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Rabbi, Are we allowed to wear clothes on Shabbat?

Technology is being woven into everything and Jewish law will rise to the challenge

Not that long ago, I was having one of my regular friendly discussions with a religious friend about the significance of technology in Jewish law. The purpose of these discussions is to seriously discuss how Jewish law will be applied to the most recent advances in technology, and to annoy my religious friend with my irritating logic.

Google has just completed its yearly biggest technology conference at which it announces a whole range of updates and future technologies. One of those technologies is Project Jacquard which ultimately intends to transform everything we wear into smart clothing. There are various ways of doing this and Google has their own take on the topic. From a Jewish law point of view though, this introduces a very serious problem that may lead to inescapable logistics.

When I was growing up, I remember being told that, on Shabbat, I should not walk in front of a house that had autosensing lights that would turn on in the event that a person passed by. At the time, this was not problematic as I could always step out onto the street and avoid such a home. It never happened that every house on every block had such autosensing lights. Had that happened, it would have made it effectively impossible to walk on the sidewalk on Shabbat. On streets with a great deal of traffic, and especially if a parent is walking with small children, it would have become a physical danger to walk under such conditions. I personally never heard of this specific question being posed to a rabbi. On the other hand, we are definitely facing an equivalent situation in many places today.

There are many major thoroughfares in the world that are constantly under observation via local cameras. The city of London is blanketed with video cameras for public security needs. I personally think that  effectively every street in Israel should be under constant observation via such security cameras. There are definitely cases where actions of an individual viewed through such a camera will trigger various activities. Although a solution from the point of view of Jewish law can be found for such situations, the question still needs to be asked as to how to deal with the triggering of certain electronics when walking on Shabbat. More specifically, the question is, what do you do when it is simply impossible to avoid triggering such electronics when walking outside on Shabbat?

The day will come sooner than any of us expect when all of our clothing will include various types of technology. The cost of using smart fabric will become so cheap that it will be counterproductive for any textile company not to make all clothing capable of interacting with Bluetooth and other communication technologies. Whether we like it or not, our clothes will constantly monitor our status and health, and send that information either to a nearby phone, to a central hub in our homes or to outside routers that connect to the Internet. At some point in the coming decades, one will simply not be able to find clothes that can be turned off on Shabbat. The obvious question then becomes, what do you do when it is impossible to avoid activating a constantly live network of vast technology every time you put on your pants.

It is just a matter of time before every streetlight will become smart and respond to the physical presence of pedestrians. There will be no way to avoid activating the system. Perhaps in parts of the world that are predominantly non-Jewish, one could wait for a non-Jew to cross a street on Shabbat before tagging along. But in Israel, this will not be practical in most places.

My own very humble take on this issue is similar to the problems that the rabbis faced when dealing with snow that covered the streets on Shabbat. In Israel, even in Jerusalem, snow over Shabbat was not common. The concern of making impressions in the snow, which can be argued to be problematic on Shabbat, simply did not come up until a great many Jews were living in the Diaspora, especially in Europe. When it got to a point that Jews could not leave their homes on Shabbat during an entire winter without walking through knee-level snow, a Jewish law answer had to be found. The specific answer that was found is not the critical point here. What is critical is that the rabbis understood that when outside conditions are such that one cannot avoid an apparent Shabbat transgression, a solution must be found. I have no doubts that the solution will be found for how we can wear smart clothes on Shabbat. I have no doubt that a solution will be found as to how we will learn on Shabbat when paper no longer exists and we are all using digital screens [that are as thin as paper] at all times.

The beauty of Jewish law is that it has continued to remain relevant throughout history. For those who challenge its flexibility, I can proudly say that Shabbat in this present day and age is still an extremely identifiably unique day of the week, with its special ceremonies and significance. But Jewish law is facing  a certain type of insidious challenge that will [pardon the pun] weave itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. I am not worried that the Rabbis of today will fail to find a solution. On the contrary, I am very much looking forward to seeing how they incorporate this new reality yet preserve the beauty and divinity of the Sabbath.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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