Avid sports fans often ask their Rabbanim if it is permitted to program devices before Shabbat that will record sporting events that are played on Shabbat. Shemot 20:10 seems to imply that Hashem requires us to insure that only our animals refrain from Melachah (labor) on Shabbat, but not our utensils. Thus, it would appear that Halachah permits us to record sports events on Shabbat, since we do not perform any labor on Shabbat, as only our utensils work.
Beit Shamai vs. Beit Hillel – Shevitat Keilim
The question is not that simple, as the Mishnah (Shabbat 17b) records a debate between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel regarding this issue. Beit Shamai requires us to insure that our utensils refrain from work on Shabbat (Shevitat Keilim). For example, he forbids setting a trap close to Shabbat that will likely catch an animal on Shabbat. Beit Hillel, though, disagrees and does not subscribe to Beit Shamai’s Shevitat Keilim principle.
It would accordingly seem obvious that one may set a recording device to record a television show on Shabbat, since the Halachah follows Beit Hillel in regards to Shevitat Keilim (Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 3:2). However, Shabbat 18a records a Beraita (a Tannaitic teaching that does not appear in the Mishnah) that forbids placing wheat in a water mill before Shabbat if it will grind the wheat on Shabbat.
Rabbah vs. Rav Yosef
Rav Yosef (ad. loc.) asserts that this Beraita follows the opinion of Beit Shamai regarding Shevitat Keilim and thus does not constitute normative Halachah. Rabbah, however, argues that the Beraita follows both Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, since even Beit Hillel would agree that rabbinic law requires us to refrain from permitting our utensils that make very loud noises (comparable to a water mill) from running on Shabbat. Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. SheYitchenu) explains that Rabbah’s concern encompasses two issues. First, the “item grows louder” (Avsha Milta), and thus one arouses suspicions that he set the water mill on Shabbat itself. The second concern is that the noise degrades Shabbat by having this loud noise running on Shabbat.
The Rishonim debate as to whether we follow Rabbah or Rav Yosef. Tosafot (ad. loc. s.v. VeHashta) cites Rabbeinu Tam, who rules in accordance with Rav Yosef’s lenient approach, but Tosafot themselves rule in accordance with Rabbah’s stricter view. Tosafot also cite Rabbeinu Chananeil, who follows Rabbah. Ramban (Milchamot Hashem Shabbat 6a in the pages of the Rif) rules in accordance with Rabbah as well.
Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 252:5), following the Rif (Shabbat 6b in the pages of the Rif) and the Rambam (who does not cite this Beraita in his Mishneh Torah), rules in accordance with Rav Yosef. Rama (ibid.), however, cites the strict opinion of Tosafot and Rabbeinu Chananeil, who follow Rabbah. Rama concludes by citing the accepted practice among Ashkenazic Jews to follow the strict opinion except in case of loss. Peri Megadim (ad. loc. Eishel Avraham 21) explains that this means that, essentially, the lenient ruling of Rav Yosef is followed, but, in ordinary circumstances, we accommodate the strict opinion of Rabbah.
Air Conditioners and Wall Clocks
One may ask, then, why Ashkenazic Jews routinely allow their air conditioners to run throughout Shabbat despite the loud noise made by wall units. The answer appears to be based on a subsequent ruling of Rama (ad. loc.) regarding wall clocks. Rama writes, “It is permitted to set a wall clock before Shabbat, even though it will make a loud sound informing the time of day, since everyone knows it is routinely set beforehand.”
In addition, the wall clocks do not disturb the Shabbat atmosphere, since the need to know the time of day is also a Shabbat need. This stands in stark contrast with a water mill that grinds wheat into flour, which is certainly not a Shabbat need. The running of air conditioners turned on before Shabbat is analogous to a wall clock, and thus even Rabbah would permit us to leave it running for Shabbat. The same applies to other noisy appliances that enhance Shabbat such as refrigerators and heaters. Washing machines and dishwashers, though, are analogous to water mills.
Rav Ovadia Yosef – Running a Laundry Machine on Shabbat
A ruling of Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 3:18) illustrates how this ruling is followed in practice. Israeli soldiers on very brief leave from their bases for Shabbat often arrive home on the last bus before Shabbat and must leave on the first bus after Shabbat. Soldiers very much want to wash their uniforms when they visit home. However, their only opportunity is to place the clothes in the washing machine immediately prior to Shabbat, and the washing machine will run on Shabbat, making noise that arouses suspicions and disturbs the Shabbat atmosphere. Rav Ovadia Yosef rules that this action is permitted even for Ashkenazic Jews, since Rama codifies the Ashkenazic practice to rely on Rav Yosef in case of great need.
Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Incredible Ruling Regarding Timers
Based on the classic sources, accordingly, it seems permissible to program a device before Shabbat to record a sporting event that is broadcast on Shabbat. These devices are quiet and are hardly analogous to a water mill. However, a landmark ruling by Rav Moshe Feinstein must be considered before permitting such activity.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe O.C. 4:60) was asked by his grandson as to whether it is permitted to place uncooked food in an unlit oven before Shabbat and set a timer to turn the oven on an our before the Shabbat afternoon meal, in order to have a hot, freshly cooked meal on Shabbat afternoon.
Rav Feinstein responded, “In my humble opinion, it is obvious that it is forbidden to permit this because, through the use of such automation, one can perform all of the forbidden labor of Shabbat and operate every factory, and there is no greater degradation to Shabbat than this. It is obvious that had this existed in Talmudic times, they would have forbidden this in the same manner in which they forbade asking a non-Jew to perform work on one’s behalf on Shabbat.”
Thus Rav Feinstein does not permit the use of timers for Shabbat other than for turning on and off lights (for which there is a precedent of having non-Jews turn on and off lights before the advent of electric lights – see Rama O.C. 276:2). Rav Moshe considers the use of timers to do work on Shabbat to constitute a threat to the integrity of Shabbat. Indeed, based on this ruling of Rav Feinstein, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein expressed to me (in a personal conversation) his strong opposition to setting a device to record sporting events broadcast on Shabbat.
However, Rav J. David Bleich observes (Tradition 35:2:50) that Rav Moshe’s ruling “has not been widely accepted among Halachic decisors.” Indeed, the following Posekim allow the use of timers for usage other than lighting: Chazon Ish (O.C. 38:3-4), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1: page 66), Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov O.C. 71), Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 1:20:9) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 2:57).
I noted this point to Rav Lichtenstein, using the example of the common practice to set air conditioners on a timer before Shabbat so that it does not operate continuously during Shabbat. Rav Lichtenstein responded with a modified version of Rav Moshe’s ruling, permitting the use of a timer provided that it does not yield a completed product (such as a recorded television program). However, Chazon Ish (ibid.) does permit the use of timers to milk cows on Shabbat, which of course yields a product for use after Shabbat, similar to the recording device. Moreover, many Israeli Posekim do not regard timers as a threat to the integrity of Shabbat. Quite on the contrary, many see it as a very important tool that enables the observance of Shabbat in the contemporary State of Israel in a wide variety of situations, such as agriculture and security.
On the one hand, it is difficult to assert that it is technically forbidden to record a television program on Shabbat. On the other hand, Rav Lichtenstein insists that it violates the spirit of Shabbat. I suggest a compromise along the lines of the aforementioned Rama that timers may be set for Shabbat use only in case of serious need. Recording a business meeting or a college or graduate school lecture qualifies as a serious need in many situations. It is, however, difficult to categorize recording a sporting event as a situation of serious need. Diehard sports enthusiasts need to maintain a reasonable perspective about the relative and true significance of this pastime.
Even sports enthusiasts should seriously consider the fact that many commercials broadcast on television seriously compromise our value of Tzeni’ut. We should seriously consider the opinion of those who believe that removing television from one’s home enriches one’s spirituality and overall quality of life.