Tonight is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. It’s a day that the deadly plague the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva suffered because they failed to treat each other with respect ended. We celebrate the end of a tragic loss of Jewish scholarship and, in doing so, we draw attention to the whole mitzvah of counting the Omer which is given in today’s Torah portion (Lev. 23:15-16): “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the 1st day [of Passover]…until the morrow of the 7th week you shall count 50 days.” The 50th day is Shavuot.
The counting of the Omer connects the theme of Passover—freedom—with the theme of Shavuot—the giving of the Torah. Freedom to do anything you want is incomplete without a system of values—i.e. the Torah. Also in the very process of counting till and anticipating Shavuot—celebrating the giving of the Torah—our souls elevate in holiness as did the ancient Jews leaving Egypt in their anticipation of Mt. Sinai where we received the Torah.
It’s an important mitzvah and so easy to do. All you have to do is say the blessing—…al sefirat haOmer—and then the counting, “Today is the 32nd day of the Omer—4 weeks and 4 days,” as the count may be. But it’s also so easy to mess up. If you forget to count for only one day, you can no longer count with a blessing for the rest of the days. There have been years in my life when I was distracted for a day during the 7 weeks and forgot to count. So this year I signed up with chabad.org and I now receive an email every day on my phone and my desktop reminding me to count the Omer. I could even have gotten a counting of the Omer app for my phone.
It’s a new world we live in—a cyber-world. It occurred to me that this Shabbos when we read of the commandment to count the Omer and thinking about the daily Omer emails I receive, it occurred to me that this would be a good time to explore the question: Is this new cyber-world good for the Jews or not?
Well for not forgetting to count the Omer it certainly is a good thing. And on my phone I have many Jewish apps like, Hebcal.com which gives me the Jewish date, upcoming holidays and candle lighting times. I have a full Siddur app that comes in handy when I’m traveling. When I get stuck in a waiting room I can open my Torah app to study the week’s parsha or an Israel News app with several Israeli newspapers to choose from. I have a Kosher GPS app that tells me where the kosher restaurants and shules near me are located and how to get to them—something that comes in real handy when you’re traveling and need to say Kaddish like I do.
Mike Dojc has written an article for the Jewish Forward in which he explores Jewish apps for his Iphone. His 1st download wasiBlessing($0.99), which pairs food groups and their associated prayers. Her writes: Sitting at a Starbucks, about to nibble on a tiramisu cake pop, I realize that I have no idea what the prayer for desserts is. So I tap on the cookie on iBlessing’s virtual placemat, andvoila—the mezonot blessing is recited aloud, so I can pray along. The simple blessing guide includes English translations, making it an indispensable aid to the newly observant.
Here’s a few other Jewish apps he recommends:
- SHABBOS ALARM CLOCK - $.99. Displays current time on screen. Set up to 3 alarms, which automatically shut off after a specified duration (10-50 seconds). Chose genuine alarm clock sound or vibrate. No snooze button function because it interferes with Shabbos.
- ALEF BET FOR KIDS – $4.99. The Alef Bet App provides a fun, interactive learning experience for children. It helps them learn the Alef Bet through pictures, sound, animation, and interactivity. Each letter of the Alef Bet is accompanied by its Hebrew and English pronunciations, and by a picture of a word associated with it.
- I-PARASHAH (JACA SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS) - $4.99. This app gives you the weekly Torah portions in the palm of your hand. Search for any parsha by name or date with this app.
- SHABBAT SHALOM FOR ANDROID (RUSTY BRICK) – FREE. This Shabbat application allows you to quickly check the candle lighting times, Havdalah times and parsha for the week in any location in the world. This comes in handy when you quickly want to know when Shabbat is or if you want to know if it is too late to call your in-laws in Israel.
- JEWISH ROCK RADIO (jacAPPS) – FREE. Jewish Rock Radio is the voice of Jewish youth featuring high-caliber, contemporary Jewish rock music with your favorite Jewish rock artists.
- YIDDISH DICTIONARY (DEEP POWDER SOLUTIONS) – $1.99
- NOISEMAKE GRAGGER (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – FREE. This app is a virtual grogger on your iPhone. You can pick from different sounds or record your own and twirl your iPhone like a gragger to make noise. Remember to wait for Haman’s name.
- I-HANUKKAH (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – FREE. Learn Chanukah blessings or refresh your memory. Touch-n-Read technology lets you read along and hear every word and sing along too.
- iKaddish teaches the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Here’s an app I found on chabad.org: WRITE TO THE OHEL app. Learn about the Ohel, the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. You can even send a virtual note to be placed at his grave somehow.
And so, the easy answer to my question of whether this is good for the Jews or not is: Yes, apps are good for the Jews, and we should rejoice that they have been invented—and as I indicated a couple of weeks ago, invented with technology from Israel.
However, there are some things that even the best apps will never be able to do. Mr. Dojc downloaded the app iShofar that beautifully simulates the experience of sounding the shofar. When I read that I wondered: Can you imagine what it would be like if instead of bringing a shofar to shule on Rosh Hashanah, you brought your Iphone?
However, “There are aspects that can never truly be mimicked,” Dojc writes, “such as the solace provided by a rabbi to a family mourning the loss of a loved one. And while interactive apps can create a semblance of connection with Gd, they can’t begin to replace the bond-forming personal interaction that goes on in a congregation before a service starts.” No app will ever be able to give you a hug when you need one. For that, you need a person, a person who cares. No app will show up when the time comes for you to sit shiva and you feel lost and alone.
I remember, it must have been in the early 1980s, I was on vacation and a very close member of my congregation gave birth to a boy. They so wanted me to name him at the Bris, but I just couldn’t get back in time. The father was technologically savvy and so he went out and bought the lastest tech gadget—a speaker phone! They put the phone on so everyone could hear as I named the baby from 3,000 miles away. Today you can skype a wedding that can be shared with an ill great-grandparent in real time. It’s almost as good as being there.
But the key word is “almost.” Watching a service is not really the same as being there. And so it is with watching a funeral. You may be able to say, “Amen,” to a service that is going on somewhere else, but that is very different from actually being there, participating in the service and honoring the deceased by your presence. You can download the sound of a grogger electronically, but it’s not the same as sharing in the fun and the foolery of an actual Megillah reading. And nothing that you can download can create the same bonds of friendship that develop over time among the people who actually come to shule.
In today’s Torah reading Gd says (Lev. 22:32): V’nikdashti B’toch B’ney Yisrael, “I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel.” This means that the experience of holiness, the experience of being part of a holy community, the experience of being connected, can only really be achieved when you are in the midst of a community. You can learn lots of things with your apps: you can learn how to read Hebrew, how to daven, how to understand the Torah portion, but you can only experience what it means to share in a Jewish life by being in and being part of a community.
So go and learn how to use a Smart Phone and a tablet and buy Jewish apps that will help you learn Torah and get more out of Jewish life. They will open you up to worlds of precious Jewish music and important Jewish ideas. Learn which bracha to say when, and what day of the Omer it is, and all the many other things that these devices can teach you.
But at the same time, realize and understand that Jewish learning is not a substitute for Jewish living, and that apps, no matter how well done they may be, are no substitute for the experience of being a part of the Jewish community. There’s no comparison between watching a service on Skype, and saying, “Amen,” and actually being there and making friends with those whom you pray with at the Kiddush afterwards—knowing that they’re there for you and that you’re there for them, and that together you form a caring community. V’nikdashti B’toch B’ney Yisrael, For Gd will be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel.
May this come true for us. And to this, let us all say: Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis