I recently went away for Shabbat to a location with few Jews and no synagogue, and I forgot to bring my siddur (prayer book). However, I did bring my iPhone which has a siddur application on it (as well as a Torah application). In this situation is it okay to use the iPhone applications on Shabbat to allow me to say the prayers, study Torah, and recite kiddush and bircat hamazon (blessings before and after the meal)? How do I balance observing Shabbat with the use of technology to observe Shabbat?
Without knowing you or your unique circumstances it is impossible to give a fully appropriate answer. However, in response to the primary question being asked: It would not be permissible to use an iPhone on Shabbat for these purposes.
Firstly, while technology can be a tremendous blessing, it is also causing people to turn to devices for tasks that we used to be able to do on our own. Instead of relying on your iPhone to recite prayers and study Torah, or even a Siddur and Chumash for that matter, since you have no other choice on this particular Shabbat, why not do your best to say the prayers that you know by heart and discuss what you remember about the Torah portion? After all, though it is ideal to recite all of the prayers, there is still value in reciting just some, such as the Shema.
Secondly, although it sounds noble to use an iPhone for this purpose on Shabbat, you would be putting yourself into a tempting situation to check Email, go online or make phone calls with just one touch of the finger. Since this device is used all week long for such activities, one may easily slip into them on Shabbat as well, without much thought, thereby going from using the device for noble and holy purposes to using it for mundane weekday reasons. Much of the beauty of Shabbat lies in the fact that it gives us a respite from the swiftness of our daily pace and other obstacles to meaningful interpersonal and spiritual connections. Using such a device on Shabbat may appear to have valid reasons, but is not in consonance with the spirit of the day, and can easily slip into activities which are certainly not suited for the holy Sabbath.
Thirdly, doing what we consider to be a Mitzvah via forbidden means is similar to the Talmudic concept of a “Mitzvah Haba’ah B’Aveirah” (a Mitzvah that is brought about through a transgression). Therefore, while it is laudatory to want to pray and study Torah, since doing so in this manner would be forbidden it would not fulfill a Mitzvah.
While it is very easy to rationalize numerous technologies that might seem to enhance Shabbat, the best way to truly carve the Sabbath into a sanctified island of time is not to rely only on our own judgment about what actions seem appropriate. Personal needs or emotions often cause us to mislead ourselves into rationalizing behaviors that are not actually conducive to experiencing the sanctity of Shabbat. However, by following communal norms and traditional rabbinic guidelines, we are enabled to experience true transcendence and go beyond ourselves, ultimately connecting to the Divine. Therefore, you should not use your iPhone for this reason on Shabbat, and I believe that in the long run you will be much better off for it.
I first want to remark how wonderful it is that Shabbat, prayer and study are so important to you in your life and that even when it is not convenient for you to participate (you were away from other Jews and community), you still wanted to find a way to do these mitzvot and honor Shabbat. Regardless of the legal answer, I think that this is laudable.
In general, it has certainly been true that the majority opinion in the “traditional” world is that the use of electricity is forbidden on Shabbat, as it is likened to fire and to other activities for which there are explicit prohibitions in the Torah. From a mainstream Halakhic (legal) point of view one could not, therefore, justify the use of electronics in all but the most dire circumstances (ex. In order to save a life). If I were in your circumstances, assuming I understand them all, I would do as my Orthodox colleague suggested and do my best from memory with both the prayers and Torah study.
However, I will say that there are non mainstream positions in our Halakhic literature that support the ability to use electricity on Shabbat, some of which date back to the original introduction of electricity to Jewish law and which also have precedent in both the Orthodox and Conservative worlds. One might make a case that one could rely upon those alternative opinions in bedieved (after the fact, non-ideal) circumstances. For more information on this complicated subject please see this teshuvah by Rabbi Daniel Nevins http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/electrical-electronic-devices-shabbat.pdf.
In a Reform synagogue there is no problem using a siddur application on an electronic devise like an IPhone or IPad on Shabbat since Reform Jews use electricity on Shabbat. It is simply another development in technology. First there were manuscripts, then printed prayer books, then mimeographed creative services, and now siddurim created by individual congregations on computers. Now there are electronic versions or many prayer books, including our Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah .
Some congregants might experience using an electronic device as strange, particularly if they think you are doing your email. In that case you might simply explain what you are doing. I have found that the discomfort with using this technology tends to be generational ---older congregants are less comfortable than younger ones. On the other hand, an advantage of a siddur application on an electronic devise is that a congregant can adjust the font size, making it easier for some people than using a siddur where the font is too small for their eyesight.
Our cantor often leads the service with the siddur application in his IPad. As far as I know no one has complained. And if the availability of these Jewish resources on our electronic devises make it easier for us to access Jewish spiritual practice like berachot before meals or the birchat ha mazon, all the better!
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