Talmud Scholars: OK to Read Scripture on E-Book on the Sabbath?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Note: in December 2010 I posted a blog entitled Should You Kindle a Kindle on the Sabbath? The matter has been widely debated.  Is it a uniquely 21st century problem? Or do ancient Talmudic commentaries apply?  Thanks to DBW you’ll have the opportunity to air the question for yourself.


The rabbis and Jewish scholars who created that fountain of wisdom called the Talmud could not have imagined the force called electricity and the challenges it would one day create for modern Jews. Yet the same logic and common sense that used scripture to guide the perplexed of the fifth century or the twelfth is now being applied to the use of modern electronic devices – such as the Kindle.

When electricity was discovered and harnessed, Jews applied the strictures against working on the sabbath to electric appliances and determined that activating them was a form of work. Today, observant Jews will not flip a light switch, turn on a stove burner or press an elevator button. (Some hospitals and other institutions visited by Jews on the sabbath have elevators that automatically stop on every floor.)

Now consider the Kindle. Though it’s commonly referred to as an electronic device is it an electric one? The prevailing Jewish wisdom is that it is, and reading a book on it is the equivalent of turning on an electric light. But there’s more…

Because the screen of a reading device is not a fixed medium – it is a blank matrix on which words are produced by running a tiny electric current through it – orthodox Jews believe that the act of turning a page is a form of writing. And writing is prohibited on the Sabbath. But there’s still more…

Even if one were to read the Torah – the core Jewish scripture – on the Kindle on the sabbath, it would still be unacceptable. Why? Because Kindles, one modern orthodox rabbi pointed out in an article in The Atlantic, “in epitomizing our weekday existence, aren’t appropriate for the Sabbath.”

Thus blogger Morris Rosenthal’s brainstorm – “a special Kindle that can bypass Sabbath prohibitions by disabling its buttons, turning itself on at a preset time, and flipping through a book at a predetermined clip” – would not get past rabbinical scrutiny. You can read scripture on your e-book six days a week, but on the seventh you have to give it a rest and read the p-book instead. Sorry, Kindlach, you’re out of luck.

Of course, you don’t have to be Jewish to put your Kindle down on the sabbath. Many moderns of all faiths observe Internet Sabbath, a day off from the frenzy of electronic communications and social media. Blogger Nat Friedman tried it a year ago and wrote “After just a few minutes, it felt like a vacation.” Somewhere a rabbi is smiling with satisfaction.

Read People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age by Uri Friedman. And here’s a fascinating Wikipedia entry on use of electricity and appliances on the Sabbath.

Richard Curtis

Expert Publishing Blog
Richard Curtis

About Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is a leading New York literary agent (www.curtisagency.com) who foresaw the Digital Book Revolution and launched an e-book publishing company early in 2000. E-Reads (www.ereads.com) is one of the foremost independent e-book publishers in the industry, specializing in reprints of genre fiction by leading authors in their fields. Curtis is also a well-known authors advocate, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry, and prolific blogger – see his hundreds of other blog posts here.


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