ALON SHVUT – There is a special type of Jewish nerd who looks at electronic devices approved for Shabbat and thinks, gosh, I really wish I knew how the electronic circuit inside this works so that the rabbis were able to approve its use on Shabbat. Luckily, that nerd now has a place to visit, in Alon Shvut at the Zomet Institute’s Zomet Experience visitors center.
Zomet created a hands-on science center for children and adults to understand the engineering behind things like metal detectors, voice amplification systems, oxygen tanks, keyboards, lights, hospital food heating trays, and electric wheelchairs that are kosher for use on Shabbat.
More than 30,000 people have dropped by the visitors center since it opened in December 2013. Two weeks ago, the center completed translating all of its exhibit explanations and videos into English.
The institute calls the Zomet Experience a “techno-halachic journey.” The promotional video for the visitors center is set to an ultra-Orthodox version of Nelly’s “Heart of a Champion,” which certainly gets visitors pumped up to start talking about circuit breakers and currents.
Zomet gadgets, including Shabbat-approved computer keyboards, phones, pens, chairlifts, elevators, microwaves, and other objects, are popular in army bases and hospitals, where the activities are considered essential for protecting human lives. They are also used in agricultural settings like dairies, since cows must be milked daily including Shabbat, and in hotels.
Zomet’s rabbis and engineers use the halachic concept of gramma which means that in certain cases, prohibited actions on Shabbat like using electricity can be permissible if they are performed by “indirect causation.”
Most electronic devices work when circuits are opened or closed, starting or stopping electronic connections. So Zomet’s work is figuring out ways to close and open these circuits during times when electricity is not flowing, so users perform an action that indirectly causes the device to start working after a time delay.
Sound complicated? It is. But that’s where the bells and whistles and videos and hands-on exhibits at the visitor center come into play, for even the most mechanically challenged people.
“I have loved science centers, ever since I was a kid,” said Zomet’s executive director Rabbi Daniel Marans, who is passionate about the ways technology can help observance of strict Jewish laws. “When you ask people why you can’t use electricity on Shabbat, they don’t know. Electricity isn’t in the Shulhan Aruch [the basic code of Jewis law]. So we have to explain to people why we can’t use it.”
The biggest issues with electricity use on Shabbat comes from commandments against lighting fire, building, and creating something new. So rabbis need to look for ways around these prohibitions. For example, light bulbs that emit heat are considered more like the biblical understanding of fire than LED lights, which do not get hot when operating. This makes LED the Zomet light bulb of preference for their devices.
“People understand the importance and beauty of Shabbat,” said Marans. “We can solve challenges within the framework of Jewish law. Some people think we’re looking for loopholes or ways out,” he added. “But we see God as an all-knowing being, who knew we’d eventually have cellphones and digital cameras. We believe God knew within the framework of Jewish law that we could solve these problems.”
Many of Zomet’s devices help people with mobility disabilities or illnesses. One 9-year-old who used an electric wheelchair told Marans that as soon as her mother lit the Shabbat candles, she felt like a rock. A Zomet-adapted wheelchair kosher for Shabbat use enabled her to gain mobility on Jewish rest days.
Every device requires a slightly different process to ensure it can be used on Shabbat. “At the visitor’s center, we’re letting people come behind the scenes, to see how we do each thing,” explained Marans. But that’s the challenge of creating an engaging visitors center: there’s only so much excitement that comes from learning how a metal detector works on Shabbat.
Socket to me
Still, there is an audience for this type of center. More than 30,000 people have visited since last year, including 3,000 people during the holidays of Passover and Sukkot. Visitors pay NIS 20 per entrance (children under 6 are free); group visits cost NIS 500.
After a whirl through the interactive exhibit room, Zomet rabbis and staff can give lectures personalized to each group (NIS 200 extra) illustrating the different ways Zomet gadgets utilize electric circuits and the technology behind their most popular items.
The visitors center has hosted Birthright groups, Jewish groups from a variety of different non-Orthodox streams from around the world, and even an Iranian TV program.
On a recent Sunday, ultra-Orthodox families visited with more than 15 children of different ages. The kids raced through the exhibit, starting and stopping various videos and trying out the Shabbat metal detector wand on each other. “I’ve always wanted to know how this works!” squealed one of the boys.
It may not be as exciting as Disneyland, but for religious kids with engineering brains, or anyone with an insatiable thirst to understand the intricacies of permissible electronics on Shabbat, it can be the next best thing.