Plug in, tune out, keep Shabbos

Plug in, tune out, keep Shabbos

GE, OU, and Clifton company give refrigerators their day of rest

Rabbi Ortner works with engineers from GE.
Rabbi Ortner works with engineers from GE.

Zman Technologies of Clifton wants to give your refrigerator a temporary brain transplant.

The goal: To make the appliance stupider, and thereby Shabbat-compliant.

The just-unveiled GE Shabbos Keeper, developed by Zman in partnership with the Orthodox Union and GE Appliances, plugs into the RJ-45 jack at the top of your 36-inch French-door refrigerator. The jack was designed so technicians could plug into it and debug the computer running the machine, but the Shabbos Keeper uses it to patch in and override. Preprogrammed with a Jewish calendar, the Shabbos Keeper knows when it is Shabbat or yom tov; on those days, it wrests control of the refrigerator from the computers that normally control the touch panels and monitor the heat and run the motors and turn on and off the lights. It puts the refrigerator into a low tech mode that ignores the buttons, operates on a fixed schedule regardless of how much an opened door has heated it up, and — in a bonus touch — keeps the internal lights on (at a low setting) whether the door is open or closed.

That may sound like a lot of work to avoid doing a little work on Shabbat. But the OU maintains this device is necessary because unscrewing your refrigerator’s light bulb is no longer sufficient to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.

Rabbi Tzvi Ortner is the OU’s director of halacha and technology — a new position that puts him in charge of the cooperation between the OU’s rabbis and GE’s engineers. He concedes that simply unscrewing the light bulb worked fine for what he calls the first generation of refrigerators.

Those refrigerators were electrically simple. They had a compressor that cools the refrigerator, they had a light bulb on the inside that got switched on when the door was opened, and that was basically that.

Back in the 1950s, there was a debate among Orthodox rabbis about whether you could open the refrigerator door when the compressor was not running. Would opening the door heat up the interior enough to cause the motor to start?

“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Aharon Kotler said you should only open the door when the compressor was on,” Eli Antebi, Zman’s operations manager, said. (That was the moderate position. The liberal position maintained that the open door’s impact on the motor was too indirect to worry about. And the arch-traditionalist sage known as the Chazon Ish ruled that you shouldn’t open a refrigerator on Shabbat altogether.)

If that was an Orthodox status quo since the 1950s, the second generation of refrigerators raised red flags for a new generation of Orthodox rabbis. Self-defrosting refrigerators, Rabbi Ortner said, don’t just cool. They regularly heat up to remove the frost. And heating, he said, is considered a more serious violation of the Sabbath than just running the motor. (For those interested in the halachic details: Running the compressor was considered an issur d’rabanan; heating a metal coil is considered an issur d’oraita.) How much you had to worry about this heat going on every time you opened the refrigerator door depended on which model refrigerator you used and which rabbi you asked.

Then came the current, third generation of refrigerators, which have as many as eight computers on board, to monitor internal temperature and humidity, to run the ice maker and the water dispenser, perhaps to control a touch screen — and to pay particular attention to whenever you open the refrigerator door.

The Shabbos Keeper box

“That makes the situation today very complicated,” Rabbi Ortner said.

All this led to the creation of a “Sabbath mode” for refrigerators. Star-K, a kosher supervision agency based in Baltimore, certifies the Sabbath mode for seven brands of refrigerators. But the Star-K Sabbath mode primarily dealt with the defrost cycle. As for the underlying computer control, it relied “on a leniency that a computer may be utilized as long as the digital display is not seen,” Rabbi Yair Hoffman wrote in the Five Town Jewish Times. That lenience, he wrote, has been questioned by many Orthodox halachic authorities, some of whom said that having your actions affect a computer on Shabbat is as severe a violation as cooking on Shabbat.

The Shabbos Keeper avoids all these problems by overriding, and disconnecting, the refrigerator’s brains. And because it uses a pre-programmed 30-year Jewish calendar, it doesn’t have to be set before every Shabbat, like the Sabbath mode does.

“I’ve spoken to so many people who use the Shabbos mode and say they’ve forgotten to set it,” Mr. Antebi said. “They’re on the way to shul on Friday night and they remember: ‘Whoops! I forgot to turn on the Shabbos mode? What do I need to do now?’

“This, once it’s set up, it will take care of it for you,” he said.

Which brings us to Zman Technology, and how it came to work with the OU and GE. The company’s first product, back around 2014, was a timer for electric lights. It aimed to improve on such suburban Shabbat staples as the Honeywell RPLS730B1000/U 7-Day Programmable Light Switch Timer, which replaces a light switch and is only $22.66 at Home Depot. People who have installed such devices in their dining rooms know the pleasures of having lights turn off automatically on Friday night and back on again on Shabbat morning or afternoon. The device’s drawbacks, however, led Mr. Antebi and his partners to believe that there was room for improvement. For one thing, the timer features a big switch to turn on and off the light when you don’t want to use its programmed mode. Unfortunately, if a guest accidentally leans against it on a Friday night, it’s lights out. And then there is the obscure method of programming the device with only a handful of buttons. Is there a holiday coming up so you want to program the lights for Saturday night too? Do you want to extend the hours for a late seder? Prepare to squint and Google the instruction manual before undertaking the unpleasant programming task.

The Zman Technology light switch solved both these problems. First, it is programmed with Shabbat and holiday dates for decades to come. Tell it the date and your location when you install it, and it automatically lights up your dining room on Friday night and keeps them bright extra late on the night of the seders. Second, when it knows it to be Shabbat or yom tov, it disconnects the switch. Lean all you like; the lights stay on.

This invention attracted the attention of the OU.

“We met Rabbi Belsky,” Mr. Antebi said. That’s Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, who was a long-time senior kashrut advisor to the OU until his death in 2016. “He started advocating and pushing us to get into other Shabbos modes for appliances.” He had considered refrigerators to be problematic for a long time.

That led to the development of Zman’s second product: A timer that a refrigerator plugs into; on Shabbat or holidays, it turns the machine off for six minutes four times an hour. When the machine was turned off, an LED light would turn on, signaling that it was safe to open the refrigerator without fear of violating Shabbat.

Rabbi Ortner with GE CEO Kevin Nolan

With one solution to the Shabbat refrigerator in hand, the OU began to raise awareness of the issue. And it reached out to GE to see if it could find a receptive partner to take a deep dive into a refrigerator’s innards.

“They were ready to give it a try,” Rabbi Ortner said.

Kevin Nolan, who was GE’s vice president of technology before being promoted to CEO last year, “was very willing and very helpful and excited about trying to work out a solution for the Jewish community,” he added.

There were trips back and forth between the OU’s New York office and GE’s Kentucky operations. There were weekly conference calls with the GE engineers, scheduled, appropriately enough, on Fridays.

After a year of development the testing began. That took almost a year. “There was endless testing to make sure of the quality of the product — the quality of the fridge and the quality of the food inside of the fridge,” Rabbi Ortner said.

Although Zman manufactured the other devices, GE is making the Shabbos Keeper. “That will give the user confidence that it works, that it doesn’t take away the warranty, that it’s foolproof,” Mr. Antebi said.

The Shabbos Keeper is compatible with 110 models of GE refrigerators. It retails for $150. “The markup is not great,” he added. “We think it’s going to make big changes in the way people use appliances

The external refrigerator timer costs about $120. And the original Zman light switch is $59. “There’s a big future for the industry,” Mr. Antebi said. That is, the industry of adapting computerized appliances for Sabbath observers.

There are other models of refrigerators that could benefit from similar add-ons. And then there are ovens and dishwashers. “People don’t use dishwashers on Shabbos, but people like to load dishwashers on Shabbos,” Mr. Antebi said. “But new dishwashers have digital indicators, lights that go on and off when you open the door.”

Stay tuned.

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