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I have never been sufficiently religious to understand everything on this site without help from friends or family, but a question was asked by a non-Jewish friend that I was unable to answer, so I'm hoping some of you can help me, a conservative Jew, explain to non-Jews, what some of the views of orthodoxy are on the following question:

Suppose that I have a cell phone which is plugged in, turned on, and set so that the screen never goes off or locks. At the same time, I have a friend who also sets up his phone in the same way. We place a phone call before the Sabbath on Friday, which is set to speaker phone, so I don't have to lift the phone during the Sabbath. Can we leave the phone running for the duration of the Sabbath, so that we can have a conversation?

  • It seems that we are not interrupting the flow of electricity at any point in the process, as long as the phones do not die.

  • It doesn't seem that we are violating a prohibition against carrying.

  • It don't think that my cell phone is muktzeh, as it has been discussed in other questions on this site it can be used as a watch, and even so, I can use a simple stand to fix it, so that I do not have to touch it.

My goal is to give a good representation of these views, since my peers are almost completely ignorant of Sabbath prohibitions at all. Also, I appreciate any efforts to correctly tag this question. I'm not familiar with the variety of tags on this site.

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    Tags are great and question is good. I would be afraid of (1) variations in electricity as you speak, (2) something called uvdin d'chol which means an activity that looks like a weekday activity and is prohibited due to the special spirit of Shabbat
    – mbloch
    Jan 10, 2021 at 4:39
  • Yabiah omer OC 6:34
    – Dr. Shmuel
    Feb 14, 2021 at 16:05
  • If the way sound is transmitted through a phone is similar to that of a microphone, see this link for a full comprehensive discussion of the topic. zomet.org.il/eng/?CategoryID=198&ArticleID=283
    – Chatzkel
    Oct 12, 2021 at 16:30

3 Answers 3

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Similar questions were asked numerous times, e.g. watching open TV or leaving CCTV circuits or Zoom app open on Seder Pesach, and they all overlook one major part of Jewish Halacha - Rabbinic decrees. Here's what the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46a) says about the severity of those:

And an incident occurred involving one who rode a horse on Shabbat during the days of the Greeks, and they brought him to court and stoned him, not because he deserved that punishment, but because the hour required it, [as riding a horse on Shabbat is forbidden only by rabbinic decree, and people had become lax in their observance of Shabbat and therefore it became necessary to impose the severe punishment for a relatively minor offense].

Shabbos-related Rabbinic decrees can be divided into two groups:

  1. Distancing from possible Biblical transgressions, for example playing with or even holding materials that could lead to inflammation.
  2. Preventing desecration of Shabbos day by performing weekday activities, like discussing business, reading newspapers, etc.

Naturally, many disregard the latter, but this became the major reason for avoiding electronics on Shabbos in the Orthodox communities. More and more Rabbis agree, that as fine 21st-century electronics replace early 20th-century electricity that was all about making heat or closing circuits, we ran out of #1 reasons, and all that's left is preventing Shabbos from turning into just another day.

Of course, there are cases of necessities that would override this reason, such as medical emergency but otherwise, this is prohibited.

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An argument could be made that any speaking is causing more electrical activity -- though likely this would be prohibited at either the rabbinic level or extra-serious-custom level; some amount of slippery-slope thinking has also been invoked (if we allow this, what's next?!, or simply people will be tempted to play with the settings.)

The stance of many Sephardic rabbis until the late 20th Century would probably have not-prohibited it; Ashkenazim are less convinced.

Practically - not recommended.

However, in exigent circumstances there has been more wiggle room. Passover 2020 left a lot of people in total isolation for their Passover Seder, which is rough. Some Sephardic rabbis in Israel went back to their (grand)parents' position and allowed relatives to Zoom in; the major American (Ashkenazi) decisor, Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University and OU Kosher wrote:

If a person were to leave the phone on before before Yom Tov and conduct a Pesach Seder from their home so that others can follow along (like Baalei Teshuvah who may not know how to run a Seder) there may be reason to be lenient under great and pressing circumstances.

(In the Hebrew, he fills in more of the theory -- this is because it is not clear precisely what the prohibition entailed would be ...)

Rabbi Schachter actually drew the line between audio-only ("allowable in pressing circumstances") and video (allowable only if there's risk to mental health), as creating images may be more prohibited.

See Rabbi Zuckier's summary of the subject for more details.

In short -- a lot of popularizers will want to tell you this is black-and-white no-way-no-how, but really when you check the sources it's dark gray.

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I've heard the general reasoning that even though you may or may not be violating Shabbat, things should be abstained from in the spirit of Shabbat. In other words, if there's doubt about something that may not be allowed, one should defer to what Shabbat is all about instead of trying to find loopholes.

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