Creating without desecrating

The Zomet Institute in Gush Etzion aims to overcome the challenges that modern technology presents with regard to Shabbat.

DAN MARANS (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 83a) teaches that according to Jewish law, “Pikuah nefesh doheh Shabbat” – one can violate the laws of Shabbat in order to save a life.
But according to Dan Marans, the executive director of the Zomet Institute, an Alon Shvut-based organization which combines modern technologies with the Torah to enhance the Shabbat experience, this law is often misinterpreted.
While of course Marans believes that saving a life takes priority over Shabbat observance, he says that the misunderstanding occurs when people fail to explore available measures that could allow the saving of lives, while still observing Shabbat.
“Because Shabbat is so important,” he says, “we still have to work on limiting its desecration whenever possible,” even in life-and-death situations.
So for the past 33 years, the Zomet Institute, staffed with a team of more than 20 highly trained engineers, technicians, and of course rabbis have been developing technological products used in both in the public and private sectors – by doctors, security personnel, farmers, homeowners and others, to enable them to carry out their duties, or simply function in a meaningful way, without violating Shabbat.
The organization is structured as an amuta (non-profit), relying on a combination of government funding, private donations and the proceeds from sales.
Zomet recently gave The Jerusalem Post an exclusive tour of its facilities, which include a brand-new, state-ofthe- art, hands-on visitors’ center displaying over NIS 400,000 of equipment, where groups from Israel and tourists from abroad can visit, to understand how the institute’s hi-tech inventions and modifications are improving lives on Shabbat within the framework of Jewish law.
EFRAT RESIDENT Yoni Ben-David has been working as an electrical engineer at Zomet for the past six years. His office looks more like a laboratory, with wires and spare parts strewn all around.
Ben-David is currently busy developing a call system for nurses in hospitals enabling them to communicate with their patients on Shabbat while utilizing electricity in a manner that is not in violation of the holy day.
According to Marans, and explained in detail through a video screened by Zomet for visitors as they enter the center, there are three main reasons why the active use of electricity is prohibited by the Torah (and the rabbis) on Shabbat: starting a fire, building and creating. Electricity may involve the creation of fire, building – such as a circuit – or creating something new – all of which are forbidden.
The products developed at Zomet, explains Ben-David, whether a special computer keyboard, touch-telephone for doctors, x-ray wand or metal detector utilized by security personnel or electric wheelchair or scooter used by the disabled or individuals who have trouble walking, all share certain similar principles.
According to Ben-David, “since our bodies generate electricity, we [at Zomet] design devices with sensors that operate when the amount of electricity is changed [added or removed], while nothing new is being created.”
Changing the amount of electricity, he says, is acceptable.
For example, the Zomet-designed keyboard allows doctors to type without violating Shabbat because their body adds electricity to the keys. This way, they are not “building” as is the case with standard keyboards which rely on the opening and closing of circuits to function.
Marans further elaborates on this concept in detail through demonstrations utilizing the numerous exhibits on display at the visitors’ center.
One machine, for example, is a nebulizer for children suffering from asthma or croup. The Zomet nebulizer, while plugged into a socket, contains a special box equipped with what is known as a “gamma switch,” in which the push of a button only indirectly activates the machine, thus allowing a child to receive necessary medicine in order to be able to breathe normally without violating a Shabbat prohibition.
The center also features a slew of other electrical or computerized displays, which allow a visitor to understand the science and Jewish law behind Zomet’s vast array of technologies used in Shabbat products, which at first glance would only appear acceptable for use on weekdays.
For someone unfamiliar with the principles of electricity, Marans does an excellent job of using the exhibits to further explain the key differences between the prohibited “direct” use of electricity, and the permitted “indirect” use of electricity on Shabbat.
Other products on display, which can be purchased by individuals, include a Shabbat-approved lamp, a hot plate, water boiler, water pressure pump and many other innovations.
Marans says that sometimes Zomet is approached by a consumer requesting a Shabbat solution for the use of a necessary product, while in other cases it is the technicians at the institute that develop the ideas for a product.
According to Ben-David, in addition to the invention/production of unique products, Zomet is contacted by appliance manufacturers on a regular basis in order to test their finished products and gain Zomet’s “hechsher” (stamp of approval) as being “kosher for Shabbat,” before a company begins manufacturing them in large quantities to the general public.
A perfect example of such a client, says Ben-David, is a refrigerator manufacturer who wants his product tested before mass production. He says that in the past the only issue with a refrigerator would be “whether or not a light turns on when you open the door on Shabbat.”
However, Marans adds that in today’s world “there is a computer working behind the scenes within most devices,” and therefore solutions have to be found.
Marans stresses that “when Zomet gives a specific item its seal of approval and says it’s kosher that doesn’t mean that it’s OK for use by the general public as a whole. Our Shabbat scooter, for example,” he explains, “can’t be used by everybody. Rather, it is only meant for those who have trouble getting around and are in need of that product.”
Marans says that for those who can’t get around well, Shabbat in the past was not a day of joy, but more of a dreaded experience since they would just sit around idle or would be stuck in bed all day.
“But aren’t you [at Zomet] ‘tricking God’ with all of these devices?” is the question that Marans says he gets more than any other.
He offers a philosophical answer.
“Either you believe that God created the world, and He knew that one day that this technology would exist, and God left loopholes for this technology to be used, or the other option is to say that God isn’t powerful and I can trick Him.”
He concludes that “usually those that get angry and suggest that you [Zomet] are tricking God are the same people with their own personal belief issues – because they believe that God can be tricked.”
Marans says Zomet doesn’t only cater to the Israeli market but has clients seeking their products all over the world. In fact, he says Zomet recently did a Shabbat-friendly installation at a multistory, 52,000-sq.m. Jewish community center in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.
He says that Zomet was involved in everything from the installation of the center’s Shabbat elevator, the hot water system, water pumps, and their banquet hall kitchen, ensuring that the facilities could be fully operational and “kosher” for Shabbat activities. In addition, Ben-David details a recent project for a client in the United States that involved a stair-lift.
But what motivates Marans more than anything in running Zomet and creating this Shabbat-friendly technology is his belief that one day Israel will be a place where “for Zionistic and security reasons, everything can be done here for Jews, by Jews.”
He adds that “relying on a ‘Shabbos goy’ [a non-Jew who is asked to carry out activities on Shabbat that a Jew can’t because he would be in violation], that’s a Diaspora concept.”
Marans believes that it is no coincidence that Zomet’s facility was established in Gush Etzion, based on the history of the region. Just like the pioneers, who established the bloc in the 1940s, and their descendants who came again after the Six Day War to reestablish the area, Zomet is also at the forefront of pioneering, albeit in the field of Jewish law and technology.
“At Zomet”, he says, “we are taking ancient Halacha [Jewish law] and merging it into modern Jewish life.”