FitBit, Alexa and the future of electricity in Halacha

A few weeks ago, I delivered a shiur in my shul entitled, “Fitbit, Alexa and the Future of Electricity in Halacha.”  We first discussed whether one may wear a FitBit on Shabbat, if automatic displays, alarms and alerts are all disabled.  A FitBit is an activity tracker that measures steps taken and vital signs, among other things.  Some Poskim, like Rav Yisrael Rosen, former director of the Tzomet Institute in Israel, thought that technically it should be permitted because you are simply wearing the FitBit and are not doing anything observable to cause any electrical circuits to close.  However, he thought that as a matter of public policy, people should avoid using a FitBit absent a medical or security need.  Other Poskim, like Rabbi Willig, are concerned that since you want the tracker to measure your steps and, as such, you want the electrical circuits in the FitBit to close, you may possibly violate a Rabbinic prohibition.

We also discussed whether one may use Alexa on Shabbat.  Do you transgress a Shabbat prohibition if you tell Alexa to turn on a light for you on Shabbat?  Most articles that discuss this issue cite the Gemara in Bava Metzia 90b, where Rabbi Yochanan rules that if someone “muzzles” his animal by yelling at it every time it stops to eat something, then he receives lashes as a violation of the Torah prohibition of muzzling one’s animal.  This position equates speech with action.  Perhaps it can be used as a precedent that whenever the Torah tells you not to perform a sinful action, if you achieve that action through speech then you will also in effect be committing a sin.  Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky suggested that perhaps one may also violate a Rabbinic prohibition of “daber davar,” of inappropriate speech.  This prohibition is like the prohibition of telling a non-Jew to perform melacha (forbidden work) for him on Shabbat.

In the beginning of the shiur, someone asked me a simple and yet a very important question.  What is the starting point of the Torah?  Is something forbidden until it can be proven to be permitted or is something permitted until it can be proven to be forbidden?  The topic of electricity in halacha is unique in that there are no direct precedents in the Gemara or the Rishonim about how to analyze it.  What is our starting point?   As technology continues to increase to the point where perhaps we can think something to make electric circuits close, is our starting point that “thought” to create a desired result on Shabbat should be permitted or should be forbidden?

One can argue that the starting point is that if the activity doesn’t fit into one of the 39 categories of forbidden work on Shabbat then it should be permitted.  One can also argue that the starting point is that if the result that is created is considered significant but the elements of the activity that created the result do not fit into one of the classic avot melachot (categories of forbidden work on Shabbat), then it is included in the final melacha of “Makeh B’Patish,” or “striking the final hammer blow,” a catchall category, if you will.

Rav Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, approached this question differently about electricity on Shabbat.  He cited the Ramban who holds that there is a Torah obligation of “Shabbaton” on Shabbat, namely that these days should be days of rest and cessation of work and not days of labor and toil.  He argued that as technology has developed, people don’t toil and work with their bodies, but they do so with their minds.  With all the technology that we are afforded, we are pulled in so many directions, resulting in much psychological stress.  Therefore, perhaps using an electric appliance once may involve a mere Rabbinic prohibition but using many electric appliances on Shabbat would involve a Torah prohibition because it would transform the nature of Shabbat from being a day of “Shabbaton” to a regular day.  This is a “spirit of Shabbat” argument for not allowing electrical appliances couched in halachic terms, and the exact definition may be somewhat fluid.

Yet, this argument resonates most with me.  I have read articles about non-observant Jews who have observed a “technology Shabbat,” when they turned off every screen in sight – phones, laptops, TVs and Apple watches – for 24 hours.  Whether or not they are orthodox, they understood the need to unplug once a week.  Mindfulness, paying precise nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises, contributes to sound mental health and our psychological well-being.  To practice mindfulness is to be fully aware of the moment and that gives us a sense of balance, a sense of control and peace of mind.  For the Torah observant Jew, creating this environment of spiritual reflection with ourselves, our family and our friends devoid of any technology is what makes Shabbat holy.  That is why I hope that the halachic direction relating to modern technology on Shabbat continues to be restrictive absent serious need (e.g., medical, security, etc.), so that we can continue to observe the Shabbat as a “Shabbaton” as envisioned by the Ramban.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.