Pikuach Nefesh and Medinat Yisrael - Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


            In preparation for Yom Haatzmaut, we will discuss an important Israeli Halachic issue, the permissibility of using electricity generated by Israeli power plants.  The problem is that we are forbidden by rabbinic edict to benefit from work performed by a Jew on Shabbat.  If electricity is generated by Jews in violation of Shabbat, then it is forbidden to be used on Shabbat.  Our reviews will focus on both questions regarding electricity generated by old power plants and newer ones.  The discussion will be based on an excellent essay regarding this topic authored by Rav Yisrael Rozen that appears in the current issue of the Israeli Torah journal Techumin.  Rav Rozen, who serves as the director of the Tzomet Institute in Gush Etzion, is eminently qualified to review this issue, as he is both an expert in Halacha and in engineering.



            Rav Rozen begins by stating a vitally important fact.  Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) cannot function properly without electricity.  It is not only a Pikuach Nefesh issue regarding hospitals, Tzahal (the Israel Defence Force), and the police.  Even street lighting is a matter of life and death, because if the streets were not lit, safety and security would be considerably reduced.  Moreover, refrigeration in many homes is necessary to preserve medicines for people whose lives depend on the them.  Rav Rozen writes, "Cases such of 'Safek Pikuach Nefesh' are widespread throughout Medinat Yisrael, and it is impossible to separate and direct the electricity exclusively to lines needed for Pikuach Nefesh, since the power plants all flow into one line."

            A second fundamental fact is that the workers and directors of the electric company have little control over electricity demand, so even if they wished to limit the use of electricity on Shabbat to essential needs, thereby eliminating unnecessary work at the power plant there is little chance that the greater public would listen.


Power Plant Workers - Rav Auerbach and Rav Goren

            Accordingly, both Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Shlomo Goren  (who served as the Askenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel during the seventies) ruled that it is permissible for power plant workers to violate Shabbat in order to enable Israeli power plants to function.


Benefitting From the Electricity - The Older Plants

            The next question is whether one may benefit from the power produced in older model power plants on Shabbat if the benefits for non-Pikuach Nefesh reasons.  Rav Goren (Meishiv Milchma p.366-385) ruled that it was forbidden to derive non-Pikuach Nefesh benefit from electricity produced on Shabbat in Israel.  The reason for this is as follows:  The Talmud (Chullin 15b) states that if one cooks for a dangerously ill person on Shabbat, that it is forbidden for any one besides the very sick person to benefit from the food during that Shabbat.  This rule is due to גזירה שמא ירבה בשבילו, concern that if it would be permitted for others to eat the food, then one would cook extra beyond what is necessary for the dangerously ill individual (ריבויי שיעורין, doing more than what is necessary for an ill person, is the subject of a significant debate among the Rishonim - Tosafot as opposed to the Rashba and the Ran - whether it is prohibited on a Torah or rabbinic level - the Mishna Berura 318:13 rules that it is forbidden on a Torah level).  Similarly, the concern is that if it would be permitted to benefit from electricity for non-Pikuach Nefesh needs on Shabbat, then more electricity would be produced than what is absolutely necessary for Shabbat.  Rav Goren writes that an exception to this rule is during the first few hours of Shabbat.  Since older model power plants require fuel to be added and the burner cleaned approximately every eight hours, Rav Goren rules that for the first few hours one may be תולה (assume) that no work was done yet on Shabbat.

            Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (widely seen as the leading authority regarding technology and Hilchot Shabbat) took a different approach than Rav Goren in a hitherto unpublished responsum.  He writes that the situation regarding electricity production is far more analogous to another rule that appears in the aforementioned Talmud passage.  The other rule is that if one slaughtered an animal to feed meat to a dangerously ill person on Shabbat, anyone may consume that meat on Shabbat.  The reason is that in this situation there is no concern of שמא ירבה בשבילו since אי אפשר לכזית בשר בלא שחיטה, it is impossible to obtain even the smallest amount of meat without slaughtering an entire animal.  Thus, one does the same amount of work even if people who are not dangerously ill will eat the meat on Shabbat.

            Similarly, the Mishna (Shabbat 122a) states that while a Jew may not benefit from the work done by a non-Jew on Shabbat, a Jew may use the light lit by a non-Jew for the non-Jews's benefit.  The Gemara explains that נר לאחד נר למאה, a light for one serves as light for one hundred as well.  Rashi explains that since the non-Jew lit the candle for his own sake, one does not say he did extra work on Shabbat on behalf of the Jew.

            Similarly, Rav Auerbach ruled that the production of electricity is analogous to the נר לאחד נר למאה and the אי אפשר לכזית בשר בלא שחיטה situations.  He writes:


since it is impossible to generate electricity for the benefit of ill individuals unless he adds fuel for non-Pikuach Nefesh needs as well, it is analogous to when one slaughters for a very sick person where everyone is permitted to eat the meat.


He adds that:


"It seems reasonable to say that it does not matter if the power plant worker intended to produce electricity for ill people, or for the needs of everyone in the country since it is impossible to produce electricity for only one individual without producing the others."


The Chillul Hashem Issue - The Chazon Ish

            Despite the persuasive ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, some Orthodox Jews in Israel refuse to benefit from the electricity produced in Israel on Shabbat.  The reason for this is a celebrated ruling issued by one of the outstanding authorities of the twentieth century, Rav Avraham Yeshua Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish.  He writes (Chazon Ish Orach Chaim 38:4):


If the electricity was produced by a Jew who is not observant of Shabbat, it is forbidden to benefit from it.  Even if it is a situation in which the Halacha technically permits benefiting from the electricity produced, it is forbidden to benefit from the electricity since it is a Chillul Hashem to benefit from public services which are conducted in a manner that desecrates the Shabbat.  One who benefits from the electricity produced in this manner indicates that his heart is not pained by the Chillul Shabbat.  May it be God's will that everyone should speedily commit to  complete Teshuva.


            The Chazon Ish also seems to be concerned with the criticism often voiced by our non-observant brethren in Israel.  Some critics often say that it is not practical to live a Torah lifestyle and that even those who abide by the Torah are able to do so only because of the work done by those who do not observe the Torah.  The Chazon Ish seems to have believed that benefitting from the electricity produced in Israel on Shabbat would strengthen the voices of our critics.



            The situation today is drastically different than it was when these responsa were written a number of decades ago.  Next week we shall conclude our discussion of Pikuach Nefesh and Medinat Yisrael with a discussion of news issues regarding this topic.

                  חג שמח לכל עם ישראל!!!

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