By 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.