Half Shabbos Is No Shabbos

Jewish Week reporter Steve Lipman sent more than a few shockwaves through the Orthodox world with his recent article on texting on Shabbos by teenagers educated in Orthodox institutions. He reported on a Shabbaton at which fourteen of the seventeen teenagers present were texting one another. So common is the phenomenon that it even has its own nomenclature: “half Shabbos.”

In a follow-up letter to the Jewish Week, Drs. Scott Goldberg and David Pelcovitz attempted to mitigate the impact of Lipman’s article. Their survey of 1,200 teenagers in Modern Orthodox institutions, they wrote, revealed that only 17.7 percent text on Shabbos [emphasis mine]; 15.5 percent surf the Internet; and 13.5 percent talk on their cell phones. I doubt anyone was particularly consoled by those numbers.

While Lipman’s article and the Goldberg-Pelcovitz survey dealt only with Modern Orthodox students, the phenomenon is by no means confined to that sector of the Orthodox population. A Bais Yaakov principal in a major urban center told me that at last year’s Bais Yaakov convention in Baltimore, one principal told him that he could name twenty girls in his community who text on Shabbos, and another confided that on the last school Shabbaton a number of the girls put on makeup on Shabbos.

A Symptom of a Larger Problem
Texting is just the most open expression of a much more general problem—a lack of idealism, enthusiasm, and connection to Torah on the part of many Orthodox teenagers. One of the  principals mentioned earlier told me that two years ago he met with the graduating class of seniors in a Bais Yaakov high school in a fairly insular community—most of the girls’ parents work in Jewish education and do not have the Internet or secular newspapers in their homes. The third most frequently asked question was: “Isn’t Yiddishkeit just something most people do because that is what everyone does? Does anyone really believe it’s true?”

On one level, texting on Shabbos merely shows that our children are not immune to trends in the general society. One Nielsen survey showed that the average American teenager (aged thirteen to seventeen) sends 3,339 text messages a month, about six per waking hour, and for girls the number is over 4,000.

Even if Shabbos were removed from the equation, however, texting would be cause for parental concern. “Addicted” and “bored” are the two most common explanations offered by teenagers for texting on Shabbos. Both should scare us. “Addicted” because it expresses a lack of belief in one’s free will. Psychologists today speak of the “addictive personality,” and it is not implausible to fear that one type of addiction could presage others.

“Bored” is less frightening. But it too is cause for concern. That boredom reflects a shallow sense of self—a lack of self-identity apart from the opinions of one’s friends, with whom one must be in constant contact as if to affirm one’s own existence.

The Lost Art of Thinking
Too many of today’s teenagers are afraid or incapable of thinking about anything deeply. When Israeli teenagers are asked about their life goals, the most common answer is to be a celebrity. The quest for fame, the painful desire to be noticed, is totally divorced from any purpose other than the fame itself.

Given the proliferation of texting, it is a wonder that many teenagers have time for anything else. One thing they will not develop while sending six texts an hour and preserving constant contact with all friends is a taste for the joy of thinking—even sophomorically—about the great questions of life.

More than eighty years ago, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the great mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, pointed to the loss of the ability to think deeply as the source of the degeneration of life predicted by Chazal during Ikvesa D’Mashicha, Messianic Times. Already in his day, he described how a contemplative person is viewed as a “batlan” wasting his time.

It is often said that in America we have growing numbers of shomer Shabbos Jews. What we are lacking is erev Shabbos Jews.

Trends that required a Reb Yerucham to notice eighty years ago are evident to anyone today. A rapidly developing body of scientific evidence and social commentary points to the way that the Internet is changing how we think and the kind of people we are. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, gathers experimental proof of how the neural connectors of our brains are being reshaped by constant exposure to the Internet.

The Shallows is also, in the words of Tufts Professor Maryanne Wolf, a sustained essay about the “loss of human capacity for contemplation and wisdom, in an epoch where both appear increasingly threatened.” She worries that the type of reading encouraged by the Internet—bouncing from one text to another text, image or video, while being bombarded by messages, alerts and feeds—is inimical to our capacity for “deep reading” and “the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction.”

The Internet allows no white spaces, no time for absorption and reflection. Chazal knew that such pauses are crucial for ideas to have any impact on the recipient. The white spaces in the Torah—the psuchos and stumos—reflect the breaks that Hashem provided Moshe Rabbeinu with so that he could absorb each parashah properly.

Perhaps it is some solace that many Orthodox teenagers are not much different from their secular peers in their “addiction” to texting. But I suspect it will not be much consolation to parents who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that their children receive a fine Torah education, only to learn that it has not rendered them capable of refraining from texting for one day a week.

Leading by Example
What can we as parents do to combat the “addiction” to texting that makes it impossible to go twenty-five hours without sending a “Gd Shbs” message to a friend sitting right across the table? Unfortunately, the answer is very little if we are not prepared to model different behavior ourselves.

If we automatically accept every new technological advance as a necessity, and the adverse consequences of those inventions as unavoidable by-products of “progress,” then we cannot expect our children to adopt a different view. If our children see us checking our e-mails every ten minutes, or glancing anxiously at our handheld devices even in the middle of a conversation with them, we lack standing to guide them to a healthier relationship with every new handheld invention.

Obviously, a teenager who is busy texting or surfing the Internet on Shabbos does not experience Shabbos positively—at least at this stage in his or her life. One finds oneself almost wishing that they were mechallel Shabbos for ta’avos more readily understood. The casualness with which they transgress Shabbos restrictions, without even the lure of any tangible pleasure, itself adds to the pain.

Creating an Atmosphere
Do we as parents have the tools to reverse our teens’ perception of Shabbos? Again, only if we are willing to ensure that we are conveying a completely different message of Shabbos. And even then, it might be too late to have much immediate impact on those already well into their second decade, when peer pressure is much more dominant.

It is often said that in America we have growing numbers of shomer Shabbos Jews. What we are lacking is erev Shabbos Jews. An erev Shabbos Jew is one who approaches Shabbos with eager anticipation of the taste of Olam Haba that then sustains him or her during the week to follow. A home in which the Shabbos table is set in all its glory on Thursday night, or at least well in advance of candle lighting, is one in which that message is heard.

A home in which a calm descends prior to Shabbos and the parents are dressed to greet the Shabbos Queen is one in which the preciousness of Shabbos enters our children’s consciousness. Needless to say, achieving that pre-Shabbos calm is harder than ever in our fast-paced, frenetic world. It is not easy to leave work early, especially on short winter afternoons under the watchful stares of co-workers and bosses. But arriving home close to candle lighting comes at the cost of an atmosphere in the house of heightened anticipation of Shabbos.

The Shabbos Table
The Shabbos table is the crucial element in instilling a love of Shabbos and of being Jewish. Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach attributed the failure of one of his children to follow in his footsteps to the fact that he did not sing more zemiros at the Shabbos table. Only if our Shabbos tables are child-friendly will they have the power to instill powerful positive associations with Shabbos that will accompany our children long after they leave our homes.

Creating the desired atmosphere at the Shabbos table, like most other worthwhile endeavors in life, requires preparation. It means finding divrei Torah that are understandable to our children. It also requires fathers to familiarize themselves with what their children have learned during the week so that they can draw out their participation. Divrei Torah that focus on lessons in middos or mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro can be springboards from the parashah to events in our or our children’s everyday lives. One recent compilation of such lessons from each parashah is Blueprints for Lasting Relationships by Rabbi Hershel Becker, which has enhanced my own Shabbos table in recent months. But the most important thing is that our children see us sharing divrei Torah—even ones they cannot yet fully understand—with enthusiasm, so that they understand that we look to the Torah as our source of values.

Finally, Shabbos is a time to strengthen our relationships with our children, to talk to them, to find out what’s on their minds. The more we use the time to show them our interest in their lives, the more connected to us they will feel, and the more reluctant to disappoint us or depart from what they know to be our most important values.

I do not mean that our Shabbos tables have to conform to some idyllic picture: smiling children sitting attentively at the table and never leaving it to read on the couch, parents demonstrating infinite patience, never stifling a yawn or putting their weary heads down, and no one ever addressing a negative word to a sibling, parent or child. Unrealistic expectations are harmful because they add to parental tension when the storybook picture is not realized. But with advance thought and preparation, most of our Shabbos tables can be uplifted and have a much more lasting impact on our children.

The phenomenon of “half Shabbos” is too widespread to be ignored, and it represents only the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper apathy with respect to Hashem and His Torah. But we should at the same time remember that the teenage years are typically ones of rebelliousness and boundary testing. They are also the years in which peer pressure is strongest, and parental influence is much diminished. However, we can help our children develop Torah values that are not just a reflection of what everyone else is doing. (But even when we are successful in this respect in the long-run, there will usually be setbacks during the teenage years.) Many respected members of the Orthodox world today can likely remember teenage activities that they pray their children will not engage in. And that will no doubt be true twenty years from now for many of those texting on Shabbos today, for whom the intense experience of yeshivah or seminary in Eretz Yisrael still lies ahead.

It should also be recognized that not all students in Modern Orthodox institutions come from shomer Shabbos homes, and thus some of those texting on Shabbos likely come from homes in which Shabbos is not fully observed and in which there is no sense of reverence for the day. But no matter how many mitigating factors we can find to minimize the revelations about teen texting on Shabbos, the phenomenon will not allow us to remain complacent. At the very least, it is a wake-up call to all parents to re-examine our own attitudes toward Shabbos and to contemplate how successful we are in conveying our own positive feelings and how we can improve.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for Mishpacha, The Jerusalem Post, the American Yated Ne’eman, and the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

This article was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Action.
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