In last week’s article we discussed the principles underlying the use of electricity on Shabbos. As we saw, the consensus of halachic authorities is to prohibit turning on electrical appliances on Shabbos. However, there is no consensus as to why this is prohibited, and several different suggestions are given, as we noted there.
In the present article we will continue our discussion of using electricity on Shabbos, focusing on the use of one of the most common appliances: the refrigerator.
Can a fridge be opened and closed on Shabbos? Is there a difference between activating the compressor (motor) and the light in the fridge? What is the status of modern (digital fridges)? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
One of the most pressing questions of using electrical appliances on Shabbos is the matter of opening a refrigerator door, which has sparked vigorous debate among halachic authorities for many decades.
Opening the door of the fridge allows warm air to enter. This warms the fridge, and the thermostat then causes the motor to go on sooner.
Addressing mechanical fridges (the older, non-digital fridges), several Poskim ruled that one must not open a fridge door when the motor is not running, due to the concern of causing the motor to go on immediately or earlier than it would have otherwise. Rather, the fridge should be opened only when the motor is already running.
Although even when the motor is running, opening the fridge door will cause it to continue running for longer than it would otherwise, this does not involve a melacha, since the motor is not being turned on (Har Zvi 1:151; Shut Minchat Yitzchak 3:24).
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Shut Yabia Omer, Orach Chaim 1:21) also recommends that one should only open the fridge door while the motor is running. Although he concludes that based on the strict halacha there is no prohibition in opening when the motor is not running (see below), he writes that is preferable to open the fridge when the motor is already running. Rav Ovadia notes that this is especially true when the motor has been off for a while since then it is almost certain it will go on immediately when the door is opened. A similar ruling is given by Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, as cited by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:68).
Opening the Door: Lenient Opinions
Like many other authorities (including the above Minchas Yitzchak; Shut Mishpetei Uziel, Orach Chaim 37; Shut Teshuva Shleima Vol. 2, no. 6; among others), Rav Ovadia explains that in principle, opening the fridge when the motor is not running and causing the motor to start immediately involves a psik reisha delo nicho lei. A person opening a fridge has no intention to start the motor. Even when an inevitable and immediate result of opening the fridge is causing the motor to start (it is a psik reisha), he writes that is not a process that a person desires: it costs him money, and he would rather hot air not enter the fridge and it would stay cold without the motor running.
The halacha of a psik reisha delo nicha lei involves a great debate among Poskim (see Tosafos, Shabbos 103A that there is a dispute between the Aruch and Tosafos if it is permitted or asur m’derabonnon, Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 320:18), including disputes as to the opinion of the Rambam (see Chiddushei R’ Chaim of Brisk, Shabbos 10:5) and the Shulchan Aruch. While the general consensus is that this consideration alone is not sufficient to permit, in the case of opening a fridge there are two additional considerations to take into account:
- One is that opening the fridge does not directly or always immediately activate the motor. Although the entry of warm air into the fridge will cause the motor to go on sooner, many Poskim classify this as a grama—causing a melacha to be done indirectly. The status of a grama on Shabbos is a discussion unto itself (see Rema, Orach Chaim 334:22; Magen Avraham 514:5), but it is certainly more lenient than a direct melacha, though it may be a rabbinic prohibition.
- A second consideration is the status of turning on an electric appliance, and in this case the electric motor. Although the consensus is this is forbidden on Shabbos, as we saw last week the nature of the prohibition is not clear-cut. Shut Minchas Yitzchak, for instance, assumes that where no heating element is involved the prohibition will only be rabbinic.
Based on a combination of the above factors, Rav Ovadia Yosef reaches his conclusion that according to the basic halacha it is permitted to open a fridge door even when this will cause the motor to go on earlier. Moreover, based on the same considerations several authorities opine that it is entirely permitted to open the fridge door anytime, even when doing so will activate the motor earlier than otherwise.
This lenient ruling is given at length by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 1:10). After stating that when the motor is running it is “simple” that one can open a fridge since one is just delaying the turning off of the motor, and after explaining why there is no muktzeh issue that might derive from a prohibition of opening the fridge while the motor is off, he concludes that even if the motor is off it is permitted to open the fridge.
In addition to the considerations above, he notes that even according to the strict opinion of the Chazon Ish concerning electricity on Shabbos, the case of the fridge is more lenient because the motor’s function is inherently transient—it goes off by itself, without the need of human intervention. Additionally, the motor is regulated to go on and off at fixed temperatures, so that changing the temperature itself is not a significant change in its function. He adds that if we prohibit opening the refrigerator door since it causes the motor to run prematurely, it follows that even other actions that cause the room to be hotter, such as opening curtains and letting the sun it, will be forbidden, since they, too, eventually cause the motor to run earlier than it would have otherwise.
Other Poskim who rule leniently on this matter are Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Shut Tzitz Eliezer 8:12; 12:92), Rabbi Uziel (Shut Piskei Uziel 15) and others. The general custom is to be lenient concerning opening (older) mechanical fridges, though some are careful, in the light of stringent rulings mentioned above, to open the door only when the motor is running.
Light in the Fridge
A more obvious problem with opening a fridge door is turning on the light.
In this case, it is implausible to claim that a person does not want the light to come on, since the light is of immediate benefit for finding things in the fridge. This will render the action of opening the door a psik reisha denicha lei, a definite inadvertent melacha that a person is interested in, which is forbidden on Shabbos. Moreover, turning on the light is not regulated by a thermostat as the motor is, but is rather a direct consequence of opening the door, so that the grama argument will also not apply.
For these reasons, it is important to ensure that the light in a fridge is disconnected before Shabbos. This can be done by taking out the light bulb, or by placing tape on the switch that activates the light when the door is opened.
When such actions were not taken before Shabbos, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:68) rules that it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to open the fridge. Although the light will be activated, this is an unintentional melacha, and the prohibition of psik reisho does not apply when done by a non-Jew (as ruled by the Mishna Beruro 277:15).
However, according to some Poskim, most notably Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos Chap. 10, note 45; Chap. 31, note 1), opening the door is considered directly turning on the light, since this is the only way in which the light can be turned on. Following this approach one may not request a non-Jew to open a fridge on Shabbos.
If the light was left on inadvertently, and the fridge door was opened on Shabbos, what should a person do? Is it permitted to close the door? While under such circumstances it is forbidden to close the door (leading to turning off the light), sometimes.the best course of action, if possible is to ensure that originally the door is opened less than halfway, so that upon removing one’s hand the door closes by itself without further action. This is not an action at all, but only the negation of an action (removing one’s hand), and therefore will not involve an issur even if the door closes.
A better thing to do is to put something like a blanket over the opening to prevent the door from closing the entire way while not letting in very much hot air. This will allow further access to the contents of the fridge on Shabbos without any problem.
Turning on the Fan
An additional problem especially relevant for modern no-frost fridges is turning on a fan by opening the door. Many modern fridges include a fan mechanism which serves to minimize the escape of cold air from the fridge when the door is open. Turning on the fan is both immediate and a desirable action on the part of the person opening the fridge (though it can be argued that he doesn’t care about the fan; its effect is very small), so that it will involve a similar problem to turning the light on.
Where possible, the fan should therefore be disconnected from the activation mechanism, just like the light, so that opening the door will not activate the fan. The fan is generally activated by a mechanical switch, which can be taped down to deactivate it. In many refrigerators there is a setting for Shabbos which does these operations without having to tape down a switch.
Digital refrigerators, which are now more common, involve a further range of halachic issues. They work on the basis of a computer, which performs a number of functions each time the door is opened. For instance, in some of them opening the door starts a timer, and an alarm is sounded if the door is not closed within a short time. Some digital fridges also have a display which changes when the door is opened. The element that senses the door position is the same which controls the fans, turns the light on or off, and may also perform a range of additional functions concerning the inverter, damper, and others.
Causing a computer to internally function on Shabbos is widely discussed by modern Poskim and is relevant for many issues. For instance, when a person opens a door to a room, the sensors on some air-conditioners’ computers are designed to note the change and make relevant adjustments. But aside from the computer’s internal function, the problem of course is the functions that the computer controls: turning on the lights, the fans and so on. There can also be issues with the sensors.
It is difficult to shut down the computer, and the most effective method of dealing with the issue is to fool the refrigerator into ignoring whether the door is open or not. Many older models use a magnetic detector built into the doorpost, so that an external magnet can be placed on the doorpost that leads the fridge to consider that the door remains closed even when it is open.
This however is not possible for all fridges. Certainly, one should do the relevant research before buying a fridge. Today, moreover, many fridges come with Shabbos authorization by a range of organizations that offer certification, and this is recommended for anybody purchasing a fridge.
If one must spend Shabbos with a digital fridge, and without the means of turning off the computer control, an option is to use a timer to shut off the entire electric supply at mealtimes, so that then the fridge may be opened and closed without concern. Otherwise, a competent rabbinic authority should be consulted for how to navigate the various issues involved.