Technology | Israeli firm uses tech to help disabled people keep Shabbat

Cheri Tannenbaum has a rare neurological condition that makes it difficult for her to walk and talk. It came upon her suddenly at age 22, and she has lived with it for 40 years. Born in Canada, she and her husband moved to Israel 20 years ago.

Zomet’s wheelchair does not violate Shabbat.

“During the week, I can get around driving my car, and I can type my needs on a small organizer,” she said. “But on Shabbat, I was totally isolated.”

Tannenbaum has tried hard not to let her disability control her life. She started a company to sell jewelry she makes herself, and she plays the harp in her spare time. It was only on Shabbat that she really hit a wall.

On Shabbat, Jewish law forbids all work-related activity, including starting a car, cooking and using electricity. For most people it just means a little extra preparation — cooking food in advance, putting the lights on a timer, and walking instead of driving to synagogue or friends’ homes.

But for observant Jews who use  electric wheelchairs for transportation, it can mean being stuck at home all day. Zomet, a nonprofit organization that aims to reconcile Orthodox Jewish law with the modern world, has solved many of these issues.

In Tannenbaum’s case, it’s an electric scooter with a special mechanism in which no circuit is completed, meaning it can be used on the Sabbath.

“Jewish law thinks about people whose mobility is challenged or who are disabled,” said Dan Marans, the executive director of Zomet. “We believe that God wrote Jewish law, but he knew how we would use it would change.”

All official Israeli institutions, including the army and hospitals, are supposed to be Sabbath-observant. However, preserving human life takes precedence — the Sabbath can be violated if a human life is at stake. At the same time, many Sabbath-observant Jews try to keep the Sabbath as intact as possible, even in cases where human life may be at stake.

So Zomet has invented a special pen used by doctors and soldiers that skirts the prohibition on writing on the Sabbath. It has special ink that disappears after 72 hours.

Zomet has 20 employees, most of them engineers. The scientists, all Orthodox Jews, wear kippahs and show the fringes of their tallit katans.

The organization’s funding comes from the Israeli government and private donations. Marans says he finds it especially gratifying when Zomet is able to find a solution to problems like Tannenbaum’s. Beyond the mobility issue, she has also used a “lightwriter,” a computer that “speaks” what is typed.

Zomet was able to modify the device by adding an intermediate step between Tannenbaum’s pressing the button and the computer speaking her message. That intermediate step enables the device to be used on the Sabbath.

“It is an indirect connection,” Marans said, “in which the person does half and the computer does half.”

An estimated 20 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is Sabbath-observant, giving these devices a large potential market. Zomet hopes that by making it easier, more people will want to become Sabbath-observant.

“We want the Sabbath to be observed in a non-forced manner,” Marans said. ‘If we’re able to invent something so that they can observe the Sabbath, it’s a win-win situation, which makes everyone happy.”

That has certainly been the case for Tannenbaum.

“I am so grateful to Zomet for making my life and other people’s lives a lot easier,” she said. “My isolation has disappeared.”