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In the Press: Putting down technology for Shabbat

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The Times gives coverage to the Chief Rabbi’s upcoming Shabbat UK initiative, which seeks to revive the tradition of keeping Shabbat for a wider tranche of British Jewry and encourages people to switch off. The advancement of technology, it seems, has been to the detriment of human interaction. 

‘Free yourself from digital slavery — for a day at least’

By Oliver Moody

Digital technology has made many people “slaves” and they would be happier if they gave up mobile phones and emails for one day each week, the chief rabbi has said.

Ephraim Mirvis, the leader of the largest group in British Jewry, said that the ceaseless need to respond to electronic messages distracted from family life and spiritual reflection.

The rabbi is leading a campaign to revive Shabbat, the Jewish custom of setting aside all forms of work between the hours between sunset on Friday and nightfall on Saturday. He praised the “sensational” effect of switching off the internet for 24 hours.

“We utilise electronic technology which has been pre-set before the commencement of the Shabbat,” he told The Times. “In this way, we can enjoy light in our homes, eat hot food and benefit from warmth during the winter months. We don’t, however, activate electronic devices on the Sabbath in order to abstain from creative activity.

“As a result, we don’t turn on light switches nor use mobile phones, computers and the like. The impact is sensational. Instead of being slaves to modern technology, we are able to control our own agendas.

“On the Sabbath, through just knowing that the phone won’t ring and there is no expectation for one to reply to texts, messages or emails, one enjoys a wonderful day reserved for spiritual contemplation and healthy family and community engagement. I recommend such a system to everyone.”

‘Instead of being slaves to modern technology, we are able to control our own agendas’

Rabbi Mirvis is the latest in a series of religious leaders who have warned that digital devices may be disrupting modern life as much as they make it easier.

In June the Archbishop of Canterbury told an event in Parliament that he was worried social media did not afford its users enough space to think things through.

“In a world in which cultures overlap constantly and are communicated instantly – and, judging from what I get, often with some friction – you need space to adapt and to meet with one another, and you have to trust the sovereign grace of God for the consequences,” he said.

“The comments that even 20 years ago took months to reach the far corners of the Earth now, as we know, take seconds. Instant reaction has replaced reflective comment.”

The Pope has also cautioned young people not to fritter too much time on “useless things” such as chatting over the internet or mobile phones. “The products of technology [should] simplify and improve the quality of life, but sometimes take attention away from what is really important,” he said in August.

Next Saturday Rabbi Mirvis will lead tens of thousands of British Jews in observing Shabbat festivities designed to rekindle the spiritual meaning of the faith’s most basic practices.

“The Shabbat is probably more relevant today that it has ever been since the founding of our faith,” he said. “Within our increasingly materialistic society, Shabbat serves as a weekly spiritual anchor through which we remind ourselves about the real priorities of our lives.

‘The Shabbat is probably more relevant today that it has ever been since the founding of our faith’

“The Jewish philosopher Achad Ha’am said: ‘More than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.’”

While the ShabbatUK campaign is aimed at Jews and endorsed by Jewish celebrities including the actress Maureen Lipman and the television presenter Vanessa Feltz, Rabbi Mirvis said that the idea of dedicating 24 hours a week to family and reflection would hold a broader resonance for many Britons.

“Many other faiths share the concept of a Sabbath and celebrate it in their own particular way,” he said. “Certainly, the prime themes of our Sabbath day of spirituality, personal growth, family unity and community cohesion, together with us being the masters of our sophisticated world, and not the servants of it, are concepts that all of society can benefit from.”