iprayBy Yochanan Gordon

This is not the birth of a new prayer organization looking to attract members with a modern twist. Nor is it the new brainchild of Steve Jobs adding to the Apple family of iPhone, iPod, iPad, and iMac, looking to infiltrate the Orthodox Jewish market of shulgoers with iPray. Although, looking at how the “smartphone” is slowly replacing the seemingly passé Siddur, it might just one day be a profitable business venture. I could already envision the marketing slogan, “4G takes to the Heavens”-although I certainly hope not.
One early afternoon this past week, as I waited for the end of Minchah and the start of my regular learning session with the maggid shiur, two members of the minyan seemed to be davening with their smartphones. Another member of the minyan made eye contact with me, nodding his head as if in disbelief, suggesting that such was unbefitting for prayer and that it would be something worthwhile to address in the newspaper. This is how I came up with the idea for iPray.

(Note: There are a number of websites that enable smartphone users to download Hebrew content. Here, I am addressing the specific issue of davening from a smartphone, rather than learning Torah from one. It is an asset to people who are on the run to be able to download Chumash, Rashi, mishnayos, and Tehillim in order to utilize their downtime constructively. However, there should be a clear distinction between tefillah, which is a service of the heart requiring utmost focus and equanimity, and learning Torah, for which a person is rewarded in proportion to the time spent.)

Don’t think this problem is limited to a few isolated incidents in a minyan here or there. At the website idaven.com, you can see the following: “Last week 13,731 people davened with idaven.com,” although this was the only site I found that kept a tally of how many people have downloaded davening content from it.

I firmly believe that the technological boom we continue to experience has enabled us to advance our service of G-d in ways that previous generations could only have hoped for. By the same token, however, I ardently feel that everything has a proper time and place, as King Solomon, the wisest of all men, asserted, “La’kol z’man v’eis l’chol cheifetz tachas ha’shamayim” (Koheles 3:1).
While the words that we recite in prayer are essential for the fulfillment of our obligation to pray, it is the thoughts that accompany these words which give them wings, allowing them entry before G-d. In tefillah we have the ability to arouse a new will before G-d, which is one explanation of the words, “Yehi Ratzon … .” It then follows that tefillah should be expressed in an environment which is conducive to contemplation.

This explains the saying of Chazal, “Ein omdim lehispallel ela mitoch koved rosh.” On that note, a smartphone, which is generally used for interpersonal communication, e-mail, news, sports, weather, GPS, stock quotes, and, in some cases, TV and music, certainly does not set the scene for an exclusive meeting with G-d. There is a halachah that forbids us to hold anything in our hands during prayer altogether, lest it divert our attention from the meditative state. As a result of the spiritual decline of each passing generation, the need arose to have the prayers written down. This gave way to the Siddur. Not only does peering into a Siddur not get in the way of our concentration, it in fact helps our ability to understand what it is we are saying, as our Sages have written, “Osiyos machkimos.”

Our Sages have taught that tefillah today stands in the place of sacrifices. As we are in exile, without the Beis HaMikdash, unable to offer sacrifices which are said to generate a nachas ruach before G-d, tefillah enables us today to achieve that same closeness to G-d. Some have the custom to say following the section of Korbanos that G-d should view our supplication as if our blood has been spilled and grant us atonement for any sins which would otherwise require the offering of a sacrifice.

This suggests that in tefillah we are attempting to nullify ourselves before G-d, to show how awesome and merciful He is and by contrast how lowly and undeserving we are. The smartphone, however, is there with the opposite goal in mind. The very concept of a minyan suggests that one person, no matter how devoted he is to G-d, cannot generate the level of holiness needed to sanctify the name of G-d. By contrast, the “I” generation gives off a very different message, one that suggests that it is all about “I”-what I want, what I need-and very little to do with “we.” (Even the Nintendo Wii was misspelled using two lowercase I’s rather than the proper “we.”)

On that note, going back to the aforementioned verse from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything under the heavens,” I thought of the following nuance. The Gemara says that tefillah is rooted in the highest realms of this world, yet people treat it degradingly. This suggests that tefillah transcends this world and reaches above the heavens. On that note, even according to King Solomon, the BlackBerry or smartphone which occupies this world only could never conceivably be used for something as sacred and exclusive as tefillah.

It is time, with all that we have been through and sadly continue to endure-personally, collectively, and globally-that we begin to approach our daily prayers with the honor and dignity that it requires of us. With that our tefillos will pierce the heavens and G-d will shower us with shefa, berachah, and hatzlachah, including the ultimate berachah of the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.

Comments for Yochanan Gordon are welcome at ygordon@5tjt.com.

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  1. Very inspiring piece. However, there is still a valid need for applcations on phones or other devices that allow a person to pray when he’s not in a shul or where a siddur is not available, such as at a wedding or on a trip.
    I don’t think the reasoning that a phone is used for secular endeavors makes it posul for davening is valid. A person also uses his eyes for reading secular content, and some for TV and movies. Does that make his eyes pasul?
    Use the tool for the proper reasons — there’s no such thing as impure or defiled devices. They’re all parve, it depends on how you use them.

  2. I have had this discussion many times, and politely would like to offer a different perspective. And I say with the utmost respect for the Gordon family.

    Say you’re davening a mincha during the workday in an office minyan (or in my case, a minyan in a nearby office). Many of these minyanim don’t have a strict start and stop time, and so arriving during shmoneh esrei is occasionally inevitable. Say you are pretty machpid to daven from a siddur. There only siddurim are on a table in the front of the room. Getting to the siddurim would certainly violate the halachos of passing in front of/disturbing other people davening shmoneh esray.

    However, my iPhone is my weekday gateway to ruchniyus on the go. While yes, I can read the NY Times and play a game or to, I also have gemarah with shiurim and can often get in some solid learning while on the go. I have gigabytes of shiurim, and try to listen to mussar at least a few mornings a week. My hour-and-change commute is often spent with shiurim from my rabbeim and mashgiach, through lens of the phone. My wife has even loaded some of her shiurim from Na’aleh onto my phone for longer drives.

    I don’t find it a wild notion to use the siddur on this phone rather than (a) davening without a siddur or (b) stepping all over a crowded room of people davening to get a siddur?

    Airports. I travel quite regularly, almost always day trips. Mincha in the airport becomes inevitable. I could bring a siddur, but my phone just makes it easier. I can even find out of town minyanim via the siddur app. And when I’m benching, it feels much more bekovodik to bench off of a nice, clean, clear text rather than a stapled booklet jammed into my wallet.

    This device is just a device. Magazines can be used for ruchniyus or for tumah. Newspapers can be used for ruchniyus or for tumah. Telephones can be used for ruchniyus or for tumah. Computers can be used for ruchniyus or for tumah.

    It may seem foreign to see someone davening off of a phone. In a shul or another setting where there are siddurim available, there is no need to use a phone. There are times when it can enhance our davening.

    Please let me know if I’m crazy. The last thing I would want is to be mezalzel kvod shamayim and make a public chillul.

  3. What happens when a call or text comes in during shemoneh esray??? Isn’t that extremly distracting of the mind as well as causing one to press buttons… standing right before Hashem & smack in middle of talking to him?!
    As well as Halachicly speaking…?
    Doesn’t seem to be ideal at all.

  4. #2:
    There is a very simple solution to the predicament that you describe, its called a pocket siddur.
    While modern technology has enabled us to achieve things that were unfathomable in previous generations, davening mincha with a siddur is in my opinion not one of those things that we needed Mr Gates or Jobs to solve for us.
    In addition, your describing the amount of Torah and shiurim that you listen to via smartphone I specifically mentioned in the article that my comments pertain solely to tefilla and not Torah as the former requires deep contemplation in order to connect to G-d through it.
    As #4 so obviously stated the amount of distractions that occur through davening on your smartphone does in fact result in a breach of kvod shamayim. If you have any further questions or comments my email address is posted below the article. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

    Yochanan Gordon

  5. #4 Your comment inspired an idea, I think the siddur application when launched should automaticlly turn off all communications to th ephone.

  6. I concur with #2
    The article is rubbish, many times i’m by a simcha without a siddur for mincha and marriv, as well as for bentching. Should i skip all 3 because using my smart phone shouldn’t be used?

  7. #8:
    You just shed a better light into the mishna in Avos which says, “seyag Lachochmah Shetikah.” Until you opened your mouth, or put your finger to the keyboard for that matter, you would have remained intelligent in our eyes.
    I’m assuming that you dont know bentsching or any of the tefillos by heart. Now you’ll say, it is much better to look inside while bentsching or davening, which is true and is why they make small mincha maarivs which usually come with bentsching somewhere in the back.
    You obviously did not put too much thought into the proper honor and dignity that prayer requires because otherwise you too would realize the importance of avoiding all interruptions while engaged in it.
    Hopefully, one day you will realize the point that was made and whether or not you admit your error your tefilla will become much more meaningful.

  8. yes what is wrong with a pocket siddur that so convieniently fits into your wallet. using the smartphone as an on the go siddur could be reasoned for, but i think the main problem is when they are used for mincha/maariv that take place in a shul where siddurim are clearly accessible

  9. #9 AZ
    funny you should mention “seyag Lachochmah Shetikah.” because not much that you wrote makes any sense.
    1) even if you disagree with me, that’s your right. why would i care what you thought before? why would MY opinion change your mind about me? can’t we disagree? besides I’m not looking to impress you.
    2) I do know davening and bentching by heart, why would you assume i don’t? you say yourself correctly it’s better to say it from inside something.
    3) what interruptions are there, from using a smart phone? don’t you shut the phone off, before going into shul? I know i do. maybe that’s something YOU should work on.
    4) my opinion of you stays the same, even if you disagree with me

  10. It would seem that prayer and davening could only really be done in proper avenues. That said, I see no reason why someone can not have say Psalms or other parts of the Tanakh in their electrical portable device. Including Kindles of course. That said, it does not have the same feel as say using a real bound book to say prayers In my thoughts. Perhaps the kindle would be acceptable, but to view the content in pixels in my mind has a different psychological effect than say seeing it in a printed form. So that said, I can not say that your kavannah will be as focused if you read say Psalm 119 on your Blackberrry, but maybe it would. Anything that focuses your Intent to Pray is a good thing and I am certain that if those who are critical had nothing else to use in certain circumstances, the electronic device would be a welcome experience. I would think that if you wanted to say use an electric device on the subway to study Proverbs that would be ok. I really can not see the utility of using electric devices in the synagogue when there are organized prayer books to use. It seems quite neo-industrious and that is not my way of making spiritual petition to our Creator in a place of Worship.
    That said, I can not get these ideas that there could be a “cyber-shul” or an online davening as you physically need to be with a minyan. OF course no one thinks that we can have a minyan in cyberspace right? I don’t really get that being a real Jewish force.

  11. One more good use for a smart phone siddur is kiddush levana – the backlight is great especially when the lighting outside isn’t good. Although on motzai shabbos I wouldn’t have it with me.

    I agree when an appropriate siddur is available, it may not be a good idea to use a smart phone, but at chasunas, on the go, etc. it is a great thing to have.