There is no doubt that this phenomenon comes as a great surprise. Who would have believed just a few years ago that a weekly bulletin of Torah insights about the Torah portion would within a mere decade become one of the most annoying elements in the religious sector? Who could predict that bulletins which are distributed free of charge, with the content mostly written by rabbis, would have such a great and powerful influence on the conversations within the religious sector? Whoever has not seen a group of religious adolescents rushing to get to the prayers in time, just because they want to get their copy of the newest bulletins before they will be gobbled up like fresh hot buns – has never seen a refreshing scene in his life.
There is no doubt that we can give credit to these bulletins for some very important achievements: the volume of talk in the synagogues has been drastically decreased; men weary from their toils manage to stay awake even during the weekly sermon; and the concept of “text-message responsa” has become a desired brand, the mark of a high rating. It is true that many of the bulletins are adorned with a warning, “Do not read this material during the prayers and the reading of the Torah,” but this is seen as of no more significance than the standard declaration to Waze, “No, I am not driving.” There were some synagogues where the gabba’im made a daring decision: Only siddurim would be available during the time of prayer, and the distribution of the bulletins would be put off until the end. But the loud objections and the wall of strong opposition served merely to teach these leaders the truth of the adage, “Prayer without Shabbat bulletins is like Shabbat Kugle without pickles…”
An Escape Route
What is the secret of these bulletins? What is the basis for their huge success? First of all, the complaint that they interfere with the ability of the people to pray is not really accurate. The bulletins are not really the problem, they are the solution. They may not be a good solution, but it would be wrong to put all the blame for the situation on them. The reason that they are so attractive is that the alternative, sadly, is not such a great idea either.
It is no secret that many people find it difficult to pray. This is just as true for adolescents as it is for their parents. The generation of the smartphone and WhatsApp, which is so addicted to fast channel-hopping and obsessive multi-texting, feels that it is at a loss when it must put all this aside and focus on spiritual improvement and an encounter with the Creator. Such people have forgotten how to speak this language. For this person, the Shabbat bulletins are a vital escape hatch. This is especially true since the bulletins have been upgraded in recent years, and in addition to Torah insights many of them now include other information, such as restaurant reviews, gossip columns, and much more. In these bulletins, the Torah content is not much more than a fig leaf for an advertising journal about such subjects as snowy (and kosher!) vacations in the Carpathian Mountains and attractive land investments in St. Louis.
The “captive audience” in the synagogue is easy prey for the copywriters, who know very well how to exploit the platform that has been provided for them. The robot has turned on its creator, and the Torah elements which should by all rights be the main content, as is proper for a bulletin distributed at the time of prayer in a house of prayer, have become a field to be mined by the marketing industry (but don’t mention this on Shabbat – “nisht in Shabbos geret”).
After all this, would it just be best to give up on the Shabbat bulletins? I suggest that this is not a good idea. For many of the people, the quality time they spend with the bulletins is their only weekly time of Torah study! Working people who are busy earning a living all week long might find in a bulletin their only weekly opportunity for connecting to something on a higher and deeper level than the mundane flow of life during the week.
And we must not forget the remarkable positive effect on young people. It has become clear that once this generation is disconnected from smartphones and WhatsApp for a full 24 hours, they really do know how to read printed matter even if it doesn’t appear on a screen, and they are even able to connect to ideas and figures that can enrich their spiritual world. Parents who are in the know can even exploit this resource to get the children to participate in Shabbat table talk, and to continue after the end of the meal. They can share an article or a story that they read in a bulletin, and they can be part of lively discussions about these matters. We can bring up fascinating educational discussions, life dilemmas, and interesting halachic issues by making use of these pages, if we only know how to do it properly. In fact, the bulletins have served to broaden the scope of religious Zionism by giving voice to opinions which do not always have the opportunity of being heard on other platforms.
The Time for Parting has Come
Among the sea of bulletins which has clamored for our attention during the last 33 years, the one that you are now reading has stood out as being something special. With determination, for a continuous string of one thousand, six hundred, and seventy-eight weeks, Shabbat-B’Shabbato has managed to maintain a quality-Torah backbone, and it has refrained from stooping to populism and from allowing the commercial aspects of the market to take over from the Torah-true kernel. At the time of this writing, it seems that this bulletin has reached the end of the line, and that for economic reasons it will not be able to continue to present its voice to its many loyal readers. For the last seven years, we have had the privilege of meeting every other week in order to share our thoughts, insights, and revelations about life and how to cope with various struggles. I take this opportunity to thank you, my readers, for paying attention and for showing your appreciation, for much positive feedback, and for lively discussions which we have held about the subjects which interested us. We hope that we will find other ways to continue our contact in the future.
This column may have reached its end, but much work remains.