It all started with one small flip, followed by a rip. Some time ago, while attending the daily Shacharit (morning) service in the synagogue, I was turning the pages of my small siddur (prayer book) when a small tear appeared in the page that I had turned. The torn page became partially detached, and eventually fell out completely. Undaunted, I placed the fallen page in the proper location, and every time it would flutter to the ground, I would bend down and put it back. Hardly efficient, but it worked. Until one day, when it dropped and disappeared.
For a few days, I recited the text that had been on the missing page from memory. I didn’t want to have to purchase another siddur, which undoubtedly would wear out and become as dog-eared as the current version.
Then, one day, I hit upon a solution. Why not recite the prayers using my phone? After all, my siddur app “knows” which prayers are omitted on special days, it can be changed from the Ashkenazic to the Sephardic rite with one tap, and can even be adjusted to a larger font size to make the text readable in the early morning hours. Easy!
The next morning, I left my old siddur in the Tallit bag, tapped on my phone, and was off to the races (figuratively, of course). The letters were large and crystal-clear, navigating between prayers was a snap, and no pages ripped. Judaism meets the 21st century, I thought.
The next day, I donned the tallit, wrapped one of the tefillin boxes on my arm, placed the other on my head, pulled out my phone, started tapping — and then stopped. Just as the day before, the prayers were clear, the words flowed — but there was something missing.
And then I realized the problem.
My hands and fingers had made absolutely no impression on the words on the screen. Every word, every dot, looked pristine and untouched, as if it had never been used. My ratty, banged-up siddur was well-worn at the locations of the prayers most frequently recited, was discolored where the oil of my skin had touched the paper, and was frayed at the edges where my fingers had turned the pages. It reflected how much I had used it for all these years.
When I prayed with the tattered siddur, I felt that I was making a connection with the words on the pages, and the message in the words made a discernible impact on me. The tactile sensation of turning the pages, of reading one side of the page, then flipping to the next, provided a sensation of progression. The siddur app, on the other hand, did not provide that same feeling of advancement, of starting from the beginning, and continuing until the prayers’ conclusion. The discolorations to the pages that my fingers had caused gave the pages identity and character. The siddur app, by contrast, was anonymous — it could have been anyone’s.
I am not a computer Luddite. I have been involved in many of the groundbreaking developments in Judaic software for the past 30 years. There is no question that computers have played, and continue to play, a vital role in Jewish education, in such areas as Hebrew language, Talmud, and Bible study. My desk is cluttered with screens of all types and sizes, that beep and ring and flash all day. Yet, there is something additional, to my mind, at least, that the printed word on the page has over the digital text on the screen. It is the marks — the impressions that we leave on the book, the notes scribbled in the margin, the imprint and stain of the teacup on the page of Talmud that reminds me of where I was studying, and with whom I was studying — that imbue Torah study, and prayer with a personal feeling.
I am well aware of the almost daily advances in software and hardware design. I know all about iPads and iPhones — I probably have owned almost every model ever produced — and I know what the Apple Pencil can do. I even have one myself. Yet, I wonder if the notes and comments that I write with today’s digital devices will be readable and understandable to the next generation, or the one after. Sometimes, the tie that binds generations are the books that our forebears leave behind, the notes in the pages that they wrote, the worn parts of the volume that indicate what they read the most, and yes, the stains on the pages. It is these personal touches, I fear, that are absent from our phones, tablets, and other devices.
So I think that I’ll go back to a regular bound, paper siddur. I may even buy a new one with larger print. The paper may fray, the pages may become discolored, but hey, if I drop it, the screen won’t crack.