Technology and Halakhah

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Halakhah deals with the prescription of the behavior of the individual, the family, the community, and a Jewish state. It encompasses all the actions in one's life. It sets forth both the principles and the guidelines along which day-to-day problems, both legal and ethical, have to be solved. Until the 19th century, rabbis well versed in halakhah were able to apply these legal principles to the ever-changing environment in which Jews lived. For instance, new methods of financing brought about the widespread application of hetter iskah, in which a legal way was found to use modern banking concepts which include interest, without transgressing the law forbidding the use of interest (see *Moneylending). The economic necessity to compete with non-Jews in the industrial and commercial fields resulted in the rather widespread use of non-Jews as Shabbat goyim, so that legally a business or factory could operate and produce on the Sabbath, for example, by having the non-Jew as an official legal partner. These solutions were all developed within religious communities in the Diaspora, and involved no special strain on the main body of the halakhah.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, modern technology advanced rapidly. This advance brought about many problems and many strains. These were particularly felt in the State of Israel where none of the solutions that are applicable in the Diaspora could be easily applied.

Modern technology affects the life of every individual. It creates not only ideological and ethical problems but poses real problems in keeping the commandments expounded in detail in the Shulḥan Arukh and amplified further by generations of rabbis in their responsa. The main problems are in the observance of the Sabbath, in kashrut, in personal and family life, e.g., birth control and other medical problems. Of course, educational and philosophical problems occur as well, since any new technological advance brings about a reorientation of thought and concepts of large segments of the population, concepts which sometimes are seen to be in conflict with stated precepts of ethical principles exposed by the leading religious ethical thinkers of previous generations. During the last 150 years, many responsa have been written trying to find solutions, sometimes technical and sometimes halakhic, to the problems that modern technology has brought about. Most of these responsa deal with the adaptation of the individual to changing situations. These responsa are, in general, marked by a greater restraint than those of previous generations. They have, therefore, given the impression that the halakhah does not keep up with the times. Some of the reasons for this impression, however, are the following:

Communication and Language Problem

Modern technology has advanced rapidly in nearly all fields of human activity. The rabbi, who until the 18th century may have been familiar with all the major aspects of science and life, cannot be expected today to have this knowledge or even keep up with the rapid advances of knowledge in a particular field. He needs, therefore, an "interpreter" to explain the technology to him so that he can interpret the legal halakhic implications concerned with the observance of the mitzvot in modern society. Since each field of science or technology has its own language, communication between those who interpret the halakhah and the specialists in technology has been difficult and has often led to incorrect evaluation of details. This problem is particularly acute in the understanding of new instruments utilizing all forms of new energy sources such as electricity or nuclear energy (and hence the permission or prohibition to use these instruments on the Sabbath).

Fear of Cultural Assimilation

Accommodation of religious individuals to changes in their standard of living may bring about acceptance of the cultural milieu of the community in which the technological advances are made. Halakhic solutions may be found which render it possible to use modern technology and keep all the religious commandments. However, the fear of undermining Jewish faith through the cultural influence emanating from the non-Jewish communities by the vehicle of technology sometimes underlies the reluctance to find solutions to technological problems.

Religious Minority

Responsa in general were written for a Jewish religious community, or for an individual living within a religious community. However, religious congregations in the Diaspora often set themselves apart from those of non-observant Jews. Response to technological changes might be readily acceptable to a religious community which fully accepts the halakhah, but not so much to a mixed community of which the majority are not observant. Halakhic solutions must be fulfilled in every detail. Small deviations, sometimes for the convenience of the consumer, may lead to wider prohibitions than were imposed before such a solution was found. Only persons well versed, trained, and used to the legal framework of the halakhah may be willing to accept these solutions, but new halakhic regulations may lead to friction within the community. This fear of either causing additional friction or non-observance of all the details often acts as a deterrent to publication of halakhic solutions in response to changes in technology. The last reason is probably the most dominant factor as to why the rabbis have not concerned themselves with the problems of application of the halakhah to the Jewish secular state. It has been felt, and probably correctly, that a secular legal arm of the state may adopt only part of these regulations. The result would be a secularization and adulteration of the halakhah in such a way as would be palatable to a majority of Jews but not conforming to the exact prescription of the halakhah.

A few major aspects of these problems will be considered here: (a) Sabbath observance; (b) kashrut; (c) medical problems; (d) agriculture.

sabbath observance

Probably the major problem facing the religious Jew in the State of Israel and abroad is that of Sabbath observance. In Israel it is relatively easy for a factory to obtain a license to operate on the Sabbath. The result of this is that employment of religious Jews in certain well-defined areas in industries becomes a problem. An objective employer naturally prefers the worker or engineer who is available all days of the week. Additionally, even if the religious Jew could overcome this natural bias, he would be reluctant to work until Friday with the knowledge that his fellow workers would continue his work on the Sabbath. According to the halakhah even preparation of work for another Jew to work on the Sabbath is forbidden. The result of all this is the beginning of an economic ghetto for religious Jews in Israel. In selective occupations in heavy and light industries, or in the communication industry, one cannot find many Orthodox Jews, certainly much fewer proportionately than their percentage in the population. The situation is likely to become more acute with the increase of the industrial capacity of Israel.

Institute for Science and Halakhah

The Institute for Science and Halakhah (Makhon Madda'i Tekhnologi li-Ve'ayot Halakhah) was founded by four organizations – the Orthodox Scientists of Israel, the Religious Engineering Association, the Harry Fischel Institute and the Yad ha-Rav Herzog in Jerusalem – with the aim of rectifying this situation. As an independent organization with no political affiliations, it is dedicated solely to solving the basic problems of a modern religious society in a modern technological state, without compromising halakhic principles.

The institute was established to engage in research and development. The research unit defined the main problems regarding Sabbath observance in industry and agriculture. These current problems center around general maintenance and repairs on the Sabbath for plants operating on that day. The problems that have been considered by this Institute are (a) the use of automation and servomechanisms; (b) the problem of transmitting information (writing not being permitted on the Sabbath); exploratory work on the use of tape recorders and magnetic recording has been instituted; (c) the possibility of using hot water systems on the Sabbath; (d) problems connected with the use of photoelectric cells, with microphones, and with electric switches. Though a five-day work week could easily solve most of the problems, in the early 21st century Israel had not shifted completely to it. (On-line maintenance is not sufficiently known or utilized in industry.) The institute was faced with formulating a more exact definition of "work" and "causation" as far as the Sabbath is concerned. The utilization of these concepts and the subsequent development of computer technology has wide implications for work in defense, for police work and for hospitals, and may make it possible for observant Jews to be employed more widely in these fields without being obliged to transgress fundamental religious principles.

After two or three years' work, members of the Institute felt that they had established enough halakhic and technological know-how to apply this knowledge to such industries as demand it and have the goodwill to utilize it.

the halakhic definition of work

The basic aspects and halakhic interpretation dealing with the definition of direct and indirect (גורם, gorem) work (מלאכה, melakhah) on the Sabbath have been evolved. On the Sabbath only certain types of work are not forbidden and these must be performed in a certain manner with a good purpose and under certain conditions. Physical work is not always forbidden. Hence it is necessary to have a clear definition of the traditional 39 categories of work and their derivatives, and a sort of compendium of the law with application to modern technology. The halakhah does not forbid the performance of work on the Sabbath per se; it forbids the performance of constructive work by a Jew. The main emphasis is on "Thou shalt not work," i.e., on the person who performs the action. This is the basis of the permission to use electric lights or place cooking food on the stove before the Sabbath and keep it there on the Sabbath. It is also the basis for permitting the use of an automatic switch ("the Sabbath clock") for turning electricity on and off on the Sabbath. The principle of the Sabbath clock can be generalized to micro- and mini-computers to perform many functions on the Sabbath, provided the program is already set before the Sabbath. This generalization has been worked out by the institute and successfully applied to a number of industrial systems

The practical implications of the definition of the concept of "work" or "causation" are enormous. They clearly imply a new type of Sabbath technology which would enable automated operation of factories in which an absolute shutdown is not feasible.

However, the institute is also engaged in technological innovations which will benefit the individual family, of which the following are examples:

(1) Cooking with Gas on the Festivals: The lighting of fire from an existing flame is permitted on the Festivals (but not on the Sabbath) in order to heat or cook food. It is forbidden, however, to extinguish the flame, under normal conditions. The institute has developed an inexpensive device to extinguish the gas flame at any desired interval, and to kindle the flame whenever desired.

(2) Use of Hot-Water Heaters on the Sabbath: The use of hot water from hot-water heaters on the Sabbath presents problems of halakhah. Commercial water heaters are so constructed that by opening the hot-water faucet, cold water automatically enters the heater. The inflow of cold water is again heated by the heating element and also by the hot water remaining in the boiler. In many cases the inflow of cold water triggers a thermostat which in turn ignites the heating element. The institute has developed a system whereby the inflow of cold water is regulated automatically and is independent of the outflow of hot water. Hence, the person who uses the hot water is not the direct cause of activating the heating of cold water. The method is particularly useful for hotels and other large institutions.

(3) Operation of Automatic Elevators on the Sabbath: There are two schools of thought on the question of use of an automatic elevator on the Sabbath. One school disregards the influence of the weight of the individual on the functioning of the elevator. When the elevator ascends, the individual's weight necessitates increased electric consumption, and when it descends it may also require generation of electricity. Nevertheless, this school of thought does not consider the influence of the individual's weight as a direct action prohibited in the commandment, "Thou shalt not perform (constructive) work." The other school of thought feels that the influence of the individual's weight cannot be disregarded, and it is as though the person himself actually generated the electricity. The institute has taken all those points into consideration with regard to various types of elevators and has developed modifications which can be built into commercial elevators to permit their use on the Sabbath.

(4) Transmission of Vital Records and Information on the Sabbath: Communication in one form or another is essential in increasing areas of modern life. In a number of institutions, such as the police force and in hospitals, careful records must be kept. Writing on the Sabbath is forbidden according to the halakhah. The institute has therefore developed automatic record-keeping devices connected to tape recorders or other small computers.

In addition, the institute deals with many problems in the field of the dietary laws (kashrut).

Two important research monographs on the halakhic definition of work were published in the late 1970s: Action and Causation by Rabbi L.I. Halperin (1977) and Primary, Secondary and Chains of Action by Prof. W.Z. Low (Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 5738).


Modern foods contain many types of synthetic ingredients. The purpose of these ingredients is sometimes medical but more frequently to permit the on-line production of preserved foods. Some of these ingredients are not kasher and even the admittance of minute quantities may in certain cases cause the whole food to be non-kasher. In the Diaspora, the tendency has been to induce major food manufacturers to find substitutes which are kasher. In the United States kasher food may have a U sign surrounded by a circle, . (the sign of the supervision of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America), the letter K in combination with other letters or geometric symbols (circle, triangle), and so forth, depending on whether the kashrut supervision is under any one of a number of national or local rabbinic bodies. Large U.S. food companies have met the demand of Orthodox Jewry because of the fear of losing sales of their products. In Israel there is no law at present which demands the food producer to list exactly all the ingredients contained in his product, and the penalties for stating that non-kasher food is kasher are not very severe. There is no control mechanism, apart from the interest of the individual rabbi, for finding out whether the ingredients are really kasher or not, nor are there laboratories advanced enough to test these ingredients. The technological problems in this case are, on the whole, far simpler than the Sabbath problem, since the difference in cost between kasher and non-kasher ingredients for such minute additives is small.

medical problems

Here again this problem involves both the individual and the total community.

On the subject of *birth control, the rabbis in the last 150 years have been divided into two camps – those who do not permit birth control under any circumstances and those who permit the women to practice birth control under certain circumstances. To a large extent most responsa since the 1950s have dealt with permission to use certain birth control techniques for individual cases. The general rule is that each individual case should be judged on its merits. Under certain circumstances, the rabbi may give permission to use birth control not only because of direct medical reasons but also because of psychological needs. There is a certain amount of conservatism in halakhic rulings in permitting the use of new contraceptives such as the "pill," since the medical problems involved have not been sufficiently explored. A halakhic decision to use the pill may, in certain selective cases, lead to sickness and possibly even death and few rabbis would permit this unless the demand is advocated by the family doctor. Here, also, is an inherent fear that the widespread use of contraceptives may undermine, to some extent, Jewish family life. This is buttressed by the feeling that after the Holocaust in Europe, the natural increase of the Jewish people should be encouraged rather than discouraged.

The question of *artificial insemination has been extensively dealt with by many rabbis and the consensus of opinion today is that artificial insemination using the semen of the husband is permitted but using the semen of unknown donors causes considerable controversy, and the majority of rabbis oppose it. In general, it can be said that the technological innovations of family planning have been adequately dealt with in the responsa of rabbis all over the world, since these involve day-to-day problems affecting both the religious and nonreligious Jew alike. The new medical technologies of the last decades of the 20th century, from *transplants to surrogate motherhood and genetic engineering, have posed new halakhic challenges and are the subject of ongoing debate. (See also *Medicine and the Law.)


Technological problems connected with agriculture arise because of new types of hybrid seeds and foods which have been developed. Jewish law does not permit kilayim such as the sowing of two different types of seeds in a given field or the crossbreeding of two different types of animals (see *Mixed Species). Many types of hybrid grains and foods are, of course, very popular but many of these cannot be produced by a religious person. Religious kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel strictly adhere to these prohibitions. An additional problem is the observation of the seventh year of rest (Shemittah, see *Sabbatical Year). Here the rabbinical authorities have adopted the attitude that the best solution is to sell the agricultural land to non-Jews during this seventh year and, under these circumstances, a large fraction of the work in the field can be performed and the produce eaten. Other rabbis, however, feel that the land should lie fallow and only work should be performed which would preserve the earth and the trees and prevent their deterioration. This prohibition has resulted in considerable experimentation in hydroponics, to which the prohibition does not apply. It is employed, for example, in kibbutz Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim. It is not impossible that the implications of this research may be of importance to Israeli agriculture in the future. Similarly the prohibition of milking by hand on the Sabbath – the selective crossbreeding of cows renders daily milking imperative – causes religious kibbutzim to use milking machines which, with certain changes dictated by the halakhah, can be used on the Sabbath. This, again, was a spur to nonreligious kibbutzim to use milking machines both on the Sabbath and during the week. However, without technical adaptation the milking machine is not permitted to be used on the Sabbath.

Service in the armed forces has also given rise to many technological problems.

There is a general feeling that the halakhah has not kept pace with the demands of modern technology. Solutions have been found and numerous responsa all over the world have been written in cases where technology infringes on prohibitions of the Jewish law, but in most, partial solutions have been found for the individual. In some cases, the halakhah has anticipated such problems as the question of the definition of death or the question of whether the computer should be regarded in the same light as a person insofar as some Jewish commandments are concerned. In most cases these responsa came as answers to individual inquiries. There has also been, to some extent, a lack of caution in these responsa in defining the prohibition of or permission for using a modern technological device by not stating clearly the brand name, the manufacturer, and a detailed description of the instrument itself. Since modern technology advances very rapidly, the lifetime of such a gadget may be very brief. Small changes in the internal parts may even result in a halakhic transgression which did not apply to a previous model. The converse may hold true as well. The halakhah has not yet produced a body of scholars who systematically analyze the needs of a modern society as distinct from the individual and the applications of the halakhah to such a society. The demand for such work would only arise if a community should come about in which the majority observed the halakhah.

The Secular State of Israel and the Day of Rest: Sabbath

The establishment of a secular modern Jewish State of Israel brought into sharp focus a number of central problems, such as the identity, the ideological content of the State, and its relationship to halakhah. These problems had already existed during the Mandatory period; however, the state had to enact new laws. Very often the laws were copies of the laws of other democratic countries to which only some religious Jewish overtones or content were added, and such laws were often in conflict with the halakhah. While the main issue centered on the problems of personal status, such as a definition of "Who is a Jew," other issues, such as the nature of the Sabbath – the day of rest – also brought the secular and religious elements into conflict. Traveling on the Sabbath may be taken as an example.

Whereas the secular law merely declares the Sabbath as a day of rest for Jews, with provision for exemption, the halakhah forbids not only all constructive work (Melekhet Maḥshevet) on the Sabbath, but also traveling, even for pleasure and recreation. Public transportation in most of the country is forbidden (except for bus transportation in Haifa and some other places). However, affluence has brought about an increase in private travel and in concomitant work in the operation of various leisure and recreational services on the Sabbath. The increase in the number of tourists also increased the pressure to provide them with entertainment on the day of rest. However, the most serious problem revolved around work on the Sabbath in various essential industries.

The Knesset Law of Work Permits on the Day of Rest

The Knesset enacted a number of regulations which established norms as to which workers and places of employment would be permitted to operate on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The law equivocally states that the day of rest of 36 hours must include the seventh day – the Sabbath – for Jewish workers. (For non-Jewish workers the day of rest is the day chosen by each denomination.) The minister of labor is empowered by law to grant permission to factory owners to operate on the Sabbath and to employ workers, provided the work is related to defense of people or of property, or if shutting down would cause considerable damage to the economy of the country or disrupt services considered by the minister of labor to be essential to the public or part of it. The ministry of labor had been dominated by the Labor Party, with its various nuances, for 30 years, and during the period of its hegemony the tendency was to interpret the law liberally so as to classify many important services as either essential or of such a nature as to qualify them as being of significance to the economy of the country. As a result, many industries received permits to operate on the Sabbath even though relatively simple technological innovations exist which would render it unnecessary. In addition, the Knesset enacted specific laws exempting a number of cooperatives, particularly those engaged in public transport, as well as companies engaged in oil prospecting and drilling, from the above ordinances.

The new coalition government, appointed after the elections in May 1977 and headed by Begin and the Likud, effected a change in atmosphere. The new coalition agreement on these issues provides for a review of all Sabbath work permits granted in the past and intends to use a narrower interpretation of the phrases "essential services" and "economic necessity." The Institute of Science and Halakhah which, under the chairmanship of Prof. W.Z. Low, had in the past specialized in finding technical and halakhically acceptable solutions for such problems, was given official status by the new government and was appointed to design alternative solutions in order to obviate the need for workers to be employed on the Sabbath.


Articles on these subjects regularly appear in the following periodicals: Jewish Life (1933– ); Hadorom (1957– ); No'am (1957– ); De'ot (1957– ); Tradition (1958– ); Makhon Madda'i Tekhnologi li'Ve'ayot Halakhah, Yedi'ot ha-Makhon (1967– ); Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (1970– ); and in various rabbinical journals. Some of these articles were summarized in I. Jakobovits, Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems (1965); J. Bemporad et al. (eds.), Focus on Judaism, Science, and Technology (1970).

[William (Ze'ev) Low]

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Technology and Halakhah

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Technology and Halakhah