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Parsha Mitzvot: Vayakhel: Electricity on Shabbat

The basic questions involving Sabbath work are those which deal with the prohibition of lighting fires, of cooking fire and the like. These widely elaborated laws need now to be re-studied and applied to this new instrument of light and power.

With regard to the Sabbath, two basic Sabbath laws are involved; the prohibition against kindling fire, and the prohibition against doing certain other types of work. Is the glowing filament, in an electric lamp, fire? Is it not merely a glowing bit of metal which, according to the Talmud, may be extinguished on the Sabbath? May electric light be turned on or off? May an electric oven be turned on or off? May a telephone receiver be lifted, since that action may cause a spark at some switchboard, may a radio be turned on and off? Do these concerns change now with fiber optics and computers and mobile phones?  There are literally hundreds of questions involving electricity. Furthermore, since new electrical devices are constantly being invented, new questions arise every day in the Responsa literature as to electric boilers, electric dishwashers, and many other utensils, electric wheelchairs, medical stimulators, computers ad infinitum.

In one connection, at least, the law was interpreted more leniently with regard to electric lights that with regard to earlier methods of illumination. The law prohibits using the Sabbath lights for any work requiring concentration, such as studying, lest, absorbed in his study, the student unconsciously adjust the light and thus violate the Sabbath law against kindling light by increasing the flame. This unintentional kindling or brightening of light could occur quite easily with the ancient type of illumination, namely, a wick floating in oil. When, however, wax candles came into use, the need for adjustment was much less likely in some authorities permitted studying under such lights on the Sabbath. But electric lights need almost no adjustment to improve their light; hence the respondents began to permit study by electric light on the Sabbath.

Thus, some authorities explain that earlier authorities, who prohibited study before oil or naphtha lamps, did so because two lights were needed and, therefore, there was likelihood of adjusting the light; but electricity gives a clear and adequate light. Others permit the use of the electric light, but make a distinction between a swinging lamp which may be moved and a fixed electrical electric lamp. The fixed lamp is certainly permitted.

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