Atlantic: Can You Read on an Amazon Kindle on Shabbat?

I originally posted this 12/23/2010. 
The questions keep recurring so we are bringing this post back. And by the way, I published a lot of books on Kindle since then, 
Now back to the 2010 blog post...

Our Jewish calendars have always told us what time to Kindle for the Sabbath, when to "Kindle the Shabbat Candles."

Nowadays we have another kind of Kindle to know about, the Amazon book reader. And the question arises, can you Kindle on the Sabbath?

We think yes, without any qualifications, that you can Kindle on the Sabbath. The e-ink device does not create actual light. You cannot read it in the dark. And it obviously does not create any durable writing. When you turn it off it goes blank.

In halakhic terms we find no transgression, no prohibition to using the reader. In fact it's a feat of great imagination to extend Sabbath prohibitions to that invention. It involves believing there is a set of electrical apparatus that is prohibited, or defining a broad category of technology-things that all are outside the spirit of Sabbath rest.

That's quite a lazy and unsophisticated approach to Jewish life and law. And broad strokes like that, blanket decisions that have no nuance, leave average Jews wondering what rabbis actually do to earn those big salaries.

So we read with some dismay the account in the Atlantic magazine, "People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age" by Uri Friedman. It's not Uri's fault that most "observant" Jews assume that all devices are forbidden. He reports something we did not know,
E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.
No, as we said, there is no physical act, no actual ink or paper, nothing of duration. So by simple definitions, there is not writing going on in the digital world of Kindle.

Then Uri tells us something more Talmudic, "The blogger Morris Rosenthal, for example, imagines a special Kindle that can bypass Sabbath prohibitions by disabling its buttons, turning itself on at a preset time, and flipping through a book at a predetermined clip." No again, that's a needless work-around to avoid a non-prohibited action.

Citing Orthodox Rabbi Jeffrey Fox in support of our assessment of the "technical" permissibility of Kindle, Friedman writes,
Fox believes that e-readers - like other electrical appliances that don't generate light and heat - are technically permissible on the Sabbath but should not be used because they are a step away from forbidden activity and because, in epitomizing our weekday existence, aren't appropriate for the Sabbath.
Yes, but the rejoinder to the reluctance is that these devices also are a "step away" from desirable and permissible reading, the very epitome of what so many observers claim is the essence of appropriate Sabbath activity.

Conservative Rabbi Daniel Nevins makes a more far-fetched attempt to put the Kindle out of bounds, "The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience." The rabbi is not a fan of the Kindle because, "devices like e-readers ...could disturb the Sabbath's tranquility." Or, we say, they could contribute to the Sabbath's tranquility.

All in all, the case against the Sabbath use of Kindle is a weak one that can be pushed aside by a reed.

The truly amazing part of this discussion is that it is being aired in such venues as the Atlantic magazine. We think this is an instance of Jewish practice as social metaphor. Many people have trouble keeping up with the fast changes of the world of technology. They ask about its value to them. They query whether perhaps it is best to shut it out of their pat and comfortable lives and keep change from happening.

That is a big reason for the durability of religion, to afford a static comfort zone for people who do not welcome rapid change, who choose to, "Avoid Technology".

We respect that attitude, that need. Just please don't tell us that it is the divine law from Mt. Sinai that we must welcome the absolute absence of change on our Sabbath. We are not comfortable with that.


Reb Yudel said...

So let me situate you within the realm of halachic discourse on the Sabbath.

Would you turn on a light on the Sabbath?

Would you post to your blog?

Would you make a telephone call?

Would you drive your car?

Is the Kindle different that other electronic devices? Is the iPad?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

So if we must say the obvious, turning on a Kindle is not the same as turning on a light, reading a kindle is not the at all like posting to a blog, using a kindle is not parallel to making a phone call, clicking on a kindle in an easy chair is not like driving a car in the street; these are distinctions that are known to a 4 year old. Why then might an average educated halakhic Jew pretend to imagine that all such different items and actions are related and accordingly all taboo or not taboo on the sabbath? Is this the mythic re-enactment of early childhood and we must pretend not to know up from down? Can we even try hold a realistic discourse? Are people always consistent in action on the same day or from week to week? Are these listed practices peripheral mannerisms or are they essential activities that must never vary?

Jeff Eyges said...

Tzvee, in using a Kindle - turning it on, paging up and down, etc. - you're completing circuits, and therefore engaging in the act of "creation". Isn't that forbidden?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

no - creation is not the issue.

Mr. Cohen said...
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