Gadgets help Jews stay observant in modern world

If as a Jew you are observant but modern, scientists and rabbis are developing gadgets — and workarounds — to meet your needs.

At a modest cottage in a suburb of Jerusalem, the Institute for Science and Halacha, founded in 1965, has found a way for religious physicians to write prescriptions on the Sabbath, when such activity is banned by ritual law.

Want to be an astronaut? But how to observe the Jewish Sabbath, which stretches from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, while traveling in a spacecraft orbiting the earth 16 times every 24 hours? The institute found an answer.

“The Torah (Jewish law) was given to us 3,500 years ago in the desert,” said 73-year-old Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin, the institute’s executive director and chief theological scholar. “Each generation takes up the challenge to apply it.”

The Sabbath is one of the major issues it has dealt with.

At least a third of today’s 5.4 million Jewish Israelis are religiously observant, a growing community with ever-more pressing demands for accommodating edicts on Sabbath observance.

On the divinely ordained day, the Torah prohibits Jews from engaging in 39 biblical categories of “work,” including lighting a fire — extended in today’s world to a prohibition on using a light switch or starting a car.

Applying the principle of “grama,” or indirect action in the ancient biblical language Aramaic, Halperin and his team have come up with gadgets for observant Jews to carry out vital tasks while still not violating the Sabbath strictures.

One example is the Sabbath phone. A microprocessor in the device is configured so that the user does not break an electric circuit — a banned activity under ritual law — while dialling.

Creative answers to other questions have been found using Halacha, Hebrew for the 3,000 year-old compendium of Jewish law.

Doctors can get around the writing prohibition by using special pens whose ink disappears in a few days. Only permanent marks are considered taboo.

And despite minimal resources, the institute’s engineers are currently using a simple bicycle pump to create a wheelchair powered by compressed air rather than batteries.

A doorbell being developed by the facility also works on air pressure instead of electricity.

“LOOPHOLES FOR A REASON”

Halperin dismisses any notion of theological cheating.

“If there are loopholes in the Torah they are there for a reason,” he said, stroking his flowing white beard.

The institute says its solutions have been used by Israeli corporations and a hospital in Jerusalem.

It also recently helped El Al Israel Airlines tackle the issue of transporting corpses — a problem for members of Judaism’s priestly caste, called Kohanim, who are banned by ritual law from coming in close proximity to the dead.

Orthodox Jews had threatened to boycott the airline if the matter was not dealt with.

The institute found a solution by wrapping thick corrugated cardboard around the coffin in the shape of a house. That way, the body is considered enclosed and unable to “spread impurity,” making it acceptable for Kohanim to travel on the same plane.

Then there is space travel. Israel’s first astronaut — Ilan Ramon, who was among the crew killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster — had sought guidance on how to observe the Sabbath in orbit.

Halperin ruled that any would-be space traveler should fix the time of blast-off and calculate the day and hour of the Sabbath from then on.

Rabbi Mordechai Nissim, a scholar of Jewish law, said: “We do not see technology posing a threat to Judaism, we see it as part of God’s intended design of creation. Therefore we are meant to engage technology as part of our mission.”

After Israel’s creation in 1948, officials needed to deal with the provision of public utilities on the Sabbath. It had been less of a problem in the former British Mandate Palestine, as many service providers were then gentiles.

The Zomet Institute, based in Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, is another body that has tried to deal with the challenges. Working in a similar field to Halperin’s institute, Zomet tries to find wider solutions.

“Their world outlook is different to ours — a lot of things that they won’t allow, we deal with — such as electric wheelchairs,” said its executive director, Dan Marans.

Zomet also offers customized vehicles that can be used for security patrols in religiously observant Jewish communities.

Other devices include metal detectors, now installed at places such as the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, and at synagogues in Europe and the United States. Instead of the standard buzzers and lights, the detectors feature a dial that discreetly registers someone passing through with metal.

copyright © 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved. Reuters

2 thoughts on “Gadgets help Jews stay observant in modern world

  1. pAcu

    I’m not saying don’t believe in God. I understand that, for Jews, the Sabbath is sacred. But inventing gadgets to become a religious person seems a bit off the edge. My opinion is that you shouldn’t kill, steal, or otherwise hurt your fellow man. That’s what religion means…

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