Since the introduction of electric appliances in the late nineteenth century, Posekim have endeavored to find a compelling explanation for why electric appliances that do not have a heated filament (such as LED lights and air conditioners) are forbidden on Shabbat. Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have referred to this issue as “an enigma” and Rav Moshe Feinstein is said to have called this problem “a riddle.
I review the variety of opinions and approaches in a chapter of Gray Matter Volume IV. However, Rav Asher Weiss, one of the great Posekim of our generation, recently released a volume of responsa entitled Teshuvot Minchat Asher which includes a breakthrough and compelling approach that seems to finally resolve our problem. In this series, we shall first review the classic approaches and then next week, IY”H and B”N, present Rav Weiss’ simple but elegant resolution of this great riddle and enigma.
Six Classic Approaches to Electricity without a Filament
Approach #1 – Molid
Among the first suggestions of the basis for prohibiting such appliances was Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes’s assertion (Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak 2:31 in the addendum) that creating a functioning electric appliance is analogous to the rabbinic prohibition to create a new fragrance in one's clothes on Shabbat and Yom Tov, known as Molid Reichah (Beitzah 23a). He argues that Molid Zerem, creating a flow of current into an appliance, is analogous to Molid Reichah, and accordingly, powering an appliance with electric current constitutes a rabbinic prohibition.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1 pp.73-74) questions Rav Schmelkes’s analogy. He notes that in the case of Molid Reicha, one intends for the scent to remain in the clothes, and the clothing is not made to have scents added or removed. Electric appliances, on the other hand, are made to be turned on and off. Therefore, one has not truly created anything new. Moreover, Rav Shlomo Zalman notes that Chazal did not forbid the creation of every new substance. For example, they never forbade making juice from fruits that are not normally squeezed for juice. Thus, one cannot expand the prohibition of Molid Reichah to Molid Zerem or to anything else not explicitly prohibited by Chazal, since there is, in Rav Shlomo Zalman’s view, no broad categorical prohibition to create something new on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
Approach #2 – Boneh
The second major approach to prohibit powering electric appliances without a heated element was articulated by the Chazon Ish (O.C. 50:9 and in letters to Rav Shlomo Zalman printed in Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1 pp. 92-94). He suggests that completing an electric circuit constitutes a Torah-level prohibition of Boneh (building), and, conversely, opening a circuit is an act of Soteir (destroying). He argues that completing a circuit is analogous to assembling an appliance consisting of many parts (see Shabbat 57a and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 313:6), which is prohibited if one does so in a form that can last. Additionally, the Chazon Ish asserts that when one completes a circuit, he has in effect created a new vessel, since the appliance was unusable before the introduction of the current. Creating a new Keli is prohibited as an act of Boneh (Shabbat 102b). The Chazon Ish claims that by completing the circuit, one has brought the appliance “from death to life.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:11) questions these assertions of the Chazon Ish. His primary argument is that an act that is intended to be done and undone on a regular basis is not defined as Boneh. Rav Shlomo Zalman sees opening and closing an electric circuit as analogous to opening and closing a door, which does not constitute Boneh and undoubtedly is permissible on Shabbat (see Mishnah Berurah 313:45). Rav Shlomo Zalman also questions the assertion that bringing something “from death to life” constitutes an act of Boneh. He notes that planting a shoot in the earth or grafting a tree is forbidden on Shabbat as Zorei’a (planting) but not as Boneh, even though doing so brings the shoot from death to life.
Approach #3 – Makeh BePatish
The Chazon Ish (ad. loc.) also asserts that completing an electric circuit constitutes an act of Makeh BePatish (literally, “the [final] blow of a hammer”), the Melachah that involves finishing a product and making it useful (Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 23:4). Just as the final blow of a hammer transforms a useless item into a functional product, so too one who powers an appliance with electric current changes a useless article into something useful. As precedent, the Chazon Ish cites the ruling of the Chayei Adam (44:19), which forbids winding a watch on Shabbat as a Torah-level prohibition of Makeh BePatish.
Rav Shlomo Zalman (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo pp. 69-73 and 101-102) again questions the Chazon Ish. He argues, “It is very reasonable to say that something that is done one hundred times a day cannot be classified as Makeh BePatish.” He also writes that he is inclined to believe that “Makeh BePatish applies specifically when an item is missing something significant that craftsmen generally perform and [afterwards] remains this way permanently.” Since, reasons Rav Shlomo Zalman, completing an electric circuit is a simple process that anyone can perform, and it is in fact performed constantly, it cannot be classified as Makeh BePatish.
In addition, the Encyclopedia Talmudit (18:166) notes that all of the great Posekim who preceded the Chazon Ish in discussing the use of electricity on Shabbat never even raised the possibility that completing an electric circuit constituting an act of Boneh or Makeh BePatish. These authorities include Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes (Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak ad loc.), Rav David Zvi Hoffman (Teshuvot Melamed LeHo’il 1:49), and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Teshuvot Achiezer 3:60). Indeed, in Rav Moshe Feinstein’s writings addressing the prohibition of turning on electricity on Shabbat, he never presents the Chazon Ish's approach (see Teshuvot Igrot Moshe O.C. 1:50, 3:42, 4:84, and 4:85). These Posekim seem not to accept the assertion of the Chazon Ish that completing a circuit constitutes an act of Boneh and Makeh BePatish.
Approach #4 – Sparks
Both Rav David Zvi Hoffman and the Chazon Ish note that it is prohibited to complete circuits due to the sparks that are created in the process. They argue that the sparks generated when completing an electric circuit fall under the rabbinic prohibition to create sparks from wood or stones (Mishnah, Beitzah 4:7).
Rav Shlomo Zalman (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1 pp. 86-87) strongly questions this assertion. He notes that one does not intend to create these sparks; in fact, one does not want them at all, since they wear out the points of contact in a circuit. Although the sparks certainly will be created, the lack of intention and desire for their creation labels the action as a Pesik Reisha DeLo Nichah Lei, a definite, unintended, undesired result of his actions, which constitutes only a Rabbinic prohibition (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 320:18). In addition, Rav Shlomo Zalman argues that this is considered an unusual manner (KeLeAchar Yad) to create sparks, since one never completes a circuit with the intention of creating sparks. Accordingly, Rav Auerbach argues that there should be no Halachic problem associated with the creation of such sparks.
He draws an analogy to a ruling of the Dagul MeiRevavah (O.C. 340:3), who permits cutting a cake on Shabbat even though it has letters written on it. This permission is based on a combination of the fact that he has no intention to erase the letters, erasing when not done for the purpose of writing is only a rabbinic prohibition, it is a destructive act (Mekalkeil), and this is a KeLeAchar Yad manner of erasing. Accordingly, since the creation of sparks in general is only a rabbinic prohibition, one does not intend to create sparks when completing an electric circuit, it is an unusual manner to create sparks, and the sparks damage the circuit, the creation of sparks when completing an electric circuit does not constitute a prohibited act on Shabbat.
We should note, though, that Rema (ad. loc.) does prohibit slicing a cake with letters on it. Although the Sha’arei Teshuvah (340:1) fully accepts the ruling of the Dagul MeiRevavah, and the Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 340:23) essentially supports it, the Mishnah Berurah (340:16) does not fully accept this lenient ruling. Indeed, common practice is to avoid cutting the letters on a cake on Shabbat in accordance with the ruling of Rema.
On the other hand, the fact that Halachah attaches no significance to something that is not visible to the “naked eye” (see Aruch HaShulchan Y.D. 84:36 and Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:120:5) is another consideration to discount these sparks. The Encyclopedia Talmudit (18:734) notes that turning on appliances that operate on a relatively low voltage does not create visible sparks. Moreover, the production of sparks depends to a great extent on humidity. Thus, since it is not truly inevitable (Pesik Reisha) that sparks will be produced, it remains an unintended, non-definite action (Davar SheEino Mitkavein), which is permitted on Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 337:1).
Approach #5 – Increased Fuel Consumption
Some have suggested that it is forbidden to complete an electric circuit on Shabbat because it leads to increased fuel consumption in the power station. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata 1:23 footnote 137) dismisses this concern for two reasons. Firstly, the connection between one's action and its impact in the power plant is remote and is classified as Geramah (indirect action). Moreover, in the vast majority of situations, one’s actions do not impact the fuel consumption in the power station.
Approach #6 – Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach
Rav Auerbach concludes (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1 pp. 74, 84, and 95) that completing an electric circuit and creating a flow of electrons essentially is no different than turning on a faucet and creating a flow of water. He believes that the only technical prohibitions potentially associated with electricity are the actions caused by electricity such as cooking or burning (in an incandescent bulb). Nonetheless, Rav Auerbach rules that it is forbidden to turn on an appliance even if no metal is heated until it glows, since Rav Schmelkes had already ruled on this matter (Kvar Horeh Zakein) and it has been accepted by the Jewish people. Moreover, since people do not know which appliances involve heated filaments and which do not, it is forbidden to turn on electric appliances even if no metal is heated until it glows.
Next week, IY”H and B”N, we shall present Rav Asher Weiss’ breakthrough approach to our issue with some incredibly important contemporary applications to new technological developments.