In this week’s parashah we find the Torah injunction to refrain from lighting fires on Shabbos: “You shall not kindle a fire, in all of your dwellings, on the Sabbath day” (Shemos 35:3).

While in the past fire was the primary form of energy for human matters, today its place has been taken by electricity. Many functions that once used fire, today use electricity: light, cooking, heating, and  many others.

The use of electricity on Shabbos has, therefore, been a huge halachic question for over a century. Indeed, the matter has sparked intensive halachic discussion on a broad range of issues, which continue to this day.

In the present article we will discuss the fundamentals of using electricity on Shabbos. Why consider use of electricity as a Shabbos prohibition? Which of the reasons are Torah prohibitions, and which are only rabbinic? How have technological developments changed the halachic issues involved? And what is done in practice?

These matters are discussed below. A discussion of specific types of electrical appliances will, please G-d, follow next week.

Is Turning on Electricity an Act of Melachah?

Virtually all Poskim over the past hundred years or so concur that it is forbidden to turn on electric lights or appliances on Shabbos. This applies not only to incandescent light bulbs which, as we will see below, are a special case in using electricity, but even to regular appliances in the kitchen and the home. The question, however, is why: What is the halachic issue involved in turning on electric lights or appliances on Shabbos?

Three main suggestions have been given.

  • Boneh (Building)

One of the most accepted halachic opinions concerning the use of electricity on Shabbos is that of the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 50:9; see also Meoros Noson 6:7) writes that the completion of a live electrical circuit is considered boneh, a forbidden act of building. By closing the circuit, a useless and lifeless wire comes to life. This falls under the halachic category of boneh, by which it is forbidden to build a building or to assemble an object from its constituent parts.

According to this approach, closing an electric circuit on Shabbos is a full biblical transgression, since the melachah of boneh is a biblical prohibition.

Many authorities have debated this position. One of the most renowned among them is Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who discusses the issue in his Minchas Shlomo (Vol. 1, no. 11). Rav Auerbach notes several reasons why closing an electric circuit is not an act of boneh, the most central of them being that it is more akin to opening and closing a door. While nominally an act of building, closing a door on Shabbos does not constitute a halachic transgression, because the door is intended to be opened and closed constantly (see for instance Rema, Orach Chaim 626:3).

While many Poskim do not necessarily concur with the Chazon Ish’s analysis (authorities who addressed the issue before the Chazon Ish did not even raise the issue of boneh as a possibility), his opinion is broadly accepted and cited as a factor in deciding questions of electricity on Shabbos (see for instance Shut Tzitz Eliezer Vol 6, no. 6; Shut Minchat Yitzchak Vol. 3, no. 38).

  • Makeh Bepatish (Completing a Product)

Another possibility for understanding the use of electricity as violating a biblical prohibition is the labor of makeh bepatish, which generally refers to the final act of finishing a product and rendering it functional (such as cutting remaining strands after sewing). Shut Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 6, no. 6) suggests this explanation, and cites, as a  precedent, authorities who prohibited winding up a watch on Shabbos for  this reason (see Mishnah Berurah 338:15).

Similarly, Rav Asher Weiss (Shut Minchas Asher Vol. 1, no. 30; see also Vol. 2, no. 34) has suggested that electricity falls under the prohibition of tikkun mana, a prohibition under the category of makeh bepatish.

However, the suggestion of makeh bepatish is raised by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shut Minchas Shlomo Vol. 1, no. 9), who quickly rejects that approach. He writes that for an appliance designed to be turned on and off continually, since the appliance is not turned on permanently, no prohibition of makeh bepatish will apply. Rav Yaakov Breisch (Shut Chelkat Yaakov Vol. 1, no. 53) likewise rejects this possibility.

However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 4, 84),tttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt7 discussing use of a microphone or loudspeaker on Shabbos maintained that one violates a prohibition of boneh or makeh bepatish.

  • Molid (Creating Something New)

A possible rabbinic prohibition related to using electricity on Shabbas is the prohibition of molid, which refers to the creation of something new, such as a change of state or creating a new fragrant scent in one’s clothes (Beitza 23a). Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes (Shut Beit Yitzchak Vol. 2, no. 31) suggested that turning on an electrical appliance is considered creating something new, since one creates the flow of current that brings the appliance to life. This is rabbinically prohibited on Shabbos.

Shut Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 1, no. 20, chap. 10) disagrees with this assessment. Discussing the use of telephones on Shabbos, he dismisses the comparison of electricity with creating a new fragrant smell, arguing that an intangible electric current cannot be equated with a scent that can be sensed.

In a similar vein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach claims that there are many acts of creating something new that the Sages did not prohibit, and we cannot derive from the specific instance of creating a fragrant scent in one’s clothes that the use of electricity will be prohibited.

Additional Reasons and Changing Times

Several additional reasons were suggested for the prohibition against using electricity on Shabbos, which are today less relevant due to technological advances.

One additional reason, which is mentioned by the Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 50:9), is that current passing through a wire will raise the wire’s temperature to the degree of yad soledes bo, and this is therefore considered to be an act of bishul — cooking the wire. The Chazon Ish writes that this is forbidden even when a person is unaware of the  cooking taking place, and even if he does not intend it.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach disagrees with this assessment, arguing that the effect is only light and transient, and that since it is not an intended goal no prohibition applies. Additionally today where the majority of appliances do not have wires that become heated, this consideration will generally not apply.

Another consideration that was raised in the past is the issue of generating sparks. Creating a spark is a rabbinic prohibition (Beitza 33a), and the Chazon Ish (50:9), the Chelkas Yaakov (1:55), and others have noted this in connection with using electricity on Shabbos. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rejected this rationale too, arguing that since the sparks are tiny, typically not visible, and generate no heat, it is possible that there are not considered fire at all. In addition, there is no intention to create them, one does not want them and they are being created in an unusual manner.

Today, most appliances do not create any sparks, so that this explanation will usually not be relevant.

Incandescent Light Bulbs

The very first teshuvos relating to the use of electricity focused on incandescent light bulbs, which produce light by heating a filament by means of electric current until it glows. Based on the ruling of the Rambam (Shabbos 12:1), doing so involves the biblical prohibition of lighting a flame (see Shaar Hatziyun 318:1), while according to the Raavad the prohibition involved is cooking rather than lighting a flame.

One way or the other, when metal is heated until it glows a biblical prohibition is involved. Based on this assumption, many Poskim ruled that turning on an incandescent electric light on violates a biblical prohibition (see Shut Beis Yitzckah, Yoreh De’ah 1:120; Shut Achiezer Vol. 3, no. 60; Melamed Leho’il, Orach Chaim 49; Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 50:9; among many others).

Note that according to some authorities this ruling applies specifically to Shabbos, and not to Yom Tov. Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Kol Torah, Year 5694) and several other authorities (see sources cited in Chashmal Behalacha 2:5) maintained that it is permitted to turn on incandescent lights on Yom Tov, since the fire is created in an indirect way. However, the consensus of authorities is that this is forbidden even on Yom Tov, as Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 1, no. 115) and many others ruled.

However, for today’s fluorescent or LED (or other technology) lights, the consideration of heating a metal filament no longer applies, and turning on an electric light will be similar to using any other electronic appliance.

The Halachic Custom

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shut Minchat Shlomo), after rejecting the potential sources noted above as reasons to prohibit electricity on Shabbos where no light or heat are generated, concludes that the custom is nonetheless to be stringent in the matter, and that this stringent tradition is endorsed by all halachic authorities. This is a very important principle in halacha.

The Chazon Ish (52, 6), after writing why, according to the strict letter of the law, one could conclude that one is permitted to open and close an umbrella on Shabbos, writes that practically speaking it is forbidden to open or close an umbrella because, “Permitting opening or closing an umbrella causes a crack in the walls (of Shabbos adherence). The matter is left to the gedolim to close the gaps in the fence. This is more stringent than a prohibition on an individual because it is a fence for the entire nation and for generations.”

As we have seen, according to some authorities there is a possibility that there is a Torah prohibition in using electricity on Shabbos, and the common custom is to treat it as such. At the same time, when faced with a dilemma between different prohibited actions, such as between making a phone call to a non-Jewish driver to get to the hospital and driving one’s own car, it is important to be aware that the prohibition involved in using electrical appliances is not clear cut, certainly not on a biblical level. Using the phone is certainly preferable to driving a car.

In next week’s article we will please G-d discuss the use of certain appliances: fridges, telephones, timers, and so on, each of which raises specific issues concerning Shabbos observance.

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