A recent article in The Jewish Week brought to light something that has been afflicting the Orthodox community for some time now: teenage texting on Shabbos. The practice is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially but in no way exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens.
The article quoted Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, who maintains that teenage Shabbos texters are an open secret in their schools and social circles, operating just beyond the scope of most adults.
In fact, the practice has become so widespread that it has developed its own classification – “half Shabbos,” a term designed to reaffirm a person’s basic commitment to Shabbos observance other than texting.
Certainly there is no single factor responsible for this unfortunate phenomenon.
Peer acceptance and widespread participation play a definite role, as does the general enthusiasm teens have for texting. (According to Nielsen, the average U.S. teen now sends or receives an average of 2,899 text-messages per month).
For some, texting represents but one area in which their Shabbos observance is lacking.
Sadly, far too many teens no longer even see the need to keep such activity discreet. According to Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for the London Jewish Chronicle, Orthodox teens “openly discuss whether they keep ‘half-Shabbos’ or ‘full Shabbos.’ There is apparently no shame attached to this violation.”
Naturally, the primary discussion among parents and educators regarding teen texting on Shabbos has focused on how best to respond to such unchartered technological challenges that confront 21st century Orthodoxy.
Many correctly advocate inculcating in our young people a stronger appreciation for the beauty of Shabbos and a deeper appreciation of what it really is all about.
Others have chosen to focus their thoughts on addressing the addictive nature of texting, and helping their charges live a meaningful social existence without being so heavily cell-phone dependent.
Without doubt these are important strategies, and will hopefully go a long way toward addressing this basic Shabbos texting problem confronting our youth.
But perhaps it is not just our youth who struggle with the concept of half Shabbos, even if texting on our holiest day is not a significant issue for the adult population. I believe we would all benefit from a closer examination of the term our children have embraced.
Certain colloquialisms have become incorporated within the communal lexicon despite the fact that they fail to capture the true essence of the subject at hand. “Ba’al teshuvah” is one such example, by virtue of the fact that the subjects of that designation generally were not doing “teshuvah” per se when they embraced observance.
“Half Shabbos,” I believe, is another.
We all know there is no such thing as keeping “half” of Shabbos. Shabbos observance demands complete adherence to the many laws of the day; if one deliberately violates even one aspect, he is viewed as someone who desecrates Shabbos, plain and simple.
While I recognize that shemiras Shabbos can often be the result of a process that is achieved in stages (particularly for those who are new to mitzvah observance), it is not something one can partially “keep” for an indefinite period of time.
Nor should we be using terminology that implies Shabbos observance is something that can be practiced according to personal whim or fancy, as if the areas we fail to properly fulfill are somehow non-essential or extra credit.
“Half Shabbos” is a term that is better suited to describe the emphasis we typically place on the shamor (restrictive) aspects of Shabbos at the expense of the zachor. For too many of us, Shabbos is all about the don’ts – specifically, what to avoid and how to acceptably circumvent certain halachic roadblocks in order to enjoy ourselves as much as possible.
In contrast, too little emphasis is focused on the positive aspects of Shabbos – the serenity, the beauty, the reconnection with our Maker. In our frenetic world, where realities change and information pours in by the nanosecond, it is easy to understand why so many of our children view Shabbos as a boring and lonely experience rather than an invigorating and affirming one – and why they seek each other’s virtual company to keep themselves connected and engaged.
If we are to make “half Shabbos” become a truly “full” Shabbos for all of us, we need to understand the true goals of our day of rest. We need to appreciate the purpose of the restrictions so that we can transcend our base realities and acquire an aspect of the Divine that eludes us throughout the weekly rat race.
Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff