Monday, July 11, 2011

Shabbat, Phones and Techonology - The Story Continues

A follow-up to this post

Rena sent me a link to this article, about special Shabbat phones created by Machon Zomet which were purchased by the government to allow government officials to use them on Shabbat. I think that these phones are a great thing, for a number of reasons:
First of all, I think that it's great that the Prime Minister doesn't look at whether a person has a kippah on his head, but rather whether the individual is right for the job. Moreover, Shemirat Hamitzvot isn't considered a detriment that will hinder the civil servant's ability to get the job done. It's a fact, and it's also nice to know that the Prime Minister thinks so as well.
Some might wonder: if the situation mandates that one can talk on the phone on Shabbat - i.e. there's a matter of life and death, or national security - then a government official could use a regular phone. Why then buy the special phones? The answer has to do with the nature of work and "melachot" on Shabbat.
Let me take you back a few years to the birth of my third child, Leah. For our first three children, my wife had a habit of going into labor on Shabbat. At the birth, my wife actually arrived at the hospital with sufficient time to receive an epidural, and immediately asked for one. (other times she wasn't so lucky.) Yet, the doctor would not administer the drugs until she signed a waiver. Could she do so? Without a doubt, and I'll explain why.
A woman in active labor is, in halachic terminology, a חולה שיש בו סכנה - "one who is sick, and in (potential) mortal danger." According to halachah, we violate the Shabbat for someone in this situation, which is why we could have driven to the hospital had the cab not shown up on time. So, when the doctor insisted that she sign to get the drugs, according to Jewish law she was permitted to do so. Yet, we always try and minimize the violation of Jewish law, even when an act is permitted. So, while she could have signed the form normally, it was advisable for her to sign (i.e. write - which is a melachah on Shabbat) with a shinuy - in an abnormal manner. Normally, one is still prohibited from writing in an abnormal manner on Shabbat as well. But writing abnormally is a rabbinic prohibition, and doesn't rise to the level of a Torah prohibition. So she scribbled an X with her left (wrong) hand, the doctor was happy, and the drugs began to flow.
The same is true for our hard-working Israeli government officials. If the situation calls for them to speak to the Prime Minister on Shabbat, then in reality they could use a regular phone. Yet, it's far better for them to use a phone specially designed to present only rabbinic prohibitions, and not possible Torah violations.  (If you want to know how Machon Zomet does that, you should really visit them and hear their presentation. That's a lot of inside baseball that's beyond the scope of a blog post. For full disclosure, it's also important to realize that a number of major poskim completely disagree with Zomet's entire methodology, and don't consider many of the Zomet technological innovations to be halachically preferable. If you'd like to know more about it, listen to a shiur given by Rabbi Dovid Miller on precisely this issue, that he gave right after the YU Israel Kollel visited Machon Zomet this past year.)
This is also why doctors should make an effort to procure these special phones. While they often must call to issue orders on Shabbat, it's always best that they minimize the level of Shabbat violation as well, which is what these phones do.

The phones do present a challenging problem, that Rabbi Rosen, the Head of Zomet, alludes to when he says,
"If the user realizes the call isn't justified or is not urgent we recommend that they ask the caller to postpone the call until after Shabbat," Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, Zomet Institute head said. "But if the phone has already been picked up, there is no problem, as the actual action of talking on an already open device does not constitute Shabbat desecration." 
Let's say that you're a high-level official who gets a call about an important issue. You take the call and the topic is dealt with. But then, the guy on the other end of the line asks you about something that can really wait until after Shabbat. Will it wait? Will you hang up on him? Remember that he's probably not Shomer Shabbat himself? And, when members of the P.M.'s staff grow accustomed to being able to reach you on the phone, will they limit themselves to calling in only true emergencies? An even more difficult question to answer is: Where's the line between life and death that must be dealt with on Shabbat, and diplomacy and politics? It's a truly fine line. Finally, as these phones make inroads into the general population (for doctors, emergency workers and security personnel), will we grow so used to them that we'll no longer see using the phone as a form of chillul Shabbat?
In truth, Halachah truly does deal with not only how we speak - i.e. what implements we use, be they microphones, hearing aids or telephones - but what we say. The Torah forbids us from speaking about business on Shabbat, making deals, and even discussing mudane issues. But, we've become so form-focused, that we completely neglect the issue of content. Perhaps that's becase it's easy to draw clear lines: you can't use a telephone. The computer is forbidden. Put away the blackberry. It's far, far harder to censor the discussion itself. But in truth, on Shabbat it's not only how we say it. It's also what we say.
More on this later.