Why I Don’t Unplug on Shabbat



by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

I understand that technology can be overwhelming. It’s still a new and different medium, and it is constantly changing. In order to stay on top of technology and social media, you have to practically make it your life – check email, update status, tweet, rinse and repeat. But technology can also be fun. It brought you this blog, it helps to keep you connected to friends and family who are far away, and it can help you discover and uncover all sorts of new things. For instance, technology taught me the following: I don’t like to “unplug” on Shabbat.

It all started during my first year as a rabbi. I took a pulpit halfway across the country from my family and friends. While I was enjoying my time there and meeting lots of new people, I was extremely lonely – but social media saved me. Through Facebook, Twitter, Gchat, and Skype, I was able to stay virtually connected to my support system, and I didn’t feel so alone, except for one day of the week – Shabbat. The day when I felt that I wanted my community around me the most, I was suddenly unplugged from them.

You see, for many people, Shabbat is the perfect time to “unplug” from technology. They might turn off their phones, shut their computers, or not turn on the TV. And while I respect everyone’s right to observe Shabbat in the way most meaningful for them, it just didn’t make sense for me. If I turned off technology then I lost my community entirely. And what’s more, turning off my technology wasn’t something that resonated with me as a desirable way to celebrate Shabbat. I like technology. It’s not a burden to me, and it’s not tiresome. If anything, it energizes me and makes me feel more connected to the world and the people around me.

I drive on Shabbat, I spend money on Shabbat, and I use electricity on Shabbat. Just as rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, the purpose of Shabbat is to elevate time rather than things. To me, the holiness that I find in elevating Shabbat lies in the time rather than the activities I engage in. It doesn’t matter what I do on Shabbat, whether I use technology or not; it matters how I do it and that I’m making choices to enjoy myself and feel rested and refreshed, rather than burdened by work or stress.

If technology and social media are not your thing, don’t feel obligated to do them on Shabbat. Or, if you like to use Shabbat as a time to unplug from them, I certainly uplift your choices. But for me, it was a choice that didn’t make sense, and I didn’t want to feel pressured into doing something that many others around me were doing simply because it felt right for them.

The beauty of Reform Judaism is that we educate ourselves about our religion and then we make important decisions that make the most sense for us, personally, emotionally, and spiritually. The beauty of Shabbat is our ability to join together in community, celebrate a beautiful day given to us by God, and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

When I was lonely and needed community the most, social media was a real blessing to me and my life. And for that, I give thanks… especially on Shabbat.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is the associate rabbi educator at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Forest Hills, N.Y.

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12 Responses to “Why I Don’t Unplug on Shabbat”

  1. avatar

    Rabbi Wood:

    Last February, as the National Day of Unplugging approached, I wrote this piece on my blog explaining why I would not be unplugging for Shabbat: http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/random-musing-before-shabbatyitro.html

    My reasoning is not entirely the same as yours, though the underlyign principles are, perhaps.

    • Larry Kaufman

      A thoughtful and provocative piece, Adrian. And it helped me clarify my own thoughts on a National Day of Unplugging.

      Basically, a national Day of Anything is typically an annual event — and I, as someone who spends hours seven days a week on line, could consider tapping into a once-a-year 24 hour recess. But that would be a totally different issue from deciding what kind of strictures I want to place on myself vis a vis my observance of Shabbat.

      Believing as I do that using electricity, driving a car, etc. makes Shabbat less labor-intensive rather than signifying labor, I have no problem with using technology on Shabbat for social and recreational purposes. Nor do I have any problem with the decision of many of my friends to go off-line for the day.

      But it’s a Shabbos thing, not a technology thing. If we really want an annual Jewish national day of unplugging,the question is do we want it layered onto some other occasion — for example, I suspect that most of us who DON”T unplug for Shabbat DO unplug for Yom Kippur — or should it be a stand-alone event. And if the latter, the next question would be, Do we or do we not recite Hallel?

  2. avatar

    When I was at Jewish summer camp, we spent much of Saturday afternoon writing postcards and letters home. This is not very different. I agree with Rabbi Yoffie that we should spend as much time on Shabbat as possible on the spiritusl, not the secular, but when Shabbat morning services are over, then connecting with family and friends electronically (in my view) is not really secular.

  3. avatar

    Let me start by saying that I am not shomer shabbos, just so it’s clear that I’m not trying to force my worldview. I do have two questions that I’d be interested in hearing your responses to: first, do you think that, nice as it was to be able to connect with family and friends back home, that using the sort of crutch of technology to connect with people so far away prevented you from connecting more quickly with your community locally? Seoond, are there things we should do to be more inclusive of new community members to make their Shabbat experience one they can enjoy locally, and call their families later if they still want to, rather than feeling that call/text/email has to be sent to feel connected?

    • Larry Kaufman

      Stephanie, I had a similar reaction about the old community serving as a barrier to integration into the new one. When I moved 400 miles down the road, and went to shul in my new city, had my cell phone rung during the Oneg — not that we had cellphones bayamim haheym, in those days — it would have meant I would have had someone to talk to on Shabbat, since certainly the congregants were already well integrated into a community that didn’t need me.

      But, of course, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the culture.

  4. avatar

    Is it really too much not to be connected for 24 hours? Did the “rabbi” miss her community that much in the time span? If her community actually came to the shul on Shabbat maybe she wouldn’t be so lonely.

  5. avatar

    Moshe,

    I find your scarequotes around the word rabbi offensive. Rabbi Wood IS a rabbi.

    Also, I am surprised that you question that she would miss her community that much during Shabbat. Isn’t that when community is most important to us? And even the most observant Jews do not spend all 24 (or 25) hours of Shabbat in shul.

    I believe that most who move to a new community, however wonderful and welcoming it is, have a desire to stay connected to those with whom they have longer-term relationships. The important thing is to strike a balance between time spent with the new community and time spent maintaining old connections.

    Finally, speaking as a rabbi, there is a kind of support that rabbis cannot seek from our congregants. Since we often spend so much of our time in service to the community – especially when we are new – it can take rabbis even longer than others to establish new local support networks when we move to new places.

    Whether or not you would choose Rabbi Wood’s solution, I recommend that you not judge her position until you have walked in her shoes.

    • avatar

      Yes, I agree. It was very inappropriate and unkind to put “rabbi” in quotes. I have done that only once–when a rabbi in my community said that he thought Obama was planted in the Presidency by Al Qaeda to destroy Israel. Perhaps even then I ought not to have done that, but the situation was extreme. I see no such justification for Moshe’s attempt at delegitimization.

      By the way, Rabbi Block, I recently read an essay of yours in a back issue of the SCRJ newsletter, The Reform Advocate, and loved it.

  6. avatar

    Although I do support choice and progressive values, I think that Rabbi Wood has rather missed the point. Yes, it is important to connect with family- but I worry for a congregation with a rabbi who feels that her community is halfway across the country. I also think it is wrong to twist Heschel’s beautiful statement about shabbat time- I think Heschel would see the need to use the computer as the “attempt to control the world” that he writes we are supposed to let go of on shabbat. Lastly, I am saddened by the statement “it doesn’t matter what you do on shabbat.” For me, the essence of the Jewish faith lies in the fact that EVERYTHING you do matters. Every choice you make matters. Every choice you don’t make also matters. Of course I understand that she meant “you can observe shabbat no matter what you have to do,” and I agree, even doing a little is better than nothing; but saying that anything you choose to do on shabbat counts defeats the entire purpose of having one day to resign oneself and say “I am not in control; I do not make the sun rise or set; there is something more powerful out there than me.”

  7. avatar

    You did not said you would use technology to facilitate Shabbat related activities, such as learning, but to facilitate fun and relaxation. This statement assumes that the purpose of Shabbat is R&R.

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