Throwing Our Etrogim at the Shabbos App by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg


We graciously thank Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for granting Kol Torah permission to reprint his excellent article (from an October 7, 2014 article on regarding the Shabbos App.

It is fifteen years later and I still vividly remember how offended and insulted I felt. In my second year studying at YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel, I joined a separate program twice a week that focused on training religious outreach professionals. I was the one YU guy among an otherwise homogenous group of “Yeshivish” young men. The classes focused on Halachic challenges in outreach, how to speak to a secular audience, how to articulate compelling positions on contemporary issues and responding to difficult questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

One day, while discussing Halachic methodology, one of the Rabbis, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah and noted Talmid Chacham, said to our group (I remember it almost verbatim): “Do you know why the Modern Orthodox seem so lax in Halachik observance? For them, being observant is incredibly challenging and burdensome, and it is often incompatible with other aspects of their lifestyle. For them,” he continued, “being Frum is a Sha’at HaDechack, an emergency situation, and, therefore, one can rely on leniencies and minority opinions. The Modern Orthodox,” he concluded, “aren’t abandoning Halachah, they simply see their whole lives as BeDi’avad, extenuating circumstances that allow laxity in Halachah.”

As he spoke, my blood was boiling. His generalization was grossly unfair. How could he make such a sweeping statement about all Modern Orthodox? Here I was learning in the flagship Modern Orthodox Yeshivah’s Kollel with a group of highly devoted, scrupulous, and rigorously committed friends being told that our “movement” lives BeDi’avad, suboptimal lives.

Looking back now, while I still feel his statement was an unfair over-generalization and was an inaccurate analysis of significant parts of the Modern Orthodox world, I realize that it is spot-on for other parts of it. It was once controversially said, “Where there is a Rabbinic will, there is a Halachic way.” That significantly problematic statement can now be amended to read, “Where there is anyone with internet access’s will, there is a Halachic way.”

The recent introduction of a “Shabbos App” is only the most recent development in a string of controversies in the Modern Orthodox world this year in which it seems that there has been a greater desire to make Halachah conform to lifestyle, rather than make lifestyle conform to Halachah. The app purports to employ complicated Halachic tools such as Gerama to supposedly permit texting on Shabbat. While some claim to have spoken to the programmers of the app and attest that it is both real and represents a “holy” effort, others believe it is a hoax designed to stir up discussion and garner attention.

Either way, according to experts, its premise is Halachicly ludicrous and if it is real, it will yield wholly unholy results for that which has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept it—our precious Shabbat. I have no interest in giving the app attention other than to say that the interest surrounding it sadly justifies what that Rosh Yeshivah said to our group that day.

A “Shabbos App” can exist only in the imagination of someone for whom not texting on Shabbat is a Sha’at HaDechak, an emergency situation in which creative legal loopholes should be investigated and employed. In the mind of those for whom Shabbat includes liberating ourselves Lechatchilah, as a first resort, from the shackles of technology, such an app would never be imagined or desired.

 As technology figures more prominently in our lives and as the conflicts between aspects of a secular lifestyle become incompatible with Halachah, we will be forced to ultimately make a decision about what takes precedence and prominence in our lives and choices.

 “ULekachtem Lachem BaYom HaRishon Peri Eitz Hadar Anaf Eitz Avot Kapot Temarim,” “Take for yourself on the first day a fruit of a beautiful citrus tree” (VaYikra 23:40). Over Sukkot, Jews around the world universally take the exact same four species. Whether of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent, both from North America, South America, the Eastern hemisphere or Western hemisphere, all Jews take the same Peri Eitz Hadar an Etrog. But how do we know that a Peri Eitz Hadar, a “beautiful citrus fruit,” is an Etrog? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of citrus fruit—oranges, grapefruits, lemons, pomelos, tangerines, and the list goes on.

 The Gemara (Sukkah 25a) draws the conclusion that a Peri Eitz Hadar is an Etrog by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, Hadar. They conclude it is the Etrog tree because the word “Hadar” in truth has two meanings: beautiful and dwell. They therefore interpret the Pasuk as referring to a fruit which is Dar BaIlan, “dwells continuously all year on the tree.” The Etrog alone fulfills the requirement of constant dwelling. While most other fruits are seasonal, the Etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons. It braves the cold, withstands the heat, remains firm and upright in the wind and stubbornly persists in surviving the storm. The Etrog is truly Dar, it dwells consistently and constantly. In fact, the Hebrew word Dar is very similar to the French word duree or the English word endure.

 The beauty of the Etrog is its endurance, its ability to withstand the elements and to triumph over the prevailing winds. The Etrog tree is determined, steadfast, and unwavering and thereby produces fruit that the Torah calls beautiful.

 As we spent technology-free time on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we must be reminded how fortunate and blessed we are to have been given the tools to disengage from the world. Like the Etrog tree, let’s be strong, determined, and steadfast in our commitment to Halachah and we too will produce beautiful fruit. Let’s embrace Halachah Lechatchila as nothing short of an ideal way of life.

Rabbi Chaim Jachter's additions

The travesty of the Shabbos App is analogous to a situation addressed in Teshuvot Chavot Yair 163.  A group of clothing salesmen met daily for a Shiur with a certain Talmid Chacham.  This group also agreed to submit all their disputes about Hasagat Gevul, illegal encroachment, to this Talmid Chacham for adjudication.  One of the members of the group noted that their disputes were frequent and resolving them was highly disruptive to their business endeavors.  This member raised the possibility of the members of the group waiving all claims and counterclaims regarding Hasagat Gevul, thereby permitting each other to engage in Hasagat Gevul.  Instead of arguing about whether certain business practices ran afoul of this Halachah, waiving all claims would avoid violation of Hasagat Gevul by removing the prohibition entirely.  The Talmid Chacham submitted the question to the Chavot Yair, who vigorously rejected the suggestion.  The Chavot Yair strongly condemns this action as a wholesale rejection of a Torah prohibition.  He notes that this practice will eventually erode any respect the group members have for the Halachah of Hasagat Gevul and that others would adopt this practice, leading to widespread disrespect for this Halachah.  He even compares such behavior to that of the Dor HaMabul, whose wholesale rejection of Torah principles led to a state of affairs where the world was inundated with theft.  

The same applies to the Shabbos App.  While any individual's violation of Shabbat constitutes a serious transgression, the disrespecting of a Torah principle is far worse, even if the motivation is to mitigate the severity of the transgressions of those who violate Shabbat.  It is one thing to violate the Shabbat; it is a far worse thing to create a situation where people will perceive that they are permitted to engage in such violation of Shabbat.  We hope that the Shabbos App is a passing phenomenon whose time has not arrived and will never arrive.  We look forward to the day when all of Am Yisrael will properly observe two Shabbatot which, we are promised by Chazal (Shabbat 118b), will usher in the Messianic age.

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