This was not a sight you come across every day. Toward the end of November 2021, senior rabbis, Chassidic Rebbes, and rashei yeshivot from across the Charedi spectrum sat at a table with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel for a discussion about a commercial reform.
We have become accustomed to seeing Knesset Members, cabinet ministers, and Prime Ministers donning kippot and making pilgrimages to the senior leaders of Charedi society in an attempt to pander to the Charedi public. In this case, however, matters were reversed: dozens of rabbis from across the Charedi board made the painstaking trek to the office of the Communications Minister for the sake of a discussion defined as a “matter of life and death.”
What’s it all about?
The Kosher Number Conundrum
In 2007, an amendment to the Communications Law went into force allowing those owning cellphones to switch cellphone carriers without having to change their phone number. Previously, each carrier would assign specific and exclusive opening digits (052, 054, 058, and so on), which made changing carriers a true burden. The law, wishing to ease the burden and to encourage free competition, determined that phone numbers will be fully mobile—instantly transferrable from one carrier to another.
However, the law has thus far exempted “kosher numbers” from the full scope of the reform, under pressure from Charedi political parties who opposed the transferring of “kosher” numbers (each carrier allocates specific opening codes to their “kosher section”—0527, 0548, 0583, and so on) to non-kosher phones with SMS and Internet capabilities. While kosher numbers are transferrable from one carrier to another, this depends on each carrier maintaining a “kosher section” that does not allow Internet access or messaging of any type. Putting it simply, the exception ensured that “kosher numbers” will not be used in combination with “non-kosher phones.”
Hendel argues that the reform does not intend to harm those interested in keeping their kosher phones; it will merely allow those interested in using a smartphone the convenience of keeping their current phone number
The current minister now wishes to treat “kosher numbers” like all others. As Minister Hendel put it, requiring a Charedi individual who wishes to purchase a smartphone to change his number, while permitting any other Israeli citizen to easily transfer a number between carriers and devices, amounts to an unequal treatment that requires rectification. Hendel argues that the reform does not intend to harm those interested in keeping their kosher phones; it will merely allow those interested in using a smartphone (or not being beholden to the sometimes-draconian restrictions of the Rabbinical Communications Committee) the convenience of keeping their current phone number.
The apparent logic of this argument did not stop a great array of rabbinic figures trying to persuade the minister to cancel the “evil decree,” even at the far-from-insignificant expense of paying him a personal and much-publicized visit that is unlikely to have any kind of effect. Why? What are they afraid of?
Protection From Technology?
The subject of kosher phones and the activity of the Rabbinical Communications Committee (the Vaad Ha-Rabbanim), which has enjoyed a monopoly over all matters related to kosher phones (sale packages, devices, control of outgoing calls, and so on), has been a matter of communal interest for some time. Attempts by cellphone stores to break the monopoly, whether by selling non-certified phones or by using alternative certification, have resulted in protests, often violent, against cellphone stores in Charedi areas. Moreover, as Hendel’s planned reform continues to proceed, the tone of protests has become still more shrill.
On this surface, the pushback against the reform and against breaking the monopoly of the Rabbinical Committee can be seen as deriving from a desire to protect the Charedi community from the “ravages of modern technology.” Rabbis and the Charedi establishment seek to protect their constituents from the harms caused by the Internet and social media by inhibiting Charedim from buying smartphones. They are unsatisfied with merely providing a kosher option for those interested, but rather want the ownership of smartphones to be grounds for public censure and condemnation—primarily by means of rejecting children from schools.
Hendel’s proposal to equalize treatment of all phone numbers undermines the capacity to enforce the Charedi norm of owning kosher phones alone. As soon as it becomes impossible to identify a kosher phone by its number (because of the possibility to transfer it to a non-kosher phone), it will similarly become impossible to impose sanctions against those who possess smartphones, for instance by rejection from schools. Thus, we can speculate that the Charedi leadership is concerned that allowing numbers—even kosher ones—to be fully mobile will hamper the ability to keep the Internet anathema to the Charedi social space.
This explanation, however, is insufficient. Ultimately, the only thing we can conclude from the fact a person has a kosher phone number—until Hendel’s reform kicks in, after which we don’t be able to conclude anything at all—is that he is in possession of a kosher phone. If he wishes, he can still have full Internet access both from a computer or from a smartphone that he keeps in conjunction with his kosher phone—one for the school, and one for everybody else.
Owning two phones has become prevalent enough for every Charedi individual to know the “make sure you don’t reach into the wrong pocket” joke
Owning two phones has become prevalent enough for every Charedi individual to know the “make sure you don’t reach into the wrong pocket” joke. According to data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Beit Shemesh, a city with a particularly high proportion of Charedim, is at the top of the list in per capita cellphone ownership—a full 87% of residents own two or more cellular devices! The bottom line is that barring invasive means that are not accepted in most communities, there is no way to keep tabs on people’s Internet usage.
Given this situation, why are Rabbis and activists so adamant in opposing Hendel’s reform? What danger are we preventing? Hendel’s reform will save many Charedi individuals the expense of having to own two phones; otherwise, it does not seem that it will have any great effect.
I would like to suggest that anxiety about the Hendel reform is not really—at least, not entirely—about preventing Internet access. Rather, it is a response to the loss of Charedi cohesion promoted by ownership of kosher devices.
Kosher Numbers as “Charedi Calling Cards”
Today, owning a kosher device has become a “Charedi calling card” (pun very much intended). Many Charedim who change devices upon entering the workforce or an institution of higher education maintain their old, 2G cellphones as markers of communal belonging. In this sense, a kosher phone is like a black hat or a suit. Even the most severe filtering program installed on a smartphone cannot serve the same function.
Belonging to the world of kosher phones has real consequences. Between 2008-2015, I subscribed to a “kosher package” that provided 500 free minutes. But the free minutes were limited to other kosher phones. Any call to a relative, handyman, or friend owning a non-kosher phone cost me half a shekel per minute (a very high fare). Automatically, my contacts were divided into two groups: the “kosher group” and the “non-kosher” one. I could speak with the “koshers” freely and at length, but with the “non-koshers” only when I needed to do so. The Vaad Harabbanim are also careful to block a range of phone numbers for a range of religious, political, or other considerations; kosher phone users suffer these decisions collectively.
Kosher devices do not just guard against the ravages of technology—they create a unique circle of contacts within Charedi society, strengthening loyalty bonds between members and erecting a barrier between “koshers” and others.
Just as the kippa is the Jew’s calling card, a kosher number is the Charedi ID. You mustn’t steal our brand
I don’t claim to be revealing some secret rabbinic motive here—the motive of promoting communal solidarity is entirely explicit. “Just as water and oil don’t mix, we cannot mix kosher and non-kosher phones,” the Vizhnitzer Rebbe asserted at the meeting with Minister Hendel. Rabbi Tzvieli Ben Tzur defined kosher phones as “our last bastion” with which to maintain Charedi isolation from the secular world. Another rabbi claimed that “the kosher phone really is a kind of ghetto, a flight from the outside world to living amongst ourselves—and the Charedi public wishes to continue with this.” Rabbi Menachem Stein, among the most prominent figures in the struggle against non-kosher phones, described the reform as “uprooting the Charedi calling card”:
When I walk down the street and see someone with a kippa, I know he believes in God and the Torah. Thus, when I see a number on my screen with a kosher dialing code, I understand this is a Charedi person, one of us. But if they can transfer that number to an iPhone, then what good is that? It neutralizes the kosher section. […] Just as the kippa is the Jew’s calling card, a kosher number is the Charedi ID. You mustn’t steal our brand. It is implausible that somebody with a kosher number will own an iPhone. The kosher numbers are a protected and closed entity identified with the Charedi public and we ask that it not be touched. Otherwise, we’ve destroyed everything.
Just as unique garb identifies members of Charedi society, strengthens their identity, and even prevents them from engaging in behavior unacceptable to the community, so is the case—at least, so it is in theory—with kosher phone numbers. They serve as a digital identity marker, a kind of internal calling card meant to tag members of the group as members of the “kosher section.”
The inability to transfer a kosher number to a non-kosher phone is, of course, the essence of kosher numbers. The phone thus becomes is an inseparable part of Charedi identity—not simply a matter of which phone a person uses, but a matter of how he identifies. His phone number projects to all he speaks with that he is a paying member of Charedi society—paying the price of using kosher phones alone. As soon as a kosher number can be transferred to a non-kosher carrier and phone, a part of Charedi society’s unique identity is thus fractured.
The kosher phone, besides being a means of communication protected from the ravages of technology, is a symbol of adherence to the ethos of Charedi separatism. The fact that a kosher number is a prerequisite for enrolling one’s children in schools emphasizes the point. The school does not check if the family has an Internet connection; this is not the main point. It simply ensures that the family has a “Charedi calling card,” a party badge.
When Identity Becomes a Phone Number
The rules of conduct within Charedi society are meant to preserve its separation from general society and strengthen its members’ sense of identity. Charedim, of course, are far from unique in this respect—all groups function in similar ways. Every group has a unique language—a jargon or slang used among members. It seems that kosher phones are a part of this universal pattern: Charedi society seeks to separate itself and strengthen its identity by means of unique communication devices and attendant phone numbers: kosher phones.
Yet, under current circumstances, the fact that the kosher number has become the calling card of Charedim reflects how this identity has been emptied of its core content. Charedi identity has become a number—this, and nothing more. The mismatch between the commitments the kosher number ostensibly attests to—detachment from the flood of nonsense washing over those who use modern technology—and reality on the ground makes the “kosher section” into nothing more than a costume party.
Today, and certainly after corona, most of Charedi society is connected to the internet (according to Bezeq numbers, there was a 40% increase in Charedi households connecting to the Internet, and the city of Bnei Brak has become a significant center for online purchases). Similarly, there are very respectable Charedi communities in which owning two phones is practically the norm.
Having a kosher phone with a kosher number has become an almost empty marker of affiliation, signifying nothing beyond. It tells us nothing about how much the owner fears God, how diligent he is in Mitzvah observance, how much he strives for holiness, or how knowledgeable he is in matters of Torah. It does not even indicate any avoidance of Internet use. It simply tells the world—the person on the other side of the line—that the caller is “one of us.” But what exactly does being “one of us” entail? What does this belonging require aside from having a kosher phone?
[We need] to ensure that our battles are coordinated with proper educational programs—lest we wake up one morning to a Charedi identity that has become devoid of content
The declaration of war to preserve the “kosher section” well reflects a focus on public trappings of identity rather than on substance. Instead of trying to increase awareness among the Charedi population concerning the importance of filters (many smartphone users own entirely unfiltered devices) and cautioning against developing a dependence on our little devices, our struggles are almost entirely devoted to external markings.
The fear of kosher numbers becoming mobile—as though the very existence of the Charedi community depends on it—demonstrates just how focused we are on our superficial image, on demonstrating outward loyalty to the Charedi cause irrespective of what this actually means. The price we pay for this is neglecting what really matters: teaching caution and developing tools to handle the real challenges of technology.
The Internet is a significant challenge to all who serve God; indeed, it is a challenge to everybody. Beyond filtering, we need to learn how to use it in measured doses, how to refrain from being sucked into its vortex, and how to maintain high levels of concentration in a world where this is becoming a rare commodity. Ironically enough, turning the fight against smartphones into a marker of belonging empties the effort to protect against the Internet and its harms of any real force.
It has not been easy to rally the people to support the struggle against Hendel’s reforms. This is perhaps because of the common two-phone phenomenon noted above, which makes the struggle ring empty, and also because of the draconian nature of the Rabbinical Committee’s decisions and its abuses of power over the years. Whichever way the saga ultimately plays out, it is certainly important to ensure that our battles are coordinated with proper educational programs—lest we wake up one morning to a Charedi identity that has become devoid of content.