- Rabbi Josh Flug
Electricity and Shabbat
One of the most prominent prohibitions on Shabbat is the prohibition against activating and deactivating electrical devices on Shabbat. At the risk of overstating the obvious, use of electric devices is not included in the list of the thirty-nine melachot (prohibited activities) of Shabbat, nor is it mentioned in Shulchan Aruch. The prohibition against using electrical devices is the result of applying certain prohibitions of Shabbat to various electric devices. In this issue, we will explore some of the prohibitions that may apply to these devices.
The physics of electricity is fairly simple to explain. Electricity is defined as the flow of electrons capable of being converted into kinetic energy. An atom of any molecule consists of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons contain a positive charge, neutrons a neutral charge, and electrons a negative charge. Electrons are easily detached from an atom, causing the atom from which it departed to be positively charged and the atom to which it attaches to become negatively charged. A negatively charged atom will be attracted to a positively charged atom as the atoms seek out a neutral status. Thus, the positively charged atom seeks an electron, while the negatively charged atom desires to rid itself of the extraneous electron.
Electricity is harnessed by taking a conductive material, such as copper and connecting one end to a positively charged area and the other end to a negatively charged area. When this is done, the electrons on the negative end all become attracted to the atoms on the positive end, which is lacking electrons. If the electrons are met with resistance, energy is created in the form of heat, light, or mechanical energy. Thus, the resistance can cause a light filament to glow, an electric range to become red hot, or a motor to oscillate. The switch, which is used to activate or deactivate an electrical device, works (in most cases) by completing the circuit when the switch is in the "on" position and breaking the circuit when the switch is in the "off" position.
One of the questions that arose during the popularization of electricity is: what is the prohibition against completing a circuit on Shabbat? Suppose we were to discuss activating a fan on Shabbat. If one were to spin a fan manually, there certainly is no prohibition. What then is the nature of the prohibition against operating a fan using electrical current?
R. Yitzchak Schmelkes' Opinion
R. Yitzchak Schmelkes, Beit Yitzchak, Hashmatot to Y.D. 2:31, is of the opinion that completing a circuit constitutes a violation of molid, the prohibition against imbuing an object with a new property. The Gemara, Beitza 23a, states that one may not add a new scent to a garment because this constitutes molid. Beit Yitzchak asserts that introducing electricity into a device constitutes molid. Molid is a rabbinic prohibition and thus, R. Schmelkes would consider completing a circuit on Shabbat a rabbinic prohibition.
R. Shlomo Z. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:9, questions the application of molid to electricity. He explains that in the case of adding scent to a garment, the garment attains a new property that it never had before and therefore, when it receives that scent, it is viewed as if it is a new garment. Regarding an electric device, the device was created to be activated and deactivated. The activation of the device does not give it new properties that it never had before, nor should one view it as a new entity when it is activated. Nevertheless, R. Auerbach defers to the halachic precedent established by R. Schmelkes and rules that one should be concerned for the prohibition of molid in dealing with the activation of electrical devices.
Chazon Ish's Opinion
R. Avraham Y. Karelitz, Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 50:9, rules that completing a circuit constitutes a violation of the melacha of boneh, building. Accordingly, deactivating a device by opening the circuit would constitute a violation of soter, destroying. What emerges from a correspondence between Chazon Ish and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (See Minchat Shlomo, Tinyana no. 25) is that Chazon Ish is of the opinion that it is not the switch alone that contributes to the violation of boneh. The connecting of two pieces of metal for the purposes of harnessing a force that gives new character to the entire system constitutes a violation of boneh. It is important to note that according to Chazon Ish, activating or deactivating an electric device automatically constitutes a biblical violation.
The dispute between Beit Yitzchak and Chazon Ish is limited to devices where there is no other prohibited activity resulting from the activation of the device. Activation of some electric devices constitutes an additional prohibition. The most common example of such a device is an incandescent bulb. Incandescent bulbs and halogen bulbs contain filaments that can get as hot as 4500° F. The Gemara, Shabbat 42a, discusses the concept of gachelet shel matechet, a glowing hot piece of metal. R. Avraham Borenstein, Avnei Nezer, Orach Chaim no. 229, notes that according to most Rishonim, heating a piece of metal to the point that it is glowing hot constitutes a biblical violation of the melacha of havarah, kindling. R. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:12, notes that since activating an incandescent bulb involves igniting a glowing hot metal filament, its activation would constitute a biblical violation of havarah.
Regarding deactivating an incandescent bulb, the Gemara, Shabbat 42a, implies that extinguishing a gachelet shel matechet is only a rabbinic violation. Accordingly, R. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:12, suggests that deactivating an incandescent bulb would not constitute a biblical violation of kibui, extinguishing. Nevertheless, R. Auerbach suggests that perhaps the reason why extinguishing a gachelet shel matechet only constitutes a rabbinic violation is that the metal is only storing heat that it receives from a heat source. However, regarding an incandescent light bulb, the heat is produced by its own resistance to the flow of electrons. Therefore, it is arguable that extinguishing the filament by deactivating the light would constitute a biblical violation of kibui.
There are other types of lights whose activation does not constitute a violation of havarah. Light emitting diodes (LED's) are one example of lights that do not use a glowing hot filament in order to produce light.
Fluorescent lights do not use heat to produce the actual visible light. However, in order to activate a fluorescent bulb, a starting system must be employed to excite the mercury inside the bulb. Many fluorescent bulbs use a glowing hot filament (cathode) in order to start the bulb. Activation of those bulbs constitutes havarah.
According to Chazon Ish, activation of any electric device constitutes a biblical violation of boneh. According to Beit Yitzchak, there are many devices whose activation only constitutes a rabbinic violation of molid, while activation of devices that involve use of heat constitutes a biblical violation of havarah.
There are a number of important differences between a biblical violation and a rabbinic violation on Shabbat. First, in "Treating a Non-Life-Threatening Illness on Shabbat," we discussed violation of certain rabbinic prohibitions in order to treat a non-life-threatening illness. Second, in "Davar She'aino Mitkavein," we discussed certain leniencies that apply to unintended but unavoidable results (pesik reishei) when those results normally constitute a rabbinic violation. Third, in "Amira L'Nachri Part II," we discussed certain leniencies regarding asking a non-Jew to perform an activity that constitutes a rabbinic violation for a Jew when this will enable one to perform a mitzvah or alleviate a pressing situation.