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Can Tech and Sabbath Coexist?

Can Tech and Sabbath Coexist?

A mere fifty years ago, it might have been impossible to imagine today’s technology: Walk into a room and lights turn on, blinds open, a TV starts.

For six days of the week, none of these automated devices pose problems for highly observant Jews. Indeed, these believers, like the rest of us, probably welcome modern conveniences.

But the Sabbath creates a challenge for Orthodox Jews, particularly the “haredim” who strictly adhere to Jewish law as codified in the Torah and by the traditions of generations of rabbinical scholars and teachers. The collective body of Jewish religious laws is called halakha in Hebrew, literally defined as “the way to behave.” To its followers, flicking on a light switch or pressing an elevator button is considered “work” prohibited on the seventh day.

Often, technology can accommodate these practices. For instance, every major hotel in Israel has a “Sabbath elevator,” which is programmed to stop at every floor in the building on the seventh day so that its occupants do not have to press any buttons. There are “kosher” lamps that can be lit before the Sabbath and adjusted. A “kosher clock” will signal its alarm for one minute, waking people without their needing to silence it.


“Internet of Things” Threatens Sabbath Calm

Now, however, the age in which we find ourselves is far different. The Israeli Calcalist Tech website summarizes the problem: “Homes are getting smarter and technologies are becoming more invasive in our lives—for better or worse. For the ultra-orthodox communities, the fight continues to respect the past traditions and values.”

Mobile phone in a smart home

So it’s not just a question of light switches anymore. It’s the “Internet of Things,” or IoT, a collection of gadgets and software that performs a variety of automated functions. This ever-growing market of technological devices makes up today’s “smart home,” a residence largely controlled and even automated by technology. For example, you might have a home security system with motion sensors. Other systems can be programmed to activate various equipment—like that coffee maker—either by time or by motion. And if the artificial intelligence gurus have anything to say about it, these devices that make up your home are, as Calcalist reported, just going to get smarter and smarter. 

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, rabbinic head of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), is researching the application of halakha to these developments. Speaking with the Jewish Action website, he described a situation where artificial intelligence might raise Sabbath issues.

“The fact that AI sensors are continually learning about you even as you move around your home on Shabbat [Sabbath], does not necessarily constitute a violation of Shabbat (since it is an unintended consequence of your actions),” Rimon said. “However, suppose you go downstairs to your kitchen on Shabbat morning?and after a few minutes?the shutters suddenly open and the coffeemaker begins preparing coffee because your smart home ‘recognizes’?that at that particular time and temperature?you like the?shutters?open and a coffee ready—that would be problematic. This is because AI is doing a forbidden melachah (cooking), as a result of your activity.”

Rimon’s interview went through several current and future scenarios involving IoT, painstakingly comparing each to the Jewish law. There were even questions involving BCI, brain-computer interface, in which a computer connected to a person’s brain can complete the action that person thinks. “Can one violate Shabbat by merely thinking about doing a forbidden act?” Rimon was asked. According to the rabbi’s research, “thought is equivalent to action.” Thus, he concluded, “Based on this, I don’t think BCI would be permitted for general use on Shabbat.”

This might seem rather granular to other Sabbath-keepers, but Rimon’s overall concern is worthy of consideration: “Shabbat is the only time we close all our doors and stay focused on the truly important things in our lives. In today’s modern times, Shabbat is more necessary than ever,” he declared.

New Testament Perspective

While God never meant for Sabbath observance to be a list of dos and don’ts, He did intend for the day to be of utmost importance to us, as Rimon inferred. In particular, Sabbath is a day for us to spend with the most important of all, our Creator.

“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, 28), said Jesus. It was Jesus who created the Sabbath. It is Jesus who, in fact, created “all things …, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3). It was only fitting, then, that Jesus observed the very day He had created when He walked this earth: “[A]s His custom was, He [Jesus] went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” we read in Luke 4:16. 

The Sabbath is a beautiful memorial whereby we can fill our minds not with the temporal advances of this world but with the eternal future Jesus has created for us. While living among us, Jesus filled His Sabbath days with teaching the glorious gospel truths to others (Luke 13:10) and healing the sick and the lame, pointing them to the gift of eternal life in Him (Matthew 12:11–13). Should our observance of the Sabbath be any different with the onset of technological advancement?

As individual decisions are made regarding what technology to embrace or reject on this day of rest, let each Sabbath-keeper hold these eternal truths, and not a narrow-minded obedience, of the Sabbath in mind.

Are you unsure about how to honor the Sabbath? Look to our article, “How Should I Honor It?”, for guidance. For further explanation, here is another quick and insightful read, “The Blessings of the Sabbath.

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