now, this is legalism…

I get kind of tired of the charge of legalism often laid at the feet of fundamentalists. Then I read stories that give me some relief. Today’s National Post gives me one today. (Unfortunately, no longer available online to the general public… not sure why.)

Here’s the headline:

Kosher gadgets grab the spotlight

When it comes to legalism, leave it to the Pharisees.

For example, did you know that it breaks the Sabbath to turn electricity on or off?

Working from their research lab in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, they create electronic devices — from phones to alarm systems to motorized vehicles — that obey Orthodox Jewish laws about the Sabbath, when even turning an electric current on or off is forbidden.

“We’re trying to combine making a modern Jewish state with age-old Jewish law,” said Dan Marans, executive director of Zomet. That requires both a deep knowledge of Judaism’s legal code, or halacha, and a bit of ingenuity. Every day, God gives us things we can take advantage of,” Mr. Marans said. “We just have to know how.”

So… what is a kosher gadget? How about a lamp you don’t have to turn off?

Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, president of Toronto-based Kosher Innovations, is one of the entrepreneurs who has benefited. In 2004, he invented the Kosher Lamp, with a shade that can be twisted to block out the bulb’s light but does not turn it off. Rabbi Veffer said he has sold “tens of thousands” of the lamps, including one shaped like a teddy bear. The lamps are manufactured in China.

A bit more explanation:

Orthodox Jewish households spend a lot more time, attention and money on their kitchens than other U.S. consumers, which is why 14 major home appliance brands have sought kosher certification from StarK. The company also monitors Chinese factories that make kosher products to insure they are complying with Jewish law.

While modern technology was intended to make the chores of daily life less difficult, the proliferation of automatic motors, sensors and lights into more household items has become a growing problem for those who are strictly observant.

For decades, Orthodox Jews trudged through their houses in a pre-Sabbath ritual of turning off home security systems, taping down the button that turns on the light inside the refrigerator when the door is opened and lighting a flame to leave burning on the stove so food can be heated.

What kind of inventions have helped?

It also developed pens that use ink that disappears in a few days, based on a rabbinic interpretation that only forbids permanent writing, and Sabbath phones, which are dialed indirectly with special buttons and a microprocessor.

Mechanized vehicles present similar problems. In the past, disabled Jews were largely cut off from their community, unable to walk to synagogue or hear prayers.

Zomet invented Sabbath friendly wheelchairs, sound systems and elevators that stop on each floor, and developed a Shabbat scooter with Michigan-based Amigo Mobility International.

And the young fundies think we are legalists if we preach against, say, consuming alcohol! They really don’t know what legalism is.


UPDATE: Here’s the description of the Shabbat friendly scooter:

First introduced in 2005, Amigo works in partnership with Zomet Institute of Israel in production of the Shabbat Amigo used by Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath. A toggle switch changes operation from normal to Shabbat mode. With no throttle lever activation by the rider, the module’s timing circuit sets the chair in motion after 7-11 seconds, satisfying the “no work” Sabbath restriction. The Shabbat module may be added to select Amigo brand models as an upcharge (models priced separately.) Each Shabbat Amigo is halachically-approved, individually inspected and certified by a Zomet representative. Now available through Amigo healthcare dealers nationwide.


  1. Dear Don,

    I am the inventor of the KosherLamp that you refer to above.

    I’m sorry that you have a misunderstanding of Orthodox Judaism’s approach to halacha (Jewish Law or “legalisim” as you refer to it). According to the Torah, ewvery human being’s actions (and words and thoughts for that matter) help bring more of the Divine Presence into the world , or help block it out.

    You sadly seem to be separating out our actions from our focused intent when we perform those actions. I’m sure you differentiate between someone giving charity whose intention is to receive honour and someone giving charity whose intention is to emulate his Heavenly Father and thereby feel closer to Him.

    For a bit of a 3rd party explanation of this concept, you can listen to a radio segment which aired on Weekend America.

    If you want to see the orignal New York Times article which was reprinted in the National Post and dissappeared, you can find it here:

    Hopefully by clearing up some misunderstandings of Orthodox Judaism in the non-Jewish world, we can bring more peace and love to humanity.

    • Shmuel,

      Thank you for comment and the links.

      First, I really would like to see a reference from the Torah that proves your statement “every human being’s actions (and words and thoughts for that matter) help bring more of the Divine Presence into the world , or help block it out”. I’d truly be amazed to see proof of that in the Torah. In Mishnah or Talmud, maybe, but I really doubt Moses said anything like that.

      Second, it is true that someone who gives to charity for wrong motives certainly receives no reward, but in the way you construct the alternative, the motives are wrong also. You suggest that this might be acceptable: “someone giving charity whose intention is to emulate his Heavenly Father and thereby feel closer to Him”. Should someone give to charity in order to feel closer to God? No. Not at all. That is as base a motive as gaining the approval of men, actually. One should give to charity because God commands it, because one loves God, because one has compassion on the needs of others. That is it, no looking for approval, man’s or God’s.

      Finally, though, my point is that external actions matter not at all. We are in a day when God has commanded men to worship him in Spirit and in truth. Legalistic performance and assiduously avoiding the “work” of turning on an electric lamp on the Sabbath gains you no credit with God. (And I doubt that it would have counted even in the days of Moses – do you think they had no lamps in their tents? That they never lit a lamp in their tents because it was the Sabbath? Preposterous!) No, it is a false construct to think that if you somehow avoid the work of turning on an electric lamp that somehow you keep yourself in God’s good graces. It is amazing that you would think so.

      There are hundreds of specific commandments in the Torah that you cannot possibly keep. Even if you could argue that your kosher lamp helped you keep part of one commandment, their are hundreds of others where you fail. All the Torah can do is point to your desperate need of grace from God. It isn’t something you can earn or deserve on your own, whether you turn on lamps or not.

      I would urge you to study the arguments of Paul the apostle in the book of Romans. There you would find light for your soul. (I am currently preaching through Romans if you care to follow our sermon links at

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3