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Originally published Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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An Orthodox approach to a gadget-filled world

The full scope of Jewish texts and traditions couldn't help the rabbi sort this one out: Could he inline-skate to synagogue on the holy...

The Associated Press

CAESAREA, Israel — The full scope of Jewish texts and traditions couldn't help the rabbi sort this one out: Could he inline-skate to synagogue on the holy day of rest and prayer?

Dov Kaplan decided he should go straight to the top for an answer — a religious sage in Jerusalem who rules on what's acceptable and what's not, under Orthodox Jewish codes. His verdict? Roll on, including Saturdays.

The case this fall was more than just a quirky display of Torah scholarship.

Our modern world of gadgets and hobbies makes being true to faith increasingly difficult for Jews who strictly observe Shabbat, or the Sabbath, and its detailed list of forbidden activities. The ban includes any type of commercial labor, nearly all modes of transportation and anything construed as igniting or extinguishing "fire," such as cooking or even flicking a light switch.

Any dilemma over Shabbat — like the roller-skating question — will likely find its way to a crammed wedge of offices on a Jerusalem hilltop.

The space serves as a kind of one-stop answer factory: its staff responding to letters and e-mails, its head rabbi issuing religious decrees, and amateur inventors tinkering on work tables to find Shabbat-acceptable devices.

Among the latest projects is a doorbell that uses air pressure instead of electricity.

"We believe the Torah is a living document and needs to address modern issues, especially with the incredible pace of change," said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin, a shaggy-bearded scholar who directs the Institute for Science and Halacha, the term for the body of Jewish law. "But we are not an institute that is looking for loopholes."

On roller-skating? "That wasn't a real hard one," a smiling Halperin said. Kaplan's dilemma arose after plans were made for a second synagogue in Caesarea, a town of 5,000 people on the Mediterranean coast.

Cars are out on Shabbat. Bicycles are banned because of the risk of fixing a chain or flat, which would be considered work. So Kaplan thought of zipping between the two synagogues using in-line skates.

"We must have respect for Jewish law and traditions," said Kaplan, 45, who was raised in New York and emigrated to Israel when he was 11. "But we also have to show that Orthodox rabbis are not distant, unapproachable and closed to new ideas. Who knows if I'll actually skate. It's more about making a point."

Halperin's institute saw no problem: Skates can't break down like bikes. The approval for skating on Shabbat joined the eclectic annals at the institute — a mix of library, workshop and warehouse.

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In one room, Orthodox rabbinical students pore over books. Next door is a workshop loaded with switches and wires, a place to experiment with ways around using electricity on Shabbat.

Other Jewish groups offer guidance on Shabbat and other matters, but Halperin is considered the definitive voice.

When the institute opened in the 1960s, electricity was the main source of inquiries and innovations — which some ultra-Orthodox dismissed as diluting Jewish law.

About a third of Israel's Jewish population adheres to Shabbat codes to some degree. In the U.S., about 7 percent of Jews identify themselves as Orthodox.

Under Orthodox views, it's forbidden to "close" an electrical circuit on Shabbat — for example dialing a phone or hitting an elevator button.

The solution was developing appliances, phones and other devices with preset open-and-close cycles.

It's no longer so straightforward. Halperin is peppered with requests of all kinds.

Can the institute develop a TV remote for Shabbat? Not interested in even trying.

Stem-cell research? Yes, Halperin says, if the process will not alter a patient's genetic makeup. Cloning, however, is considered wrong.

Sperm banks? There are many obstacles, Halperin notes. But in some cases — such as a husband who froze his sperm before he died or was rendered sterile — it's possible since reproduction remains within the family.

The queries have even reached beyond this world.

Shabbat questions about space travel were first raised for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was aboard the space shuttle Columbia that broke apart during re-entry in 2003.

When, it was asked, is Shabbat in outer space since the observance begins and ends with sunset? Halperin's conclusion: Keep watch of the hours from the moment of blastoff and calculate when Shabbat would occur at the launch pad.

Other solutions require a bit more elbow grease. One is tucked into a corner: an attempt to create a pneumatic-powered wheelchair as an alternative to the electric motor for Shabbat. There are still some bugs, admits researcher Rabbi Shmuel Strauss.

"It still doesn't have the efficiency of a battery," Strauss said. "We're working on it."

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