If you try to keep the Jewish Sabbath, you might have heard of KosherSwitch, which is supposed to allow observant Jews to flick switches without violating Shabbat. KosherSwitch looks like the clever brainchild of Rube Goldberg and Erwin Schrödinger. When you flick it, you’re raising a tiny plastic gate inside, which had previously separated a laser from a laser detector. Once a laser pulse is detected, the light turns on—but not instantaneously, because both laser and detector are wired to “malfunction” at random intervals. You flick, a light goes on—but because the link between actor and action has been severed, the person flicking isn’t culpable for the result, which is therefore Shabbat-friendly (the theory goes). An Indiegogo campaign to make KosherSwitch has raised almost $65,000.
The Indiegogo page notes several times that the device has been patented—this cockeyed Jewish legal dodge is proprietary and cannot be produced by others without the inventor’s permission. The patent makes it clear that the device is not just a religious convenience, but the motor of a profit-driven business. If the century-old prohibition on flicking lights is made obsolete by the adoption of the KosherSwitch, it will have been felled not simply by rabbinic acceptance, but by engineering know-how and a desire for profit. The KosherSwitch, as product and patent, contains a quality that is essentially American.
And it isn’t the only one. By the time the KosherSwitch was patented in 2007, more than a hundred patent applications had been filed for devices or processes relating to Jewish ritual practice; the earliest of these patents date back to the very beginning of the 20th century. Although these patents are public record and available online, they have never before been documented systematically. I have spent the last few weeks doing just that.
There is no easy way to keep track of what patents are Jewish. This isn’t a church-and-state problem; it’s just that among the hundreds of thousands of applications filed every year, there aren’t enough Jewish-themed ones to merit a category of their own. (By contrast, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tracks patents relating to Christian ritual, and even has a dedicated subcategory for rosaries.) Furthermore, many inventors of Jewish items prefer to be vague on their patent applications, hoping that, for example, a device for buttering matzo might one day be licensed for gentile purposes.
Careful keyword searches of the office’s records, however, reveal that Jews have been turning to the USPTO for more than a century with ideas for ways to improve Jewish life and for make money in the process. Collectively, these patents paint a portrait of a Jewish religious culture in which entrepreneurs, not rabbis, are at the forefront. They tell the story of Jews in America not through the lens of politics or religious ideas, but through the marketplace. Through the Patent Office, we can see Jews engage in the rise and fall of industrialism, in the birth of the postwar American consumer, and in the spirit of innovation that we associate with America itself.
The urge toward religious enterprise is embodied perfectly in the inventions of Howard Skolnik. In 1986, Skolnik discovered a major flaw at the heart of the American kosher supervision system. If Skolnik was right, his discovery would undermine the kosher certification of countless processed foods, throwing the world of kosher supervision into chaos.
The problem was with steel drums, specifically, the kind of drums used to transport sugar, chocolate, vegetable oil, and all manner of food ingredients to manufacturers. These drums are everywhere; if you have an image of a steel drum in your head, you’re picturing the one I’m talking about. Skolnik knew a lot about these drums; he was (and is) the CEO of Skolnik Industries, a Chicago manufacturer of industrial containers. The company was founded by his grandfather in the 1930s and run by his father and uncle until 1985, when Howard took over. A Skolnik drum was pictured on the cover of The New Yorker in 2007.
To forge steel—for a drum or anything else—you need to bring metal to very high temperatures. To do this safely you need a lubricant, and the most common lubricant is oil. When the steel is finished, there’s always some oil left on the steel, coating the steel and impregnated in the metal itself. Vegetable-based oils are usually kosher; animal-based oils are usually not. Skolnik realized that kosher agencies were assuming only vegetable-based oils were being used; in reality, steel manufacturers used both types indiscriminately. This meant that kosher ingredients were regularly being transported in treyf containers, potentially rendering the ingredients—and the foods they entered—not kosher. “Nobody was aware of it,” Skolnik said in a phone interview. “I brought it to their attention.”
Skolnik saw a business opportunity. Awareness of the barrel problem would generate demand for kosher barrels, and someone would need to fill that demand. Furthermore, Skolnik realized, other religious groups with dietary laws might want these modified barrels, too, if someone informed them of the problem. If Skolnik (who does not keep kosher) could only figure out how to purge the oil, he could have this new market all to himself. If he founded a method and patented it, he could even make money by licensing the process to other manufacturers. In 1989, Skolnik filed what eventually became U.S. Patent 4,906,301, “Processing of Koshering Containers,” and invited Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh Day Adventist leaders to his factory to see the process for themselves.
Jewish patents have evolved along with American industry. U.S. patent law is as old as the United States, but the earliest Jewish patents only date to the first decade of the 20th century. This first period of Jewish patents, born in the midst of American industrialization, is dominated by industrial machines and processes, especially for food production. There’s a substitute for beef extract “which … can be used also by the orthodox Jewish population.” There’s an electric device for plucking chicken feathers “without cutting them as it is prescribed by the rules of the Jewish religion.” There are methods of printing Hebrew text. The family-run Manischewitz company refined the crude matzo-making machines of the 19th century through innovations like better baking ovens (1916), more efficient carton-filling machines (1919), and even attractive cracker designs (1939).
As industrial applications declined, the first phase of consumer patents began. This period begins with a trickle in the 1920s and ’30s and slowly increases through the 1960s. It is here that we see the combined scarf and prayer shawl (1935), still in common use today; designs for tefillin and mezuzah casings; and a carrying case for books which doubles as a shtender. This period also sees the development of electrical memorial plaques (1957), which now line the walls of synagogues around the world.
Early on, Jewish patents were mostly improvements on objects already in use. From the 1970s onward, Jewish patents were more numerous and more gimmicky: A 1973 patent on a trick “Elijah’s cup,” making it appear that someone is slowly sipping from a glass of wine, is paradigmatic of the period. There are patents on challah molds, Star-of-David–themed necklaces, a kit for building one’s own sukkah (1986), and an electronic noisemaker that lights up when spun for use on Purim (1991). One 1996 patent depicts a device for pouring wine from a kiddush cup into multiple smaller cups. There’s even a chair designed to prevent honorees from falling during the “chair dance” popular at Jewish celebrations (2003). And it wasn’t just Jews who got turned on to religious novelty items in the ’70s. When Muslims start patenting religious objects in the late ’70s, they bring the same level of kitsch with items like a prayer rug with built-in compass for finding Mecca.
From the 1970s onward, there is also an explosion in patents for the Orthodox market; perhaps half of all Jewish patents in this period are for Jews who observe Jewish law. Cases for tefillin proliferate. Several patents integrate tzitzit thread into shirts and undershirts, so that the wearer need not wear an additional layer of clothing. There’s a kosher pet food (2001). There’s kosher-for-Passover beer (2005), cleverly marketed to the wider market as being “gluten free.” There’s a tool for buttering matzo without breaking it (2006). Last year, someone patented a method for manufacturing streimels.
This is also the period in which we begin to see devices designed to exploit loopholes in Orthodox Jewish practice. The first Shabbat-friendly elevator is patented in 1975, the first Shabbat-friendly light switch in 1976, the first Shabbat-friendly lamp in 1987. There are improved pens and parchments for writing scripture, and electronic devices for checking that a scribe’s text is perfect. Last year, the Patent Office published a patent describing a method for removing body hair without shaving, designed to circumvent biblical and rabbinic prohibitions. For the purposes of figuring out which direction in which to pray, there is even a patent on a compass that appears to point east (2002).
In 1997, Jeffrey Clark invented a baseball cap that unzips to become a skullcap. This was, perhaps, the final step in the centuries-long integration of Jewish and American identities. It wasn’t just that Clark had combined the quintessential headgears of each culture into a single object. It was that Clark had figured out how to make money from the object, and in service of profit he had filed a patent for his creation.
As one browses Jewish patents, one gets a sense of just how many Jeffrey Clarks and Howard Skolniks there have been in last century. For these individuals, Judaism was just one more aspect of life that stood to be changed for the better—not through ideology and political power, but through technology and the marketplace. The Jewish patents in the USPTO are a record of an American religion as an economy, one affected by the evolving nature of the American consumer—and of American entrepreneurs looking to create value in domains both profane and sacred.
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