In a move that may literally take the breath away from many of the world’s Orthodox Jews, a group of Israel’s top rabbis recently ruled that riding in what for decades have been designated as “Shabbat (Sabbath) elevators,” is against Jewish law. This decision — already been opposed by other leading rabbis – could force many Jews who live in apartment buildings to sweat their way up staircases once a week.The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, is meant to be a day of rest. Observant Jews refrain from working, traveling in vehicles, spending money and from using electricity.In modern times, it’s tough to imagine going 24 hours without using anything electric. So gadgets have been invented to allow the use of certain appliances without physically turning them on. Like timers for lights, called Shabbat clocks. Or special cookers for stove tops. Or elevators for Shabbat.The Shabbat elevators, which are ubiquitous in Israel and fairly common in Jewish neighborhoods around the world, are designed to stop automatically at every floor, so passengers are guaranteed to (eventually) make it to their destination without having to activate anything electrical.But in a surprise decision, a group of top rabbis ruled that riding these elevators was not kosher.The decision, published as a small notice (shown below) in a religious newspaper last week, decrees that due to changes in the technology of the elevators, based on information provided by elevator technicians and engineers, riding up or down in the elevator indeed breaks the laws of Shabbat. It was signed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a top leader in the ultra-Orthodox community, and others. It follows discussion over the direct impact on the elevator because the weight of passengers may determine the amount of electricty used.Other senior rabbis have already come out against the ruling, and Israel’s Haaretz newspaper interviewed some unhappy and disagreeing citizens.“This is an edict that will not work,” one resident of a Jerusalem retirement home was quoted as saying. “If we all adhere to it, not only will we not leave our rooms on Shabbat, but life in places like Manhattan will come to a standstill.”
With more and more libraries digitising their archives, academics have a growing number of texts they can access without having to get on a plane and journey to distant continents. Perhaps in the near future, researchers will be able to simply log on from their office to view a database of a nearly infinite number of ancient texts, prayers or whatever writings have been handed down by our ancestors.
Of course, problems arise with digitising thousands of years of handwritten documents. Making a digital copy is the easy part. Helping the computer understand what is written, well, that is a tough one.Gideon Ben-Zvi, who has founded a couple companies in the field of Optical Character Recognition (OCR), told me that: “The eyes outperform even the best OCR software by magnitude, although the speed achieved by OCR is far faster than humans.”That means a researcher can sit for hours in front of a page of text and will always emerge with a better understanding of the words written. However, once a computer program can discern words, phrases and even handwriting in the most highly degraded texts, you can then search through millions of pages almost instantaneously.Historians will be able to find pages from books that may have been scattered across the globe simply by searching for key words, sentence structures or handwriting styles.A team of researches at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University has developed an algorithm that could be an important step in achieving such a database. Uri Ehrlich, a liturgist at the university, explained how it took a few years of research to locate a single page stored in a different library that matched a ancient page of text he had been studying. If the research team indeed creates a user-friendly computer program, and libraries agree to centralise these archives in one, giant digital database, imagine the secrets of our past we have yet to discover!
Far from the spotlight of peace talks and military conflicts, Israel is facing a different kind of land crisis: it is running out of space to bury its dead. Most Jewish cemeteries in major cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, are filled beyond maximum capacity. Gravestones are packed together leaving little room for mourners to gather.
You can read about a new system of multi-tiered burial chambers being used in the Jewish state to solve the issue of land. It’s actually an ancient system, used thousands of years ago by Jewish sages, that was modernised by two Israeli architects and given approval by the country’s chief rabbis.
Ancient Sanhedrin tombs and their modern-day revival