Shabbat is a Time to Unplug

Shabbat is a time to unplug. Otherwise, there will be no Shabbat.

Many, many Reform Jews have had no Shabbat for a very long time. Even when we want to be attentive to the holy, we can’t seem to do it. In our sophisticated, highly educated community, the pace of our lives has long been cranked up to a level that could not have been imagined 50 years ago. Shabbat is usually a time for more work, or a time to engage in a hectic whirlwind of errands.

And then technology came along and made everything worse. Technology stalks us. It is there all the time. Our world is a 24-hour world, and there is no such thing as “closed.” And so we are sucked in on Shabbat. There are always good reasons, of course: We fear for our jobs in a tough economy, and feel a responsibility to be more “productive.” Or our boss asks us if we wouldn’t mind checking on the widget delivery on Saturday morning; after all, it will only time a few minutes. Or what if that long-expected email from our biggest client comes in on Saturday afternoon? Shouldn’t I respond?

There are things we do have to do, of course. But I believe our goal should be to distance ourselves from our electronic devices, and to recognize that most of the time, the work and the worries can wait.

I admit that in theory, there are ways in which being online could enhance our Shabbat experience. For a while, I used to read Torah commentaries on my computer on Shabbat; it seemed easier, not to mention environmentally preferable, to printing them out in advance, and it made my Shabbat a more joyous and serene day. And in theory, one could connect with others online in a way that would build community and increase our blessings. And if you are a person who can do this, you should. We are Reform Jews, after all; we all have to make our own decisions on how to reclaim Shabbat in our lives.

But I must admit that I am skeptical. It seems to me that for the great majority of us, the temptation is just too great; when the smart phone or the computer is on, we just can’t stop ourselves from checking our calls and emails, and taking a quick look at the headlines of the day. And before we know it, our minds are racing, our information-soaked souls are immersed in secular matters, and we are back to thinking of to-do lists. In any case, that’s what happened to me. I believe that almost all of us are terrible at resting and resisting the advances of the world, and we need to keep a distance from all those devices that draw us back in.

Whenever possible, let’s make Shabbat about creating face-to-face community. Let’s sit across from others, study texts, eat a Shabbat meal, and talk about what really matters. Let’s take a break from everyday concerns, set aside our iPhones, make ourselves inaccessible to the outside world, embrace our loved ones, and see if we can figure out what God is doing.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

5 Responses to “Shabbat is a Time to Unplug”

  1. avatar


    We are inundated with date, news, information. There must be some time and space that remains sacred. Thank you for articulating this need.

  2. avatar

    I have done it both ways. I have autism. For many years I lacked the courage to attend anything in person. So for me things like streamed services were a blessing. When I did finally attend in person I did start turning my computer off and I liked the break as it is part of my work and life.

    Right now in the midst of an ongoing health challenge I keep it on as I need the connection and recreational aspects of it. I keep my work in a separate browser and shut that down and I try to be mindful of which activities I do while plugged in and whether they are in the spirit of Shabbat.

    I have certainly seen technology been used for good in the movement and I use various apps daily for everything from learning Hebrew to commentaries on the parsha. On Shabbat I to tend to go “old school” with all of that though. I think that mindfulness is key when one is making the choice here.

  3. avatar

    Your idea is very nice, but this is the problem when you allow “anything goes.” You can’t just expect that all of sudden people will untether. It’s nice to suggest it, but it will be extremely hard to implement.
    The same thing happened in Conservative Judaism. The Rabbinic authority allowed their congregants to drive to synagogue only, but that eventually evolved into Conservative Jews the world over driving to other places on the Sabbath as well. This has now become the norm. As a conservative Rabbi, trying telling your congregants to stop using their cars on the Sabbath and see what reaction you get.
    Now that is of no concern to Reform Jews, who allow anything on any day; however, you cannot expect your congregants or adherents to do this if the very premise of your entire movement is predicated on an ethical and humanist Judaism with absolutely no halakhic or Rabbinic authority legislating law or enforcing the laws of the Sabbath.

    Good luck with your initiative, but I give it little hope of succeeding.

    • Larry Kaufman

      @theswee Welcome to the Reform Judaism blog. Hopefully you’ll visit often enough to learn that Reform Judaism is not about “anything goes,” but is about informed choice. Your analogy about Conservative Jews “pushing” the permission to drive to shul into a hechsher to drive anywhere on Shabbat merely shows that most Conservative-affiliated Jews are not committed to any other halacha than that the rabbi must be kosher and shomer shabbos. I will concede that many Jews who call themselves Reform make their behavioral choices relative to ritual observance without concern for the touchstone of whether a given practice is spiritually elevating under present circumstances. Just keep in mind that all ritual behavior in our open society is voluntary, and the rabbi’s decree doesn’t automatically convert into the congregant’s behavior. As with Chabad, we start with where you are, and hope that mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah will lead to the next.

  4. avatar

    I would love to know what happened with this initiative. Did it yield positive lasting results? Are people more committed to Judaism and Shabbat? Did people take this up en masse? Did it change the direction of the people affiliated with the movement?

    I look forward to your response.

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