what? A year in Israel does not "fix" eighteen years of practice, especially when followed by college. It is not the responsibility of educators in Israeli one-year-programs to start from scratch. They deserve some raw material. There has to be a better solution to engage teenagers in the importance of religious observance, not through fire and brimstone and not even through the new education fad, "edutainment." When deciding to become a Jewish educator, I sincerely hope that each person recognizes the tremendous responsibility he assumes. It has to be something deeper than, "I like to learn, so I can make others like to learn, too," or even, "I had this great Rabbi in Yeshiva who turned my life around; I can do the same for someone else!" A true educator is intelligent, clever, relatable, engaging, sensitive, and aware of his/her students' situations. Teenagers today are not going to approach their teachers with philosophical issues, because, yes, it's more fun to be texting or on their iPads etc. There must be a joint effort between the parents and schools. Parenting is also a huge responsibility. Parents also need to focus on their children, ask them how school is going, discuss current events with their families instead of just focusing on their personal issues. We live in difficult times, and it seems that young adults are responding to that as well. If parents care enough to spend the tuition to send their children to Orthodox Day School, and if the teachers there care enough to invest in a career, there has to be a movement to show young adults today that the Jewish religion is one worth certain sacrifices. We also need to teach our children that sometimes you give something up for something greater--you turn off your phone for 25 hours because our ancestors have been sacrificing for Shabbat for thousands of years. There has to be a certain sense of responsibility instilled in these kids, instead of constant pandering to their every whim.

If we don't begin addressing these issues soon, there is very little hope for the future of American Modern Orthodox Jewry.

WHAT ABOUT THE ADULTS

Seems to me that cell phones, text messaging et al make it easier to break the "shall nots" in the ten commandments and harder to keep the 'shalls' !

If you think that this is the most important problem in the frum community - you've got another thing coming to you. Let's look a little closer at teen sex and pregnancy... the ones that are hidden behind closed doors. Let's inspect the families with abuse (child and spouse). The frum community is great at hiding its issues and deciding what is half-okay.

To the person who said that Orthodox Jews view "Masorti Jews who are shomer shabbos as non Jews" --> I don't think you are correct. I am orthodox and I view anyone whose mother is Jewish or who went thru a kosher conversion as Jewish. Halachic observance only comes into play when the issue is trying to determine whether at the moment of conversion, a convert is truly accepting the yoke of mitzvoth observance.

My Rabbi - Leib Tropper, author of Taharat Yisrael (yibadel l'chaim) - spoke about this half shabbos travesty. He said texting on shabbos was as bad as being oved avodah zura because those who do it while pretending to be shomer shabbos are really denying the existence of Hashem by acting as if He won't notice or care. It is this trying to sneak that makes these teens (modern and charedi) worse than the reform Jews who openly don't keep shabbos.

Truth is many so called "Rabbis" are hypocrites and teens see thru this. Why arent these Rabbis moving to Israel - which is where per Halacha Jews are supposed to be. I personally live in Israel and I am on a brief family visit to New York. I think teens are much more "tuned" in and realize that orthodoxy is a farce - read the Tefillot, read Birchat Hamozone - centered on the Land of Israel. And so they "learn" in Yeshiva but the leaders and their parents dont practice what is preached.

dont be a fool and only read the bircat hamazon. study tanach itself. we are in a galut. part of galut is being in foriegn lands. thank god for the rabbis who spend their lives helping out the people who dont merit to live in israel. thank god for orthodoxy living on. oh, and by the way, "orthodoxy" isnt a farce. anybody who actually reads bircat hamazon would realize the way Gd wants us to live

This article was deeply painful to read. I think this is indicative of larger issues -- cracks within Modern Orthdoxy in general. There was only so long that the tightrope between Western culture and Torah could be walked without people falling off. It seems the wrong side is winning.

If a kid wants to not follow the opinion of their parent or pulpit rabbi, do they at least have a lenient opinion from some recognized rabbi to rely on?

If they are relying on an opinion of someone with the authority and knowledge, why should they "text" in private, since clearly they think it is permissible?

Is this just for community standards, such as an Israeli visiting a community which keeps 2 days of Yom Tov remaining private about how they are different from the community on the 2nd day?

If so, can't these teens say that they are a community within a community, and just like half a community pronounces Hebrew wrongly, we tolerate diversity within our communities, and nobody needs to hide their mispronunciation even when called up for an aliyah?

I'm a little puzzled by the phenomenon I'm seeing in this article AND its comments, which I've observed before in neighborhood kids: it's common for kids brought up in the Modern Orthodox "stream," by the time they're in high school, to have a very subtle and broad grasp of Halacha, while viewing/participating in Modern Orthodox *practice* as "Judaism Lite."

Discuss amongs yourselves.

"I was so bored..."

What's wrong with her parents? We make sure to have plenty of snacks, games, kids' fiction and tolerance in our house on Shabbat, and our house is always full of kids (including, but mostly not our own). Neighbor kids who get bored come to our house.

These kids' parents are definitely falling down on their job! (I've heard it said that parenting happens mostly on Shabbat.)

Every time I get annoyed listening to a bunch of chattering girls from our Bais Yaakov, I remind myself how great it is that they're sitting there chattering.

What is missing from this article is the parent's role. I would guess that many of these kids are below the age of 18. I also think many of these kids with cell phones don't really need them, of if they do need something for an emergency, a prepaid phone without the ability to text works just fine. Someone under age 18 cannot get a phone unless an adult signs for them and, in many cases I assume the parent is also paying. If the parents had the guts to say no to their kids, the issue would go away. What we are dealing with here is a society of parents who are afraid of their kids, don't have the guts to simply say no and stand by it. That is the essence of the problem. What will these parents say after 120 years when they are asked, if your child was mechalel shabbos with a cell phone, why did you give it to them?

Gee...Orthodox teens are susceptible to ordinary human temptations just like other people? Well, slap some butter on me and call me a biscuit! Really, this rates a story in the Jewish Week?

When looking at the world thorugh orthodox lenses the view becomes obstructed, askewed and unrealisitc. One must realize that we are not clones or our parents and our children are not ours . In certain communities a entire family can be ostracized for the way one member of the family dresses or behaves. I walk to shul over a mile on shabbat. I would love to drive as that would be true "mehucha" But the orthodox lense is always focused everybodies business. And what to you mean by Five Towns Parents?

I've also written this elsewhere (A mother in Israel), but originally wrote it for this comment thread so I'm placing it here as well.
From the perspective of a part-time teenage mentor in the Orthodox community:

I mentor kids from different backgrounds; I first suspected this 2 years ago and decided against confrontation. How could a child who texts 16 hours a day stop for 25 hours?

I asked a current mentee what she thinks of this article. She told me that of course she texts on Shabbos, but she doesn’t believe in Judaism anyway so she doesn’t count. I thanked her for being honest with me. (this is written with her permission.) For this particular teen, her desire to rebel, coupled with her extreme sense of integrity, meant that as long as she violates halacha, she will not consider herself Orthodox. For many teens, the world is black and white. If the parents are not serious about turning off the TV for Shabbos, then texting is just the next step. There is no gray area in the teenage world; the concept of half-Shabbos is like being semi-shomer negia – really, you’re not Shomer Negia, you just feel more guilty about it and only do it with people you really like.

OK, this is not scientific, but characteristic of those from more RW-MO who would do this, in my limited experience:
1. Parents who are not [fully] aware of their children’s use of technology, and don’t set appropriate limits on it. (most teens are ok with, let’s say, no texting between 2-4am. Most parents never think of setting such a rule, but it’s very important to have some limit.)
2. Teens who experience Shabbos as “boring” (as stated in the article)
3. Teens whose friends text (if 50% of your child’s classmates do it, don’t necessarily believe them that they don’t, but ask a professional before reacting)
4. Teens with social problems AND impulse control issues (either one doesn’t really raise risk, but together they do.)
5. Teens who view their parents / authority figures as compromising on Halachic matters.

All those who try to make the argument that electricity is not fire or that completing a circuit is not work simply fail the Physics exam. Yes, fire is a chemical process, and seems apart from electrical and nuclear processes. But energy/work is defined exactly the same way in all three. To make electricity, with 2 exceptions, we burn coal/gas/oil. Nuclear is a different kind of burning, but heat is generated. Hydro seems not to use heat, but to get the water above sea level requires the sun, so heat is necessary. Work is the movement of mass, and produces heat. All generators turn a turbine, creating heat. Closing the circuit makes work, and therefore heat. Work is indeed fire.

Doesn't all this miss the point? Shabbat is a time of quiet, of refraining from changing the world. Yes, of course, we fail, just being alive changes the world. On Shabbat, the world doesn't quit, we do, purposefully. It is a day for saying "no", in order to say yes to our inner selves, in order to meet one another, not as workers, but as human beings.

I am no technological slouch, I build complex machines almost daily. My objection to cell phones (and texting) is not just on Shabbat, How common it is to see 5 "friends" together, each on their cell to someone else. Where is human warmth, human contact, human interaction? If you can't interact with the person right next to you, how does a cell phone help? I use both cell and email to make appointments, but I do all interaction face to face, heart to heart. My memories of Shabbat when I was a child are of the people I was with, real, live flesh and blood people. I knew my Saba and Savta would not long be on this earth, and I treasure every moment I spent with them. And that is where we have failed. The foundations of family and community are missing.

The issue is not an addiction to texting. The issue is a lax attitude toward Shabbos and insufficient yiras shamayim. If these kids truly respected Hashem's mitzvos, they would refrain from all melacha. Texting is merely a manifestation of this lax attitude. The problem is widespread in the Modern Orthodox world unfortunately

Wow, to think any god would create rules such as this. Thousands of years ago is insane. But followers believing and practicing it, now that's insane. Keep a beer in the fridge, I will turn your lights off for you

And I thought my beliefs were strange..

The problem is that in Modern Orthodox circles (which I grew up in and still feel an affiliation to), Judaism boils down to going to shul on Shabbos. Why are there no interesting Torah discussions at the Shabbos table, what about zemiros? Shabbos is so beautiful. Do they learn with their children in the afternoon? What about family walks? It is a time of family bonding which is not taken advantage of and becomes just a list of prohibitions, of course they are bored and of course there is a need for this feminism in shul because all they have is shul.

Why is it necessary for teens to have cell phones? What about the kosher phones, which will solve the problem of "do you know where your child is", but will not get them addicted to today's decrepit technology? Do you really need the internet at home? I, for one only have it at work, I don't want my kids watching pornography. I think the whole outlook towards Judaism needs to be reassessed, and should be viewed as a beautiful advantage we have over the outside world and how meaningful it is.

Gary Karlin makes a good point read earlier thread. The issue is really around the prohibition of writing rather than if these devices are technically causing electrical energy which can debated. Writing can't be debated..

Give these kids a little mussar. I just hope there is no sexting on shabbat.

Well, I'm a grandmother not shomer shabbos tho I generally give the computer a rest. Perhaps an issue not addressed is the young person whose reason is, "I'm bored..." Perhaps parents and teachers need to help kids by arranging social visits, etc., so boredom is not an excuse.

Yes, of course they could read--but they do that every day. Kids are hardly miniature adults. They don't need a shabbos nap, they do need their friends.

Some have commented that the real issur here is writing. But if words appear ephemerally on a screen and then disappear forever into cyberspace -- never becoming actual physical representations -- is that really in the category of the av m'lakha?
What is more troubling is the MO mentality that it is better not to condemn the prohibited behavior; rather, it should be tolerated until the "sinner" learns that the true beauty of observing Shabbat is more rewarding than violating it. As long as a person is still considered OTD, all kinds of actions can be overlooked.

L'havdil, this is a symptom of an all-too prevalent attitude that has been applied to much more heinous acts. I am reminded of the statements issued by MO leaders when American Orthodox mitnahalim murdered and assassinated innocent Palestinians in the West Bank (or should I say Judea and Samaria?). The "rabbis" never vilified them as terrorists to be outcast from the community; instead, as long as they were shomer mitzvot (like observing the Sabbath now being desecrated by texting) -- or, in modern parlance, still OTD -- they were officially "good boys whose deeds were unfortunately misguided."

As for the "spirituality" gained by studying in Israel -- is it not more important to worry about these texters being sent to study in Israeli yeshivot who openly preach disobeying Israeli law and IDF orders in the name of establishing illegal yishuvim in "liberated" territories?

Really, Five Towns parents, can you really say you're surprised?
------------------------------------------
If you think this is just a Five Towns problem, you are deluding yourself. I also think that R. Avi Shafran's comments were very smug, implying that in the halacha respecting Chareidi community, this issue is not a problem. Guess what, Rabbi Shafran, it's happening in the Chareidi community, too! The only difference is that the Chareidi kids are simply rebelling and know what they are doing is very wrong; the Modern Orthodox kids (at least in some cases) may try to rationalize their behavior by pointing to other situations where otherwise halachically observant folks erngage in non-halachic activities.

If anything the article understates the halachic problems with texting on Shabbat. Since texts are usually archived, a person sending a text on Shabbat is making a permanent record and may well be willfully violating the prohibition against writing on Shabbat.

If anything the article understates the halachic problems with texting on shabbat. Since texts are usually automatically archeived, a person sending a message is making a permanent written record and, in so doing may well be violating the prohibition against writing on shabbat.

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