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Iyar 5763 – Electricity on Shabbos

1 Iyar 5763

L’chvod HaRav:

I have been searching for 4 years for the answer to why electricity is forbidden on Shabbos. I have been given 3 incorrect answers: (1) Electricity=Fire (2) The melacha of “building” or “creating” a circuit by completing it (3) Separating Shabbos from yom chol.

I am also wondering where the decision was made, since I am sure it was a relatively recent decree/ruling by rabbis, and not just spontaneously decided upon.

Thank you,
Name and seminary withheld.

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Thank you very much for submitting your interesting question. Many articles have been written on this topic, both in Hebrew and in English. Most notably, the Encyclopedia Talmudis has an interesting and extensive entry on this topic under the heading “Chashmal” in Vol. 18 (pages 163-174). In English, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Published by Rabbi Jacob Joseph School) Vol. 21, Spring 5751/1991 also deals with this issue extensively. I will summarize much of what is said there, but if possible it is worthwhile getting a reading the original articles yourself.

There are many various issues involved in this discussion. There are many different types of appliances that have different reasons as to why they may be forbidden. However, all Halachic authorities agree that generally use of electricity is forbidden on Shabbos. However, in certain situations of absolute necessity (e.g. for the needs of a sick person), some electrical appliances may be used – preferably employing a Shinui, turning them on in an abnormal manner.

First of all, all Halachic authorities agree that turning on a switch that lights an incandescent bulb is forbidden by the Torah, because of the Melacha of Mavir – kindling. Extinguishing such a light is likewise forbidden. Similarly, running an electrical machine that is powered by a combustion generator (car, lawn mower) is also forbidden by the Torah. It makes no difference whether the electricity is coming from a battery or power plant source.

If creating the electrical circuit does not kindle a light, but ignites a LED or LCD display, although there may not be a Torah prohibition of kindling, there is at least a Rabbinic prohibition of writing involved. The reason that this would qualify as a Rabbinic prohibition rather than a Torah prohibition is because such writing is temporary.

However, the primary issue regarding actual electricity use, which I suspect is the one that you are more concerned about, is turning on an electrical appliance without any lights of displays, for example a simple fan or portable vacuum cleaner. This issue has been discussed extensively by Halachic authorities over the past 150 years since electricity was harnessed for everyday use. Again, although all are in agreement that it is forbidden, there are major disputes as to why. The following is a quick synopsis of some of these reasons:

1. Molid – creating something new that wasn’t there prior to Shabbos. This is the position of the Bais Yitzchak, Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes. According to this position, there is no Torah prohibition involved, it is a Rabbinic prohibition, similar to the prohibition by our Rabbis to perfume clothing, a common practice in previous times.

2. Boneh – building, or connecting to a building. “Completing a circuit renders a previously useless wire into a functional wire, and this is analogous to completing a building or a wall. In addition, completing a circuit is analogous to assembling an appliance composed of numerous parts – which Halacha defines as building – and is thus prohibited on Shabbos.” This is the position of the Chazon Ish. According to this, it is a Torah prohibition.

3. Maakeh B’Patish – literally the “final hammer blow”, but actually meaning the final act in finishing any product and making it useful. This is also a Torah prohibition. Since an electrical appliance is useless before electricity is added to it, the introduction of an electric current causes it to become a useful piece of equipment, and is therefore prohibited because of Makeh B’Patish.

4. Metaken Manna – a Rabbinic sub-category of Makeh B’Patish. The Rabbis who take this position argue that Make B’Patish must be a permanent, final act, whereas completing an electric current is by no means permanent! However, this lesser Rabbinic prohibition does not require permanence, and is prohibited even when the act is going to become undone (For example, it is Rabbinically forbidden to assemble and dissemble a portable bed on Shabbos.) (Rabbi Henken Zatza”l).

5. Although technically there is no prohibition to use electricity if no light and heat are generated, and no writing occurs, it has been accepted as the custom not to do so, since too much confusion could arise regarding what appliances are permitted, and which are forbidden. A Jewish custom is binding on all, and may only be relaxed in cases of urgent need. This is the position of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Zatza”l (in his work Minchas Shlomo).

There are other reasons cited in the abovementioned articles, some Torah prohibitions and some Rabbinic. The following is a summary of this chapter in the RJJ Journal – “The reasons advanced to prohibit the use of electricity on Shabbos when no light or heat are generated are quite diverse. They range from the biblical prohibition of building, to the rabbinic prohibition to create something new (Molid) or to tradition without any precise basis in the laws of Shabbos. Whatever the basis, accepted practice generally prohibits the use of electricity on Shabbos even when no light or heat is generated.”

I hope this has been helpful.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

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L’chvod HaRav,

Thank you very much for your thorough answer about electricity on Shabbos. You mention an old practice of perfuming clothing – what is that and how does it fall under the melacha of ‘molid’?

Name & Seminary withheld

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The Shulchan Oruch (Orach Chaim 511:4) states that you are not permitted to put perfume on clothing (this would include a Shaitel) on Shabbos. Apparently, in the times of Chaza”l it was common for people to leave their clothing hanging in a closet with incense in it, to make their clothing smell nice. At any rate, Chaza”l felt that this looks like a Melacha, even if it technically isn’t, and forbade it because of “Molid Re’ach”- creating a scent in the clothing that hadn’t previously been there (on the skin doesn’t create such an appearance, apparently, and wasn’t forbidden). The Poskim say there an interesting thing, that many people have a Minhag to keep their Esrogim after Succos in their clothing drawers, so that their clothing should smell good. If you had one there before Shabbos, and for some reason took it out on Shabbos, you are allowed to return it- it isn’t included in this Issur. I find this interesting, because this is apparently a Minhag in my wife’s family, that I had never heard about before I got married.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler