Electricity and Shabbat

One of the most prominent prohibitions on Shabbat is the prohibition againstactivating and deactivating electrical devices on Shabbat. At the risk of overstating the obvious, use of electric devices is not included in the list ofthe thirty-nine melachot (prohibited activities) of Shabbat, nor is it mentioned in Shulchan Aruch. The prohibition against using electrical devices is the result ofapplying certain prohibitions of Shabbat to various electric devices. In thisissue, 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 asthe flow of electrons capable of being converted into kinetic energy. An atom of any molecule consists of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons contain apositive charge, neutrons a neutral charge, and electrons a negative charge.Electrons are easily detached from an atom, causing the atom from which itdeparted to be positively charged and the atom to which it attaches to become negatively charged. A negatively charged atom will be attracted to a positivelycharged atom as the atoms seek out a neutral status. Thus, the positivelycharged atom seeks an electron, while the negatively charged atom desires to riditself of the extraneous electron.

Electricity is harnessed by taking a conductive material, such as copper and connecting oneend 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 attractedto the atoms on the positive end, which is lacking electrons. If the electronsare met with resistance, energy is created in the form of heat, light, ormechanical 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 isused to activate or deactivate an electrical device, works (in most cases) bycompleting the circuit when the switch is in the "on" position andbreaking the circuit when the switch is in the "off" position.

One of the questions that arose during the popularization of electricity is: whatis 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, therecertainly is no prohibition. What then is the nature of the prohibition againstoperating 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 rabbinicprohibition.

R. Shlomo Z. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:9, questions the application of molid to electricity. He explains that inthe case of adding scent to a garment, the garment attains a new property thatit 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 tobe activated and deactivated. The activation of the device does not give it newproperties that it never had before, nor should one view it as a new entitywhen it is activated. Nevertheless, R. Auerbach defers to the halachic precedent established by R. Schmelkes and rules that one should be concernedfor the prohibition of molid in dealing with the activation of electrical devices.

Chazon Ish's Opinion

R. Avraham Y. Karelitz, Chazon IshOrach 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 wouldconstitute a violation of soter, destroying. What emerges from a correspondence between Chazon Ish and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (See Minchat ShlomoTinyana 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 characterto 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 abiblical violation.

Electric Lighting

The dispute between Beit Yitzchak and Chazon Ish is limited to devices where there is no other prohibited activity resulting from the activation ofthe device. Activation of some electric devices constitutes an additionalprohibition. 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 NezerOrach Chaim no. 229, notes that according to most Rishonim, heating a piece of metal to the point that it is glowing hotconstitutes a biblical violation of the melacha ofhavarah, kindling. R. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:12, notes that since activating an incandescent bulb involves igniting a glowing hot metal filament, itsactivation 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 violationis 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 thatextinguishing the filament by deactivating the light would constitute abiblical 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 inorder to produce light.

Fluorescent lights do not use heat to produce the actual visible light. However, in orderto 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.

Practical Applications

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 arabbinic violation on Shabbat. First, in "Treating a Non-Life-Threatening Illness on Shabbat," we discussed violation of certain rabbinic prohibitions in order to treat anon-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 discussedcertain leniencies regarding asking a non-Jew to perform an activity thatconstitutes a rabbinic violation for a Jew when this will enable one to perform a mitzvah or alleviate a pressing situation.

"TBD." YUTorah Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2017.