Matching modernity and Jewish law

The Zomet Institute develops technology that aims to limit Sabbath desecration and create better lives for people with disabilities.

Electric scooter modified for Shabbat, with the Zomet’s rabbis and engineers (photo credit: DAVID DOITSCH OF ZOMET)
Electric scooter modified for Shabbat, with the Zomet’s rabbis and engineers
(photo credit: DAVID DOITSCH OF ZOMET)
For the last 35 years, the Zomet Institute has aimed to merge Jewish law and modern life without delegitimizing the essential Orthodox practices that still exist today. Its products and technology can be found throughout the Health and Defense ministries, Ben-Gurion Airport, the Amigo Mobility corporation, the Elite food company, Tnuva dairies, Channel 10 TV and Schindler elevators.
The founder of this nonprofit public research institution is Tel Aviv-born rabbi and engineer Yisrael Rosen. Rosen studied at the Kerem B’Yavneh and Hayishuv Hahadash yeshivot, and his engineering background was based in his studies of electronics at Machon Lev (the Jerusalem College of Technology) and Bar-Ilan University. Since then, he has founded the conversion office at the Chief Rabbinate, where he is also a judge.
The institute, based in Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion, is run by knowledgeable – and constantly learning – religious Jews, a mixture of engineers and rabbis.
According to Dan Marans, Zomet’s executive director, Rosen’s goal is “to show that we can often take things from modern life – [such as] technology – and... use them in the framework of Jewish law.”
Rosen is a religious Zionist rabbi, and his vision led to the technological advancements Zomet has developed to limit the desecration of Shabbat when such violations are necessary, as well as create better lives for people whose disabilities often negatively affect their Shabbat and holiday experiences.
Grama is a halachic principle that Zomet uses to expand the options for using technology on Shabbat if there is a great need, according to Marans. The term derives from the Hebrew root meaning “to cause.” In Exodus 20:9, God commands, “Do not do any labor [on Shabbat],” which is interpreted as a prohibition of direct labor. So Zomet has based many of their products on grama, or indirect action.
By way of analogy, he explains that on Yom Kippur, one may cook for a sick individual or a child, but one doesn’t have to cook an entire turkey to feed one or two people; one can simply cook a few drumsticks, just enough food for those who must eat. Likewise, if there is a need to use certain types of technology on Shabbat – for instance, to aid people with disabilities – it’s better to have it work by indirect action than to violate Shabbat outright with direct labor.
“If we have to violate Shabbat, or holidays like Yom Kippur, we want to limit the desecration to as little as possible,” he says. “We want to keep as much of the holiday intact [as we can].”
An example is the institute’s “Shabbat keyboard.” Nowadays, doctors must use keyboards in order to fill prescriptions, set up appointments and release patients from the hospital. Keyboards are also used in many security devices limiting access to certain areas, with computers storing lists of names of approved visitors as well as other important details. These are just two cases in which the use of a keyboard on Shabbat may be necessary, and the Zomet keyboard can limit the degree to which Shabbat violation occurs.
Rather than having an immediate effect when pressed, “the buttons on the keyboard are on-off switches,” the Zomet website explains. “A special mechanism cycles through all the buttons every few seconds. If it ‘discovers’ that the status of one of the buttons has changed (such as a function key) the desired action will occur.”
Another method the institute uses in its devices is the modulation of an existing electrical current. Although one may not turn an electric device on or off on Shabbat, it is permitted in some cases to adjust the intensity of the current, as long as the device was already on when Shabbat began. The example the website brings is that during the Gulf War, rabbis allowed people to turn up the volume on their radios so they could hear instructions on Shabbat, and turn it down again so it wouldn’t disturb the Shabbat atmosphere – as long as they didn’t turn it on or off completely.
Another example is the metal detectors at the Western Wall. Visitors must constantly be checked prior to entering the area, and metal detectors are the main means of doing so. However, passing through one of them with an amount of metal that surpasses the allowed limit causes the machines to light up or buzz – an action one is not allowed to do on Shabbat.
“We modified the metal detector outside of the Western Wall,” explains Marans. “There, we modulated [a] current [that] existed before Shabbat, so we are not creating anything new – there’s no ‘fire’ [that could be lit, in violation of Shabbat], and nothing that is considered to be fire, within the metal detector.”
He adds that “instead of the metal detector buzzing or a light flashing on and off, there’s a little needle that moves up or down that shows how much metal the person has. It’s a mechanical needle. That’s not [even] grama; that is modulating an existing current.
We use the same principle to help people who are handicapped to use electric scooters and wheel chairs.”
The creation of the Shabbat- friendly electric wheelchair was an attempt to improve quality of life for people with disabilities. Marans recalls a positive experience with a nine-year-old girl from Beit Shemesh, who told him that before receiving Zomet’s wheelchair, she had felt as though she would turn into a rock from the moment her mother lit the candles every week until the end of Shabbat. Her independence and movement were limited, and that was ruining her Shabbat experience.
Since getting the wheelchair, she said, she could go and read Psalms with her friends, push her doll carriage around, and participate in jump-rope games by turning the rope for her friends.
“ Often , [improving] someone’s mental health relieves their physical health,” says Marans. “It means that if you’re bedridden and... can’t get out of the house and can’t do anything, it cuts you off from your friends, and that makes you depressed. If you’re depressed, you can’t enjoy life, and it makes your medical situation worse. If you have friends and go visit them and have these things to look forward to, it gives you much more drive, and when you’re happy, it helps you heal.”
Most recently, the institute came out with electronic Shabbat candles. This invention helps those in hotels and hospitals celebrate Shabbat safely. Jewish law states that one must light candles either in the place he or she eats, or in the place he or she sleeps. However, guests are generally not allowed to light fires in the rooms, and hotel and hospital lobbies do not suffice.
The electronic candles provide a solution, since one may use them in hotel and hospital rooms. Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles was among the first to order this product.
Criticism for the institute and its creations is inevitable, but Marans and the rest of Zomet staff believe in everything they do.
According to Marans, many critics argue that Zomet’s efforts are just an ineffective attempt to “trick God.”
He responds that “if you do believe in God, then you believe God is an all-knowing being and that He knew that when He wrote the Jewish law, He left spaces [for us to] be able to use modern devices. And when He created the world, He knew that these devices would exist. So God isn’t someone you can trick. There’s no possible way to trick an all-knowing being.”