Yechiel Weisz

Of Cellphones and Rav Kavs

In this world we face the perpetual challenge of striking a balance between our spiritual pursuits and the exciting worldly happenings of daily life. There is danger lurking behind either extreme. Both focusing too heavily on the spiritual aspects or the worldly concerns can be harmful to you. The consequences of where we channel our efforts and how we maintain our balance manifest themselves continually in our everyday experiences. Let’s delve into two seemingly contradictory manifestations of this struggle.

Striking a Chord in Prayer

Prayer, one of the three cornerstones of Judaism, presents an exceptionally demanding obligation. Three times a day, at set intervals, we engage in prayer rituals with prescribed texts. We are praying and talking to an unseeable God, from an ancient text that we may or may not always understand. Regardless of how we frame it, prayer demands patience and hard work. It’s our עבודה שבלב, an internalized labor of the heart. The Gemara tells us that there are four things that continuously need חיזוק, strengthening; Tefilla being one of them. Now, the focus of this blog is not to explain how to pray and how our prayers work. But we can all agree that in order to make prayer meaningful and inspiring, it needs hard work.

One idea that can be said about prayer is that it is supposed to be a time to disconnect from the physical and to reconnect to the spiritual. It is supposed to be a time where we can free ourselves from our physical desires and struggles. A wise man was once asked by a friend what he had gained from his prayers. The wise man answered: “I can’t tell you what I definitely gained, but I can tell you what definitely lost: my anger, my pain, and my suffering.” Prayer is a time to let go. That’s why we have many laws to help us in this task. There are specific times during prayer where we may not talk, walk around, or interrupt. Notwithstanding all these halachot that we all try to keep, there is another, perhaps far more important factor nowadays to take into account when we pray. The issue of the cell phone. We love our cellphone: it’s our bank, diary, phone, messaging device, newspaper, source of music and entertainment, and more. What is it doing in our shuls?

Consider the talmudic concept of one who enters the mikvah while clutching a dead rat, known as tovel vesheretz beyodo. The metaphor illustrates the paradox of attempting purification while holding onto the very source of impurity. This individual descends into the mikvah, but the presence of the dead rat perpetuates impurity, preventing true purification. It’s akin to attempting to achieve spiritual elevation while simultaneously embracing behaviors or objects that counteract it. The absurdity of such an attempt at purification is not lost on us.

Nevertheless, there is a modern-day phenomenon of cell phones in shuls. This practice of using cell phones during prayer has insidiously infiltrated our society. I, too, confess to being guilty of this transgression. Reflect on the absurdity of someone from decades past flipping through a newspaper for sports scores during the repetition of the Amida, or sending messages via fax machine during Torah reading (even “between the aliyahs”). The notion seems preposterous, yet today, we casually scroll through our phones, checking messages or browsing social media, all while in the midst of prayer. Unless you are working for Hatzalah, or another life-serving organization, or in a real case of emergency, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be on the phone. And if such an emergency arises, we should have the respect to go to the back of the shul, or even better, outside of the shul, where we can check the device. But how often is it really that important? It can’t wait for a few minutes?

Why do we permit such distractions? There should be an absolute ban on cellphones during prayer times. Each shul should have cell phone lockers in the back. There should be no tolerance for these devices in the scarlet hall of a shul. A person should be embarrassed to take out his cell phone. As a Rabbi for teenage boys and girls for many years, I can testify that cellphones are, in my opinion, the number one distraction that inhibits spiritual growth. Even using cell phones for prayer, by means of the various sidurim apps, proves distracting and detracts from the sacredness of the moment. In my view, the only conceivable scenario where a phone could be employed for prayer would be if it’s the sole available option, and even then, it must be in airplane mode to mitigate distractions. Otherwise, it’s akin to entering the mikvah while clinging to a dead rat: an imbalance of too much focus on the physical realm, represented by the phone, and insufficient attention to spiritual matters, which is the prayer. We can’t reach for the heavens when we are holding up our devices. It simply doesn’t work. Let go of the physical so that you can reach the spiritual.

Paying the Price of Moral Balance

On the flip side of this delicate balance between the spiritual and the physical, another equally eyebrow-raising phenomenon emerges. Here is the story: a few months ago I embarked on my daily commute, hopping onto the bus to yeshiva. Armed with my trusty Rav Kav, a magnetic card resembling a credit card, or wielding my phone to scan a QR code for payment, I’m all set. With these new ways to pay, it’s almost too easy to slide onto the tram or bus without shelling out a single shekel. Gone are the times when you had to hand over actual cards or cash to the driver.

So here I am, waiting for my bus, when suddenly, like a scene out of a sitcom, three employees from the same bus company converge at the same spot. And what’s their job? Ticket inspectors. Their mission: ride various busses all day long, sniffing out fare dodgers like detectives on a stakeout. But here’s the kicker: they drop a bombshell in their conversation that I happen to overhear. Apparently, religious and ultra-religious neighborhoods are hotspots for freeloaders. The bus company’s response? Forget issuing fines; too cumbersome to track and enforce. Instead, they opt to bolster the ticket inspector squad, compelling passengers to either pay up or disembark at the next stop.

I was unfortunately not surprised, but still shocked and embarrassed by the colossal Chillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name, that this situation brews. It’s baffling how so many religious individuals nonchalantly sidestep paying for public transportation. It’s downright theft, plain and simple. No amount of philosophical acrobatics or talmudic tap dancing can sugarcoat it. Nevertheless, I decided to do some research and look into it a bit. Apparently, a slew of creative excuses crop up: perhaps the bus company turns a blind eye, or maybe we’re exempt from payment due to some convoluted legal loophole. But let’s call a spade a spade: theft remains theft, no matter how you slice it.

In talmudic vernacular, we term this rationalization “Moreh Heter,” convincing oneself something is permissible, despite it being as kosher as a bacon sandwich. It’s a disconnect from the physical realm, a case of being “too holy to pay,” where the laws of economics just don’t apply. You’re so disconnected from the physical that you start believing that the rules don’t apply to you. But folks, let’s not kid ourselves, we need to pay our fares, lest we find ourselves cruising down the highway to moral bankruptcy.

We can get lost in the physical and not be able to disconnect or be so disconnected that we feel the normal rules of society do not apply. Either extreme is no good. Each person and community should make their own boundaries and balance and it may and should differ, but let’s keep the cellphones out of shuls and our Rav Kavs operational.

About the Author
Yechiel Weisz lives in RBS and originally from Switzerland. He is a Rebbi, teacher and public speaker.