Electricity - The Prohibitions By Rabbi Howard Jachter

5757/1996

            Last week we focused on whether electrically produced fire can be used to fulfill the Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.  This week we will look at why our practice is to refrain from turning on electric appliances on Shabbat.

 

Incandescent Lights on Shabbat

            The first issue concerning electricity that confronted Halachic authorities was whether it is permissible to turn on an incandescent light on Shabbat (an incandescent light generates light by causing electric current to flow through a metal filament).  The resistance of the wire to the current flow generates light and heat. The overwhelming majority of Halachic authorities ruled that turning on an incandescent light constitutes a violation of the prohibition to create a fire on Shabbat (הבערה).  These rulings are primarily based on the following ruling of the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 21:1).  "One who heats a metal bar in order to temper it in water has violated the Biblical prohibition of lighting a flame."

            This ruling is codified as Halacha in Shaar Hatziun, Orach Chaim 812:1.  Since when one turns on an electric light he heats a metal filament until it glows, almost all the Halachic decisors decided that turning on an incandescent bulb is considered to be an act of הבערה.

            The following three citations illustrate the near unanimity of Halachic authorities regarding this issue.  Rav David Zvi Hoffman (a great early Twentieth Century authority) writes (Teshuvot Melamed Lehoil 94):

"The pasuk 'one may not create a fire on Shabbat in all your dwellings' describes the prohibition against creating fire of any sort.  Current flowing through a filament and causing it to glow creates fire despite the absence of a flame and regardless of whether that which is on fire is consumed.  Rambam's assertion that heating a metal is prohibited because of burning only proves this rule, and was not intended to limit it."

 

            In Teshuvot Doveiv Meishairim (78), Rav Dov Weidenfield (a great Twentieth Century authority known as the Tchebiner Rav) states that the position of those who rule that turning on lights is only a Rabbinic prohibition should not even be taken into consideration by discusses when rendering Halachic decisors regarding matters of electricity.

            Finally we should mention the well known anecdote recounted by Rav Soloveitchik and many others about the leading Halachic authority of the early Twentieth Century, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodinski, who used an incandescent bulb for Havdala to emphasize that a lit incandescent bulb constitutes "fire."

            The most extensive and authoritative discussion of this issue can be found in Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's work "Meorei Eish" and his Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo no. 21.

            Turning off an incandescent light, however, is considered to be only a Rabbinic violation (save for the opinion of the Chazon Ish as we shall see shortly).  This is because the only time an action is prohibited on Shabbat on a Torah level is when the prohibited work is done with the intention to have its conventional result occur; otherwise it is a מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופה.  For example, if one

continued on next page

 

were to dig a trench in the ground for the sole purpose of procuring earth and not to make a furrow, (the conventional intended purpose of the Biblical prohibition of חורש, plowing) although the action is physically identical to a prohibited Biblical action, the intention spares one from a Biblical violation.

            The Talmud teaches (see, for example the Mishna Shabbat 2:5) that extinguishing a flame מכבה() is Biblically prohibited only when the person who is doing the extinguishing desires the product of the extinguished flame  - פחם, carbon black, and not when one merely intends to remove the flame and have darkness.  Hence, since turning off a light is done only to eliminate light and not to produce carbon black, it is a מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופה and thus is prohibited only on a Rabbinic level.  (For a full discussion of this issue see Rav Auerbach's Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo no. 21).  It should be noted that Tosafot (Shabbat 34b s.v. דכולי) states that a מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופה is a very severe Rabbinic prohibition. 

 

Electric Appliances without Heated Filament

            Until now there has been virtual unanimity on the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. However, the question of why it is prohibited to turn on an electric appliance which does not have a glowing filament is mired in controversy.  We will examine three views of why it is accepted practice not to turn on such appliances.

 

Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes - Molid

            In a landmark responsum, Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes (Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak 2:13) ruled that completing an electric circuit thereby rendering an electric appliance functional, violates a Rabbinic prohibition.  Rabbi Shmelkes cites as a precedent the Gemara (Beitza 32a) which records the Rabbinic prohibition to be מוליד ריח - creating a new fragrant scent in one's clothes on Shabbat.  Rashi explains that it is prohibited because creating something new is similar to preforming a Biblically forbidden act."  After critically evaluating this ruling, Rav Auerbach concludes (Minchat Shlomo pp. 17-47) that Rav Shmelkes' responsum is the authoritative Halachic ruling on this matter (כבר הורה זקן).

 

Chazon Ish - Boneh

            A few decades after Rav Shmelkes issued his celebrated responsum, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Karlitz (Chazon Ish) presented an electrifying חידוש (innovative idea).  He ruled that completing an electric circuit constitutes a Torah prohibition of בונה, "building," and opening a circuit violates the Biblical prohibition of Soter, "destroying."  It should be noted that בונה does not refer only to  building a house, but (sometimes) even to assembling an object composed of different parts.  Similarly, completing a circuit is analogous to assembling an appliance composed of numerous parts.  Chazon Ish believes that it also may constitute מכה בפטיש (the last act performed on an object that renders it useful).  The Chazon Ish explains (in a letter addressed to Rav Auerbach published in Minchat Shlomo pp. 29-49) that completing a circuit brings a dead appliance to life and thus should be considered to be בונה.

            This ruling of the Chazon Ish aroused great debate among Halachic authorities.  In fact, Rav Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo no. 11) presents a vigorous critique of the ruling.  A major criticism of the Chazon Ish's assertion is that opening a circuit which is designed to be opened and closed routinely cannot be considered an act of building or destroying.  It appears that most authorities do not accept the Chazon Ish's ruling as correct.  Nevertheless, his ruling is taken into consideration by Halachic authorities (see Encyclopedia Talmudit 81:661 and Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 1:82:92).  Accordingly, the consensus view is that completing a circuit when there is no heated filament involved, constitutes only a Rabbinic prohibition.

 

Rav Yaakov Breish - Sparks

            Rav Breish (a twentieth century Halachic authority who lived in Switzerland) and others assert (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:55) that the prohibition violated when completing a circuit is a result of the sparks created by the switching on or off of an electric circuit.  This is prohibited, argues Rav Breish (and others) due to the prohibition to produce sparks on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Beitza 33a).

            Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo pp. 68-78) and others disagree with this assertion.  First, often these sparks are not visible to the naked eye.  Hence, Halacha would not take these sparks into consideration, as Halacha does not attach any significance to anything which the naked eye cannot discern (see Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 48:63 and Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:021:5).  Second, engineers seek to eliminate these sparks and in many new appliances there are no sparks created when opening and closing circuits.

            Moreover, there are quite a number of reasons to say it is not forbidden to create these sparks.  First, the prohibition to create these sparks is Rabbinic and not Biblical.  Second, this is not the usual manner of creating sparks, and even a Torah  prohibited act would be considered only a Rabbinic prohibition if it were performed only in an unusual manner (כלאחר יד).  Third, creating these sparks are Rabbinically prohibited because this is a destructive act (מקלקל) since these sparks in time damage the points of contact in the switch.  Fourth, these sparks are inconsequential, and hence even though if it were inevitable (פסיק רישא) that they would be created it would be permissible according to some authorities, since one does not benefit from the creation of the sparks (פסיק רישא דלא ניחא ליה).  Rav Auerbach cites Dagul Merevava (O.C. 043:3) who states that an action is permissible if all of these four lenient considerations are relevant (see, though, Mishna Berura 043:71). 

 

Conclusion

            Although there is near unanimity that turning on an incandescent bulb is a Biblical prohibition, rabbis do, however, debate whether completing a circuit when there is no heated filament is a Biblical or Rabbinic prohibition.  The consensus appears to side with Rav Auerbach that it is a Rabbinic prohibition.

Brain Death by Rabbi Howard Jachter

Electricity and Chanukah Lights by Rabbi Howard Jachter