The Key Dilemma

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published March 27, 2008, issue of April 04, 2008.
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In many cities around the globe, hotel guests enjoy hi-tech conveniences. Lobby doors whiz open automatically; the faucets in public restrooms begin spurting water as soon as a hand approaches and toilets flush when the user stands up. Most important, entering one’s room is easier than ever before: Instead of the cumbersome, old-fashioned key, the door unlocks with the mere swipe of a card.

For Sabbath-observant Jews, however, this ever-advancing technology is posing a real challenge. The Torah lists 39 activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath, among them: “You shall kindle no fire in any of your habitations on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3) — a prohibition that rabbis have applied to all electronic devices.

It is a problem that religious vacationers face not only on the Sabbath but also on major Jewish holidays like Passover, since, aside from certain leniencies regarding food preparation, the prohibitions on the holidays are identical to those on the Sabbath.

For years, the major technological obstacle had been the elevator. For most Sabbath observers, the solution was easy: Order a room on a low floor, and use the stairs. But because a number of people were physically unable to do so, most rabbinical authorities began allowing Jews to use what’s known as a Sabbath elevator — one that is programmed to stop automatically on every floor. Some hotels, like the Eden Roc in Miami Beach, always use a Sabbath elevator during the week of Passover. The Eden Roc, currently under renovation and slated to reopen in 2009, becomes glatt kosher for Passover every year and is a popular Passover destination.

Today, it is no longer the elevator but the electronic key card that is causing the most concern. More and more hotels are using it, with good reason: It’s cheap, more secure and conveniently disposable. The problem is that the electronic system is rendering the manual key — the only kind that an observant Jew can use on the Sabbath — obsolete, leaving the guest to ask, “How am I going to get into my room?” 
Probably the easiest and most widespread option taken by observant Jews is an age-old strategy known as “using a ‘Shabbos goy.’” This entails asking a non-Jew to perform duties on the Sabbath that a Jew is not permitted to do. (Elvis Presley and Colin Powell each recalled working as a Shabbos goy in his youth.) Pinny Wirzberger, a New York-based Orthodox travel agent who has vacationed in dozens of cities, says that whenever he spends the Sabbath at a hotel, he simply explains the problem to a hotel employee Friday before sundown, asks the employee to open the door for him at specific times of the day and hands him the electronic key. “It also doesn’t hurt to tip him beforehand,” he said.

Interestingly, a number of hotels have been eager to accommodate their observant Jewish guests, particularly if they come as part of a special event. Rabbi Nachman Cohen, chairman of the board of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, explained that when he headed the weeklong Passover program last year at the Rancho Bernardo Inn near San Diego, the hotel replaced the electronic mechanisms on the doors with regular locks for all their observant Jewish guests. “After 10 days, they put them back,” he said.

And during a weekend bar mitzvah at a hotel near La Guardia Airport in Queens, the rabbi added, the hotel stationed a guard on every floor to monitor the hallways so that guests could feel free to keep their doors unlocked. Personal valuables were stored in a safe with the management for the day.

But for those Sabbath observers who can’t find a hotel that provides these services, Wirzberger offers a simple solution. Chuckling, he said, “Just go to a less fancy hotel.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts.

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