Can Electricity Be Used on the Jewish Shabbat?
By: Michael Yadegari on Oct 06, 2013 10:20:00 PM

Michael Yadegari
August 21, 2009
Jewish Law 


Can Electricity Be Used on the Jewish Shabbat?


Electricity is one of newest and most used discoveries of the 21th century. Due to the fact that it is a newly discovered force it is hard to uncover whether it is truly not allowed to be used Shabbat since the Torah does not mention that it is forbidden to use electricity on Shabbat. This brings us to use outside sources such as the Mishna and the Talmud and other reasoning to find out whether it is forbidden to use electricity on Shabbat. Using these sources, the rabbis have argued for why it is not allowed for one to use electricity on the Shabbat. Though these arguments are interesting, they are rebutted. Through compromise using the scope of the Torah and the understanding of today’s modern society there can be a solution to this religious dilemma.


I.          What is Electricity?

Before we get into the discussion of various rabbis bring for why electricity is not allowed on Shabbat, we need to first explain what electricity is. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), “electricity is a flow of electric power or charge. It is a secondary energy source which means that we get it from the conversion of other sources of energy, like coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear power and other natural sources, which are called primary sources.” From these sources the moving electrons transmit electrical energy from one point to another through wires or other electrical conductors.


II.        Theories why electricity is not allowed on Shabbat

In this part of the article it will address speak the two main uses of electricity and how the rabbis argument for and against that particular use. The two main uses of electricity are turning on or off and raising or dimming an incandescent light and uses of electricity where no heat is produced.  Afterwards, it will speak on the uses of electricity in certain appliance, using electricity on a Jewish holiday and why a timer is allowed to be used on Shabbat.   


A.   Reasoning forbidding the turning on and off of an incandescent light

The rabbis use the Mishna, Shabbat 41a and the Talmud of Yoma 34b to explain why incandescent lights are not allowed on the Shabbat. The Mishnah writes “One who heats a metal pot [literally, a boiler] may not pour cold water into it to heat it; however, one may pour water into the pot or a cup in order to temper it.” (Article) The Talmud which is the commentary on the Mishnah in Yoma 34b states that if the High Temple Priest had a problem immersing himself in a cold Mikva (a spiritual cleansing bath) then iron bars were heated prior to Yom Kippur and placed into the Mikvah in order to warm up the Mikvah. The Maggid Mishneh (commenting on Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 12:1) points out that if the Talmud regarded heating a metal as only a rabbinic level prohibition, it would have allowed the heating the metal rods on Yom Kippur to heat up the Mikvah. ( However, there is a problem with this opinion because previously fire was used and fire is directly forbidden on Shabbat by the Torah. And because fire is forbidden on Shabbat it would be forbidden for one to directly use the fire in order to heat up a rod for its use on Shabbat. In addition to this, it is forbidden to heat up water on Shabbat because the torah forbids any cooking on Shabbat so it could be that the rabbis didn’t allow the metal rod to be placed in the water for the reason that it would “cook” the water thus it was made forbidden to put a metal rod into the fire because one would intend to use it to heat up the water. Furthermore, it does not state anything about heating a metal rod for the use of light, thus this argument the rabbis made is still flawed. 

 Another argument that Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman brings is that the verse “One may not create a fire on Shabbat in all your dwellings" (Exodus 35:3) describes the prohibition against creating fire of any sort. (Broyde & Jachter Article or Article) He concludes from this that since the Torah states that it is not allowed to light an incandescent light in one’s home on Shabbat. This argument is not only flawed but extremely misunderstood by the rabbis. The reason for this is due to the lack of understanding of what electricity really is. As stated above how scientist explain electricity, there is no similarities between electricity and fire. When someone says the word fire what comes to mind is a flame of some kind whether it is a candle stick flame or some dramatic bonfire. However, on the other hand when someone says the word electricity you think lightning, wires and light bulbs etc. This example shows a distinct difference between the two and find that the rabbis tried to make similarities with fire and electricity but this is neither logical or convincing.

The rabbis never truly addressed the problem of using electricity to heat a filament on the Shabbat with the first argument of cooking because it could have been why we today aren’t allowed to even take cold water and put it over a fire or use electrify to boil the water but because we aren’t allowed to heat up a piece of metal. Secondly they never showed a clear similarity between fire and electricity. To do this they must show that they are physically identical with the same elements in order for them to state that the torah forbids one to do a certain act.

            Furthermore, there are two arguments that the rabbis give for why one is not allowed to turn off lights on Shabbat. The first argument uses the biblical prohibition that states that “an action is prohibited on Shabbat is when the prohibited work is done for its direct consequences and that the prohibited result must occur.” However, we see that in the Talmud it states that extinguishing a flame is biblically prohibited only when the person who is doing the extinguishing desires the product of the extinguished flame (e.g., ashes (carbon black) or dirt) and not when one "merely" intends to remove the flame and have darkness. (Broyde & Jachter Article) Therefore, this is not a biblical prohibition but a rabbinical prohibition. The rabbis analogize this to the incandescent light bulb since it’s another method of making light. However, there is a problem with this because the Talmud only has the prohibition of extinguishing a flame only if it is for one to desire the by product which is the ashes etc. On the other hand, an incandescent light bulb doesn’t produce any by product so according to the Torah there is no problem.

Furthermore, Rabbi Auerbach claims “that turning off a light by turning off the switch is analogous to removing all the fuel from an oil lamp on Shabbat in manner which does not directly extinguish the flame, thus is not a biblical prohibition but a rabbinical prohibition.


B.    Reasoning forbidding the raising or dimming of an incandescent light

Raising the intensity of an already glowing light bulb on Shabbat consists of a different issue than whether one can turn on a light bulb. Some rabbis think that raising the intensity of an already existing light is analogous to reheating an item which is already cooked which is allowed on Shabbat. On the other hand, the Chazon Ish disagrees and states that since increasing the intensity of the light creates additional heating it isn’t analogous to reheating cooked food therefore it is a biblical prohibition. There exists a problem with the Chazon Ish’s logic. The reason it is flawed is because there is no prohibition in the Torah that does not allow for increasing heat. There is a prohibition that one is not allowed to increase a fire, however there is no prohibition for increasing heat. For example, if I wanted to increase the heat in my bed, there would be no rabbi that would not allow for me to get another blanket and cover myself to increase the heat. Heat and fire are different elements and this must be recognized.   

Dimming or lowering an incandescent light is not a biblical violation. The reason for this is that the only time an action is prohibited on Shabbat is when the prohibited work is done for its direct consequences and that the prohibited result must occur. The example given in the Broyde article is one disposing water in a field without the intent of watering the field spares one from the biblical prohibition. However, as stated above there is a problem with this because the Talmud only has the prohibition of extinguishing a flame only if it is for one to desire the by product which is the ashes and not when one wants to have darkness. Thus, it does not seem to be a Biblical prohibition to turn on, off, raise or dim an incandescent light, but rather only a rabbinic prohibition.


III.           Six reasons forbidding the uses of electricity in certain appliance

In addition to the turning on and off lights there are other uses of electricity that do not use light or a filament such as computers or other such circuit boards. As stated previously there is no real evidence in the Torah that prohibits the use of electricity, but in order to investigate whether one may or may not do certain things we will try to analyze as the rabbis did before in the previous sections. There are six main reasons why the rabbis forbid the use of electricity on Shabbat. They state that by turning on an appliance you are either, creating something new, building, completing an appliance, creating sparks, creating additional fuel consumption, and/or heating a wire.



A.   Creating Something New on Shabbat


Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes states that just as one is not allowed to create a new scent by placing perfume on ones clothes, so to one is not allowed to create a current causing a functioning appliance. However, many rabbis disagree with this line of thinking because creative acts are not things that are done and undone routinely. Those types of acts cannot be considered creative. Furthermore, the rabbis who disagree with him also state that just because one is not allowed to place a fragrance on ones clothes does not forbid him from all new creations on Shabbat. One is allowed to put fragrance on other things other than ones clothes such as place fragrant in the bathroom after ones use or in a room to make the room smell good. Furthermore, this argument is also flawed because you aren’t even creating something new when you put that electricity in the item. The thing was already created and it just uses the energy from the batteries or plug to function as it had in the past. Creating something new would be for example, someone taking a piece of clay, molding it into a cup letting it dry and then using it to drink from. That is the real definition of creation, not the mere turning on a switch to let the thing use energy to function in the way it used to in the past.



B.   Building  on Shabbat

Rabbi Karelitz states that the completion of a live circuit constitutes a forbidden act of building on Shabbat. He believes “that completing a circuit renders a previously useless wire into a functional wire, and this is analogous to competing a building or wall. In addition, completing a circuit is analogous to assembling an appliance composed of numerous parts - which Halacha (Jewish law) defines as building - and is thus prohibited on Shabbat.” (Article) However, Rabbi Auerbach argues that opening a circuit which is designed to be opened and closed routinely cannot be considered an act of building or destroying. He uses the most perfect example of a door which can be modified to become a valve of a sink etc. He states that just like a door which the Halacha does not consider to be building since the door is intended to be opened and closed. Moreover, the Achronim (the leading rabbis and poskim (Jewish legal decisors) living from roughly the 16th century to the present) agree with Rabbi Aurebach and state “that turning on an electrical circuit does not violate the prohibition of fixing an object or building.” (Article) Furthermore, agreeing with Rabbi Auerbach’s reasoning when one turns on the item so that the flow of electricity goes through, one doesn’t think in their mind “I just built the moving toy train.” One thinks in their mind I made the train function which is a different word than building.


C.   Completing an Appliance on Shabbat

Some rabbis argue that you can’t use electrical appliances because prior to the addition of electricity to the appliance the applicant was rendered useless but for the electricity now it is useful. For example, for one to sit on this chair that has 3 legs he must put the last leg on, so once he put that last leg on it is now a complete chair. However, two rabbis disagree with this reasoning because they argue that since the appliance was designed to be turned on and off frequently the action of adding electricity should not be categorized as, completing an appliance. Additionally, this is flawed reasoning is because the electrical item is already complete. You do not need to add any extra screws or any wire to complete the item. Thus essentially the electrical item is essentially complete and no one would state that the electric oven is not complete just because it isn’t turned on. Moreover, the rabbis state that it doesn’t require much effort like one building a chair as one turning on an electrical appliance. Thus they state that it cannot fit into this category of forbidden acts.


D.   Creating Sparks on Shabbat

The rabbis made a prohibition against producing sparks from wood or stones and maintained that since electrical appliances create sparks it is prohibited. However, there are many factors that indicate that the prohibition is not applicable to electrical appliances. “The first is that these sparks were created unintentionally and no prohibition exists when there is no intent to perform an action on Shabbat and that action might not occur. Second, since these sparks are so small that one cannot detect any heat when touching them, and typically they are not visible, it is possible that these sparks should not be considered fire. Additionally, the advent of solid state technology and sparkless switches frequently makes this issue technologically moot. Thus, Rabbi Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo pp.86-87) states "practically there isn't even a rabbinic prohibition in the unintentional creation of sparks." (Article) Moreover, the rabbis need to understand that these spark are different than sparks produced by friction (fire sparks – rubbing to rocks together etc). This causes a misunderstanding between what is a fire and what is electricity and needs to be reevaluated.


E.   Additional Fuel Consumption on Shabbat

The author of Chashmal Leor Halacha raises another possible problem with using electrical appliance. He states that by one turning on an electrical appliance and causing a current flow sometimes causes additional fuel to be consumed by the power station as a result of the increased need for electricity. Because of an increased need for electricity this causes additional fuel to be consumed which is considered in the category of burning which is forbidden on a biblical level. Therefore, it might be forbidden to turn on an electrical appliance on Shabbat.  This argument is rebutted by Rabbi Auerbach. He states that by turning on an appliance one is only indirectly causing increased fuel consumption. Moreover, when one turns on one appliance a significant amount of fuel consumption is not inevitable or even likely. The reason he gives for that is electricity is used by the entire area surrounding the power station. So it is very possible that when one person turns off a light, another person in that same area turned on a light and vice versa. Thus, this eliminates the need for increased electric output. Furthermore, other people in the city are using the electricity as well as the Jews and Jewish people are almost always the minority in cities around the world except in Israel. Thus, since most of the people that are using electricity in the city are not Jewish thus we can conclude that Jews are not the ones causing any changes in the power station.


F.    Heating a Wire or Filament

The Chazon Ish brings another argument against the use of electricity arguing that “when electricity passes through a wire, this action increases the wire's temperature above the temperature at which a human hand pulls away because of the heat, it is considered to be an act of "cooking" and thus prohibited.” (Article) The Chazon Ish states that “this "cooking" is prohibited even though the person who turns on the appliance is unaware that it is occurring and does not intend that there be any "cooking."” (Article)  On the other hand, Rabbi Auerbach disagrees by saying “that a metal wire can only be "cooked" when one intends to soften (or temper) the metal and it glows.” (Article) Furthermore, even though one may argue that the wire maybe lightly softened when the electricity passes through, however once the electricity is turned off the wire instantaneously returns to its original state. Moreover, to rebut the Chazon Ish’s argument that even thought the person doesn’t intend to cook the wire, Rabbi Auerbach states “the person who turns on an appliance has no intention to soften the wires; hence this action cannot be defines as "cooking" from the perspective of halacha.” In addition to Rabbi Auerbach’s argument, most of the time electricity doesn’t even heat up the metal. It only does this when the metal is coiled up. In most appliances the wires in the appliance are not hot, however if you uncover them and touch them you will get electrocuted. This is a different type of burn than one that one gets with fire. Lastly, “in the last twenty years, solid state technology has become dominant, and fewer and fewer appliances have wires that are heated (vacuum tubes), thus making this argument factually obsolete.” (Article)



IV.          Other arguments against the use of Electricity

A.   Electricity is Implicitly Fire 

One of my colleagues suggested that in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 10, verse 1, where the sons of Aaron the Priest, Nadab and Abihu were killed for taking their censers and offering God a strange fire, it states that they were killed with a fire from the heavens. However, this fire wasn’t a natural fire it since it states that they were not burnt in the way a natural fire would burn them. It seems as if they were electrocuted by some sort of lightning. The fact that the Torah calls this a fire from the heavens can implicitly mean that electricity is considered fire by the Torah. However, one would question this by stating that it may not have been electricity, since it could have been some other power or force that God used to kill Nadab and Abihu. This fire does not necessarily how to be electricity and we do not know for sure if it was in fact electricity. Thus, since we are not sure what kind of energy killed the son, we cannot just assume that the “fire” was electricity.

B.   Electricity Already Essentially Exist

When the Torah forbids one to create a fire on Shabbat, the rabbis translate that to mean that one may not create a fire by lighting a match or turning on a stove or using friction to create the fire. This is considered work according to the 39 types of forbidden work. The problem with electricity being considered fire is not going to be address as it was above but the fact that it is already in existence and ready for consumption is something that is not created. Thus, even though if one believes that electricity is equivalent to fire, one is not creating a fire since it already exists. For example, when you need to light a bon fire you light a match and pour gas over the wood and light the wood on fire. On the other hand, electricity is like water from a dam, one can open a valve and allow the water to pour out of the spout. Thus, the prohibition of using electricity is not violated since you are not creating a fire due to the very fact that it already exists.


V.           Electricity and Lights on Jewish holiday

Some would wonder why there is a different section for Jewish holidays than for Shabbat.  The reason is that on Shabbat there are more laws that are not allowed but are allowed on the Jewish holidays. One such difference that is extremely relevant to our discussion is the allowance of cooking and the ability for one to transfer a fire or lower or higher a flame on the holiday which is forbidden on Shabbat. However, it still is not permitted to light a fire on the Jewish holiday, thus some authorities that hold that lighting a fire is similar to turning on a light state that it is prohibited to turn on electricity on shabbat. However, there are other rabbis who argue on the contrary.

            There are three main reasons why the rabbis argue that it is permissible to turn on lights on Jewish holidays.  The first reason is that “turning on a light is only indirectly causing the light to go on. This type of indirect action, while generally prohibited on Shabbat, is permitted for rabbinically prohibited actions on the Jewish holiday. The second reason is the prohibition to create a new flame is only violated by using wood, flint, or matches which will not directly contribute to food for Jewish holiday or which could have been done before Jewish holiday began. Neither of these arguments are applicable to creating new light or heat through electricity. The third reason is turning on an incandescent light actually is the equivalent of only transferring a flame, and not creating a new light, as the flame already resides in the wires, as I explained in the argument directly above.” (Article) However, some point out that reasons one and two are unrelated to the topic, as they address the question from the perspective of the laws of the Jewish holidays by stating that indirect lighting of a flame is permitted on Jewish holidays while prohibited on Shabbat. They argue further that they do not use any particular insight into the nature of electricity according to Jewish law. The third reason has been generally rejected since the rabbis feel that this was a flawed understanding of the physical properties of electricity. To further the arguments against using electricity on Shabbat, they believe out of the six reasons prohibiting the use of electrical appliances on Shabbat, five are equally applicable to Jewish holidays. “For example, if switching on a circuit during Shabbat is prohibited because of building then turning on such a circuit on the Jewish holiday is also prohibited. (Article)” However, each one of those reasons have been questioned of their correct reasoning.


VI.          Loopholes to Use Electricity on Shabbat

In order to use electricity on Shabbat, there are loopholes that permit one to use electricity on Shabbat. The way orthodox Jews use electricity on Shabbat is by the use of a timer. To understand why orthodox Jews use a timer the following section will explain whether it is permitted to set a timer on Friday so that a prohibited action will take place on Shabbat.  In the Talmudic discussion, Shabbat 17b-18a, Rambam states: “It is permitted to start an action on Friday even though that action is completely on Shabbat, since it is only forbidden to start work on Shabbat. However, when the work is done by itself on Shabbat, it is permitted to benefit from that work. So too, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 252:1) states: It is permitted to start an action on Friday near darkness even though the work cannot be completed on Friday and can only be finished on Shabbat.” (Article) However, there were two exceptions to this rule. The first exception that the Talmud states is “one may not place a dish of water around a flame (which is emitting sparks) on Friday lest one shift the water on Shabbat and thus extinguish the flame.” The second exception is the Talmud states that “it is prohibited to add wheat on Friday to a water mill that runs automatically on Shabbat, since the mill produces a large amount of noise and this noise denigrates Shabbat and people might say that the owner of the mill is running it on Shabbat.” (Article)  Even though there are these two exceptions to the rule, many of the Achronim allow one to set a Shabbat timer on Friday to turn on an appliance on Shabbat. (Article)


VII.     Conclusion


After reading different articles on the reasons forbidding the use of electricity on Shabbat, it seems as if it is a rabbinical decree rather than a biblical decree. In Jewish law there are ways for rabbis to keep certain things under control by “putting a fence around the Torah.” This means that even if it is not exactly what it states in the Torah but if it is close enough that one might violate a commandment they prohibited it so it would not happen that the Jew may sin. This is like in the case that the Torah doesn’t state anything about not eating chicken and cheese together only speaks of red meat (such as cow), the rabbis made a decree that since chicken is close to being meat one may confuse themselves and eat meat and cheese since chicken and meat are similar. Although the rabbis did make some interesting arguments above with the 6 main reasons why electricity is not to be used, those arguments are not as strong as the rebuttals since the rebuttals make more logical sense. However, there is more research and discovery to be made with the use of electricity and how it can be made permitted to use on Shabbat. For example, using a computer or television for leisure should be made allowed since Shabbat is the day of rest and relaxation, so if a person relaxes by the use of a computer or television is should be permitted. Therefore, it seems as if the rabbis need to relook at the previous arguments made and try to reason what uses of electricity can or cannot be done on Shabbat.






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