The founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, declared that “one must live with the times.” One way of understanding this charge is that we seek to apply Torah and Halachah to our ever-changing world. Rather than see technological and scientific advances as challenges to our tradition, we frame them as ever more opportunities to live according to Torah.
Sometime in the 1990s oven manufacturers decided to add a safety feature that would automatically shut off an oven after twelve hours of continuous operation. I found this out when the oven (in my new home) which I was sure I had left on for Shabbat, was mysteriously off. The next week I tried again, with similar results. The third week we got smart – we set the oven to shut off at a specific time. The oven wasn’t the only thing to go off though, as the beeper alerting us to press “off” sounded every two minutes for the rest of Shabbat, and we escaped to the playground until after dark! That’s when we found out about “Sabbath mode.”
My parents had just replaced some appliances and my six year old daughter witnessed their installation. “Bubbie’s oven has Sabbath mood,” she informed me.
As the ice-box of yesteryear gave way to the refrigerator of yesterday, Sabbath-observers confronted many questions: how can one open the door if it triggers the thermostat? What about the light-bulb? Can you freeze leftovers on Shabbat? Rabbis and engineers put their heads together to understand the mechanics of the refrigerator (and range) and their impact on Shabbat observance.
As appliances grew fancier, with water and ice dispensers, back-lights and alarms for doors left ajar, Halachic questions grew. In fact, one branch of a major kosher-supervision organization is entirely devoted to dealing with such issues. The “Sabbath mood” feature is now available for ranges and refrigerators, and who knows what tomorrow will bring as we continue to try and live with the times. A “Sabbath mode” house?
For a fascinating read, see Wired Magazine’s The Geek Guide to Kosher Machines.