Several years ago, my husband and I were looking for an apartment to lease in our neighborhood in Melbourne, Australia. We spotted an advertisement in a local newspaper that appeared to be an ideal match: The place was modern, adorned with expansive windows, and equipped with new appliances.
We promptly scheduled an inspection—but before we even entered the front door of the apartment, it became evident that this apartment was not for us. How did we know? Because the apartment was so modern, it didn’t use keys; it only had electronic fobs to open and shut the doors.
As Orthodox Jews, we observe Shabbat each week. Shabbat, spanning 25 hours, begins on Friday evening at sundown and finishes on Saturday night. During this time, it is forbidden to engage in 39 activities known as “melacha,” which encompass a range of tasks such as lighting fires, constructing or demolishing structures, and various forms of agricultural work. These prohibitions stem from the Torah’s commandment to “rest” on the Sabbath and refrain from any actions that resemble God’s creative work during the six days of the week.
In the 21st century, most of this “work” results in the prohibition of electricity, handling or spending money, utilizing public transit, writing, sewing, cooking, using a computer, and watching television. So electronic fob activated locks—the only way we could enter or leave the apartment—were a no-go for us if we wanted to observe Shabbat each week.
Estimates suggest that those who observe Orthodox Judaism constitute around 10 to 15 percent of the global 15 million Jews in the world. That roughly translates to 1.4 to 2.7 million people. As the world becomes more technologically integrated, Orthodox Jews are likely to face challenges in maintaining the sanctity of Shabbat in a world filled with technology, such as artificial intelligence systems, sensor lights, smartphones, self-driving cars, and light switches.
Dovid Tzvi Kalman is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the intersection of Judaism and technology. He regularly reflects on the interplay of Shabbat and modern technology. When a new piece of technology surfaces, Orthodox Jews diligently assess its permissibility on Shabbat. So, since they have a deep appreciation for the sanctity of the day, they have also become experts at adeptly navigating the challenges of technology.
“Shabbat is and has long been on the front lines of the Jewish response to technology,” Kalman told The Daily Beast. “This is because Shabbat law divides all human activities into permitted and prohibited, so every time a new technology comes along you can ask whether the new activities it generates are permitted or prohibited.”
Perhaps out of all things that have been deemed impermissible on Shabbat, the most difficult is the prohibition of electricity use. A historic rabbinic ruling, established over a century ago, determined that the utilization of electricity during Shabbat and Jewish festivals was forbidden.
“This prohibition stands on very thin legal footing, but it has been upheld because electricity is a reasonable stand-in for modernity and because, for a first approximation, restricting its use does indeed preserve the character of the day,” Kalman said.
Nonetheless, with ongoing technological progress advancing at rapid pace, and the emergence of non-Shabbat-friendly options like electronic fob-activated locks on doors or the encroachment of so-called smart homes, Orthodox Jews will face the challenge of how to navigate their lives.
Just take a look around your own house or apartment and you’ll quickly see these hurdles. Things like apps to control your thermostat, or RFID scanners to enter or exit buildings, or apps to unlock your doors or even open your windows all pose a hurdle for observers of Shabbat.
“I don’t know if this heuristic is going to last forever,” Kalman said. “Electronics are in many different kinds of devices today, and many tasks that don’t technically require electricity use the smartphone as their interface.”
However, Kalman added that he thinks “it is going to remain important for a while longer, and perhaps the serenity of Shabbat—which has already been the subject of multiple books—will be a force pushing back against this trend.”
Sometimes, various workarounds can be found. For instance, within Orthodox Jewish households, there is a widespread use of timers on Shabbat, particularly for controlling lighting, heating, and cooling. Or others commonly use hotplates, which are plugged in before Shabbat, to reheat pre-cooked food for consumption during Shabbat meals.
Exploring the inventive ways in which Orthodox Jewish households adapt to Shabbat restrictions continues to occupy many rabbis and Jewish scholars. In Israel, Rabbi Shai Simanovsky is the head of the content and explanation department at the Zomet Institute. This institute is at the forefront of offering halachic [orthodox Jewish law] guidance on a range of subjects concerning the intersection of Judaism and technology, as well as producing and disseminating articles.
Simanovsky told The Daily Beast that he believes that there’s an argument to be made that there are many ways that technology can fall within the rules of Shabbat.
“Technology, which is the ability to harness the forces of nature through human ingenuity for the benefit of humankind and the world, is a blessing from God,” Simanovsky explained. “The task of humanity is to develop the world, and technology enables us to do this on a massive scale. Therefore, the basic faith approach is that it is good and right to use technological innovations for the benefit of humanity.”
Shabbat vs Silicon Valley
Zomet stands at the vanguard when it comes to identifying and, in coordination with rabbis and engineers, ascertaining the permissibility of using various devices on Shabbat. The institute’s engineers engage in comprehensive examinations of new technological products. Through collaboration with the halachic [orthodox Jewish law] research team, they evaluate whether the product aligns with the requirements of Jewish law for use on Shabbat, and if not, they analyze the specific issues at hand and explore potential solutions.
“Over the course of 45 years, the Zomet Institute has developed numerous technological products and applications tailored to the needs of halachic observance,” he said.
Notable examples encompass the Shabbat light, a lamp that turns on before Shabbat and off on Shabbat without manual adjustment; the Shabbat lift, an elevator that stops on all floors during Shabbat, eliminating the need to press buttons; and the Shabbat switch, which enables the use of electrical appliances on Shabbat by employing indirect mechanisms to control electricity.
However, sometimes the speed at which technology develops and the solutions on offer from a Jewish law perspective may not be in sync. The fast-changing world of technology can often clash with Shabbat observance. This misalignment can create challenges when Jewish laws and traditions need to catch up with changing technology.
“It’s a lot easier to tell people not to do something, before they do it,” Rabbanit Liz Shayne, an orthodox female rabbi, told The Daily Beast. “You cannot wait until things have been out in the world for five years and then say, ‘Actually, I don’t think you should be using it on Shabbat.’ You have to be thinking proactively: What does shabbat mean?”
Shayne’s question is a pertinent one. Two hundred years ago Shabbat observance was a much simpler affair. With no electricity, motorized travel or instant communication, people would walk to Synagogue, stay at home with their families, eat their food, and spend time with friends who were within walking distance.
Perhaps our Jewish ancestors would be surprised to find that in the 21st century, Shabbat is often characterized as a day with no screens or smartphones. To many people today, Shabbat represents disconnecting from the digital world to maintain a balance between technology and the sacred values such as rest, family, and spirituality—something the rest of us could very well benefit from.
And so the fine balance of determining the parameters of the day continues, even if some of the conveniences of modern life, like access to keyless doors and electronic fobs, are withheld.
“I think it’s a really interesting moment that the Jewish people and the rabbinate are working with, how do we protect Shabbat?” Shayne said. “It’s a very difficult thing to be doing as a rabbi, because if you’re too far ahead, it sounds like science fiction. You can’t write Jewish legal rulings if the technology does not yet exist, but you can’t do it retroactively because no one will listen to you.”
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