Rav Asher Weiss’ New Perspective on the Use of Electricity on Shabbat – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


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 Solovetichik is quoted as referring to this puzzle as “an enigma” and Rav Moshe Feinstein is quoted as calling it “a riddle.”

Last week (in an essay available at www.koltorah.org) we reviewed six classic opinions and approaches. 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 week’s essay, we shall present Rav Weiss’ simple but elegant resolution of this great riddle and enigma that appears in responsum number thirty in Teshuvot Minchat Asher.

Rav Weiss’ Breakthrough Approach

Rav Weiss writes beautifully:

In truth, each of the [classic] approaches to prohibit [the use of electricity without a heated filament] is open to discussion and questions as did our master the Gaon HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo (C.J. - as we saw in last week’s essay). However, anyone who wishes to be lenient about this matter in practice, has removed himself from the community [of observant Jews]. It is as if a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) announced that there is concern for a Torah level prohibition [when turning on an electric appliance even without a heated filament].

Rav Weiss proceeds to assert that completing an electric circuit might violate Makeh BePatish. He bases his idea on a Yerushalmi (Shabbat 7:2) that states that Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish spent three and a half years sorting out all the Toladot (sub-categories) of forbidden work on Shabbat into the 39 categories. Those that they could determine as belonging to a particular category, they categorized in that category, those they couldn't, they categorized as Makeh BePatish.

Rav Weiss notes that this passage in the Yerushalmi teaches a revolutionary idea. Most are under the impression that Chazal determined whether something is forbidden on Shabbat if it fit into one of the 39 categories of forbidden work on Shabbat.  Rav Weiss notes, however, that this Yerushalmi teaches that the opposite is true. Chazal first determined that a particular activity is a significant, creative, and constructive act (Melechet Machshevet) and therefore constitutes a forbidden act of labor on Shabbat. Only after making this determination did they seek to categorize the act into one of the 39 types of Melachah.

If the act did not fit into any of the 39 categories the act was defined as Makeh BePatish. Rav Weiss explains that Makeh BePatish is a catch-all category that includes any highly significant and creative act.

While Rav Weiss recognizes that this approach very much differs from conventional thinking (especially, we may add, since actions can be forbidden even if they have no parallel to that which occurred in the Mishkan – normally actions are forbidden on Shabbat due to their parallel creative act in creating the Mishkan) he argues that Rambam adopts this approach as well. He cites Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 10:17) categorizing “Mapis Mursah,” making a drainage hole for a bodily wound, as Makeh BePatish, “since this is the accepted practice of medical professionals.” For Rambam, the act of making the draining hole is defined as a Melachah not because it fits into one of the 39 categories of labor but simply because it is standard medical practice.

Rav Weiss acknowledges that the Melacha of Makeh BePatish is described in the Talmud Bavli and the Rishonim as completing a utensil (Kli). However, he understands that this does not exclude the Yeushalmi’s understanding of Makeh B’Patish, and that Makeh BePatish includes both the Bavli and Yerushalmi definitions – completing a Kli, and also serving as a catch-all category for any highly significant and creative act.

Rav Weiss applies this idea to electricity:

In my humble opinion the same applies to completing an electric circuit in all its different forms. There is no doubt that the invention of electric appliances constitutes an incomparably great act of innovation that harnesses the great powers of nature and thus should be categorized as Makeh BePatish. This applies to turning on large industrial equipment or completing a circuit to turn on simple household machinery.

Rav Weiss concludes:

It is clear and obvious in my humble opinion that one should regard turning on [an electric appliance without a heated filament such as] an LED light as a Torah level forbidden act of work on Shabbat and heaven forbid to be lenient about this whatsoever.

Rav Weiss’ Thoughts on Molid

Rav Weiss concludes his responsum with a response to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s criticism of Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak’s application of the rabbinic prohibition of creating (being Molid) a new scent in a garment to creating a flow of electric current. Rav Shlomo Zalman was of the opinion that one cannot expand the category of Molid beyond the specific activities that Chazal forbade.

Rav Weiss quotes Rashi (Beitzah 23a) who writes that, “One who is Molid (creates) something new is nearly performing a new Melachah (“Karov Hu LeOseh Melachah Chadashah”). Rav Weiss argues that Molid is unlike any other rabbinical prohibition on Shabbat (Shevut) in which Chazal forbade engaging in a specific activity. Rather, included in the category of Molid is the creation of anything highly significant on Shabbat since it is very similar to a Melachah. I suggest that this seems to be the intention of Rav Shmelkes in categorizing creating an electric flow as Molid. 

Rav Weiss’ Lenient Application of His Novel Approach

Rav Weiss in a subsequent responsum (number thirty two) proceeds to offer a spectacular but critical ruling regarding the completion of electric currents.

Rav Weiss argues:

It appears that it is forbidden to complete an electric circuit (without a heated filament) only when there is a transparent purpose and result that is visible or detectable by the senses, such as the wide variety of conventional electric equipment that people turn on to serve their needs or for enjoyment. However, [it is now] commonplace to unintentionally cause the completion of electronic circuits whose purpose and results is not readily apparent and discernible. In all of these cases, in my humble opinion, no forbidden act of Melachah is involved [and thus no prohibition is violated].

Rav Weiss offers six examples of these phenomena, of which we shall present two. One example is that it is accepted among Posekim to permit physicians to carry their cellular telephones in order that they should be able to respond instantly to an emergency situation. We should clarify that this is not permitted simply due to considerations for Pikuach Nefesh, since doctors could simply remain at home and be available to respond to calls. Thus, Pikuach Nefesh alone cannot justify the accepted practice to allow health care professionals to carry (inside an area surrounded by an Eiruv) their cell phones to the synagogue on Shabbat and Yom Tov. 

Rav Weiss notes that when one walks with a cellular phone (that has been turned on) the varying degree of reception is indicated by the number of bars displayed onscreen. Thus, when walking from place to place on Shabbat he is causing electric circuits to be turned on in order to display the levels of reception. Rav Weiss argues that since this is not the intention of one carrying a cell phone and since closing these electric circuits are of negligible import, this is not sufficiently significant to be defined as an act of either Makeh BePatish or Molid and thus is entirely permissible on Shabbat.

A second example involves electronic handcuffs which are used by law enforcement authorities for those under house arrest. (In Israel it is not uncommon for those serving time in prison to become observant during their time in jail.) For those under house arrest, police often permit the individuals to leave their homes to attend Shabbat Tefilah. However, their movement causes electric circuits to be completed in that their movement is registered on the display both in their homes and at the police station. Rav Weiss believes that causing these circuit completions is not defined as Makeh BePatish since one does not intend to complete these circuits and due to the marginal importance of the completion of these circuits. While both turning on a cell phone and turning on electronic handcuffs constitute highly significant acts defined as either Makeh BePatish and/or Molid, the completion of electronic circuits in these particular circumstances do not rise to the level of Makeh BePatish or Molid.

Rav Weiss writes that these questions will become more and more commonplace as the march of technological breakthroughs continues unabated on a daily basis. While Rav Weiss writes that he is certain about his conclusion, he nonetheless refrains from imposing his opinions on others since a rabbinic consensus has not been reached about this matter. Thus, one should consult with his Rav about relying on Rav Weiss’ innovative ruling.


Rav Asher Weiss has certainly established himself as a Poseik of the highest order with his writings, which display both great breadth of knowledge as well as very creative and out of the box, yet down to earth, thinking. In regard to electricity, Rav Weiss has achieved a crucial balance regarding the use of electronics on Shabbat – while its prohibition is inviolate and non-negotiable, there is a growing number of situations where the prohibition does not apply.

[1] See Ibn Ezra Shemot 18:1

[2] The account in Sefer Shemot gives contradictory implications as to when Yitro’s first visit happened. See Ibn Ezra and Ramban to Shemot 18:1, who analyze this at great length.

[3] This two-staged process is approximately how Ramban defines Ge’ulah in Bnei Yisrael’s context. See Introduction to Sefer Shemot.

[4] There is no explicit reference to Tziporah returning to Midyan, so we don’t know exactly when it happened. However, we can presume that she returned along the way to Mitzrayim, right after the scene at the inn (Shemot 4:24-26). Tziporah was a major character in that scene, but immediately afterwards Moshe meets Aharon, and those two then continue together, with no mention of Tziporah.

[5] This is one of Ibn Ezra’s many questions that push to transfer the entire story a year later, just before the camp leaves for Eretz Yisrael. It’s not entirely clear how Yitro could have actually heard about Matan Torah and came to visit Bnei Yisrael before it happened – the Agadah following R’ Elazar’s statement seems to detail how the entire world heard Matan Torah itself. Perhaps Yitro heard that Matan Torah was about to happen, or maybe he had heard earlier from Moshe that it would happen after Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and anticipated Bnei Yisrael’s arrival.  Regardless, there is definitely a connection between Yitro’s visit and Matan Torah.

Relaxed Hillel – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Rav Asher Weiss’ New Perspective on the Use of Electricity on Shabbat – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter