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


              Last week, we outlined the views of Rav Shlomo Goren, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and the Chazon Ish regarding the use of electricity produced on Shabbat in Israel.  This week we will conclude our discussion by summarizing Rav Yisrael Rozen's presentation of the issue regarding the newer models of electric power plants (Rav Rozen's essay appears in the sixteenth volume of Techumin).

Today's Power Plants

              The older power plants we discussed last week required that fuel be added to the furnace approximately every eight hours to create steam to move the turbines.  Today's power plants are fully automated and thus the concern that a Jew has produced power on Shabbat has diminished.  Rav Rozen describes how electricity is generated automatically, and as long as demand is relatively stable, the flow of fuel and regulation of the steam production is entirely automatic.

              Telephone calls are made and notations recorded as part of running the power plant on Shabbat.  Rav Rozen notes that it is indeed possible that such writing may be considered a "Pikuach Nefesh need" as the power plant cannot run properly without recording vital information and without strict administrative supervision (see Nishmat Avraham I, Orach Chaim 340:6 for a detailed discussion regarding the conditions that permit physicians and hospital administrators to write on Shabbat and Yom Tov).  In any case, writes Rav Rozen, when considering when to apply the prohibition of benefiting from work performed by a Jew on Shabbat, these "incidental activities" need not be taken into account.  The power plant can, technically speaking, operate without such administrative work, and therefore electricity consumers are not considered to be directly benefitting from such activities.

              The Halacha is similar regarding maintenance activities that take place on Shabbat in Israeli power plants, in violation of Shabbat.  The burners are cleaned every shift in violation of Shabbat, and non-emergency repairs take place on Shabbat to take advantage of the lowered demand for electricity.  These activities are not essential to the functioning of the power plant and thus one is not directly benefitting from these activities on Shabbat.

              When, God willing, the State of Israel will run according to Torah law, the administrative routine can be adjusted to limit work done on Shabbat to what is absolutely essential.  For example, the burners can be cleaned immediately prior to Shabbat and immediately after Shabbat.  In the meantime, it is permissible to benefit from electricity produced in Israeli power plants.      Nevertheless, the Chazon Ish's public policy concern of Chillul Hashem that we discussed last week appears to still be relevant, as the power plans do not (as yet) function in accordance with Halacha (also see Encyclopedia Talmudit 18:747 for a review of other leading authorities who authored responsa on this issue such as Rav Zvi Pesach Frank, Rav Chaim David Halevi, The Steipler Rav and Rav Wosner). 

Changing Electricity Demand

              An exception to the complete automation of the power plant is when a major change in electricity demand occurs.  An increase or decrease of 10% or more requires human intervention in the form of turning electric switches on or off or punching orders into a computer.  Such actions involve biblically prohibited activities such as %"39% (burning), ,"&* (extinguishing a fire), /":‑ (cooking), and "&1% (building).  They involve Rabbinically prohibited activities such as /&‑*$ (creating an electric current flow) and /;80 /1! /$9"10 (repairing utensils).  Rav Rozen writes that the workers are permitted to make these adjustments since the power plants cannot serve Pikuach Nefesh needs without these adjustments.  The question Rav Rozen raises is whether consumers are obligated to do their part to avoid causing such changes in electric demand.

Causes of Change of Electric Demand

              Rav Rozen reports that the ten percent changes in electric demand most often occur as a result of mass turning on and off of street lamps at dawn or dusk as well as changes in large industrial usage such as by Israel's national water carrier (/&"*‑ %!97*).

              However, Rav Rozen writes that it is theoretically possible for the religious community to reduce such major changes in electricity demand by avoiding the use of automatic timers to turn on and off electric appliances on Shabbat.  The question is, are we obligated to take such precautions to avoid having power plant workers do work on Shabbat that is permissible, since it is done for Pikuach Nefesh purposes.

Avoiding doing work for Pikuach Nefesh purposes

              We saw a number of weeks ago that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 248:4) codifies the Baal Hamaor's explanation as to why the Talmud forbids embarking on a boat trip taken for discretionary purposes within three days of Shabbat.  Baal Hamaor explains that it is because "it appears that he is putting himself into a situation where he will have to do work on Shabbat for Pikuach Nefesh purposes."  We see that we should avoid, even on the days prior to Shabbat, situations where the need would arise to do work on Shabbat for Pikuach Nefesh purposes.  The question is, does this obligation require us to avoid the use of timers in Israel on Shabbat?  No major Halachic authority (to this author's knowledge - except for Rav Moshe Feinstein - for different reasons altogether) has ruled that one may not use timers in Israel on Shabbat (and Halachic authorities have written extensively the issue of the use of "Shabbat timers," see Encyclopedia Talmudit 18:672-686).

Three Lenient Considerations

              There are at least three considerations which explain why we are not required to avoid using timers on Shabbat in Israel.  The first is that the Talmud teaches that one may take a boat trip prior to Shabbat if the trip is undertaken ‑$"9 /7&% (for the purpose of fulfilling a Mitzva).  The Shulchan Aruch (O.C.248:4) includes in his definitions of $"9 /7&%, a trip taken to Israel (thereby fulfilling the great Mitzva of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael).  Accordingly, not using timers on Shabbat would greatly increase fuel consumption which would increase Israel's dependence on imported oil, and thus impact adversely on Israel's economy and security.

              The second consideration is based on an interesting responsum written by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbuch (Minchat Shlomo number seven).  Rav Shlomo Zalman demonstrates that one is not obligated to cause himself great inconvenience to avoid others having to work on Shabbat for Pikuach Nefesh purposes.  For example, nurses at a hospital are permitted on Shabbat use hot water prepared prior to Shabbat in order to have hot water on Shabbat, even though later on during Shabbat more hot water will be needed to be made for dangerously ill patients in the hospital.  Similarly, if your neighbor falls dangerously ill on Shabbat, you are not required to give the neighbor his hot water or food in order to prevent the neighbor's family from having to cook on Shabbat (one of the sources for this ruling is the Rema, Yoreh Deah 374:2, who rules that a Kohen does not have to spend money to hire workers to avoid his having to bury a /; /7&;, a dead person with no one to bury him).  Accordingly, one may conduct himself in a normal manner on Shabbat (and certainly before Shabbat), even though it may indirectly lead to someone else doing work on Shabbat because of Pikuach Nefesh.  Similarly, we may set timers prior to Shabbat even though this may cause a power plant worker to do work on Shabbat for the sake of Pikuach Nefesh.

              The third consideration, Rav Rozen points out, is that the chance that a particular consumer's timer will be the "straw that breaks the camel's back" to cause the ten percent change in the national electric demand is virtually nil.  Although, had all consumers desisted from setting their timers, much less work would have to be done on Shabbat, Rav Rozen argues that each individual is responsible only for the changes caused by his actions.


              Although Israel's power plants do not run in accordance with Halacha, one is nevertheless permitted to benefit from the electricity produced by Israeli power plants in today's age of automation.  In addition, there is no need to avoid setting electric timers prior to Shabbat.  Nevertheless, as we prepare to praise Hashem on Yom Haatzmaut for giving us Medinat Yisrael, we Religious Zionists look forward to the time when every aspect of the State of Israel will be run according to Halacha.

              We have also seen the importance of obtaining accurate, updated, and detailed information in order to render Halachic decisions in increasingly complex times.  Rav Rozen's essay is a model of the Halachic and scientific sophistication necessary to rule on today's difficult issues.

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