Ask the rabbi: electricity on Shabbat

March 7, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Q. Why isn’t electricity allowed on Shabbat?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. You may benefit from electric appliances but not personally operate them. The problem is whether one may light a fire on Shabbat, which the Torah bans (Ex. 35:3).

The arrival of electricity led to rabbinic discussion as to what is meant by “fire”. Some rabbis argued that turning on electricity did not constitute fire, but this view was not generally accepted. Increasing the electric current was also rejected unless it was done indirectly (Shulchan Aruch, OC 252).

Appliances set before Shabbat may be utilised. The accepted usage is to turn on the electric lights before Shabbat and govern them by clocks and timers. This does not transgress Shabbat since it is human beings, not machines, who are obligated to keep the Sabbath. Appliances which work on batteries, including pacemakers, may be utilised on Shabbat.

Some literalist Karaites prohibited using lights that were lit before Shabbat; they sat in the cold and dark on Shabbat, even in the Russian winter.


Q. May a woman institute proceedings for a Jewish divorce?

A. The technicality of the situation is that the man takes the initiative in both marriage and divorce: the Torah says in relation to marriage, “when a man marries a woman” and in relation to divorce, “he shall write for her a bill of divorce” (Deut. 24:1).

Hence at a marriage it is the groom who places the ring on the bride’s finger and at a divorce it is the husband who instructs the scribe to write and witnesses to sign the document and it is he or his agent who hands it over to the wife.

However, either party may make application to the Beth Din for the divorce proceedings to take place. The grounds of the application are not limited to matrimonial offence; the criterion is marriage breakdown. Hence the halachah specifically empowers a wife to sue for a divorce from her husband if he has a loathsome disease or occupation, or if he refuses to support her, is cruel to her, is licentious or impotent or refuses her conjugal rights.

The Beth Din may decide to attempt a reconciliation between the parties and sometimes this is effective, but in most cases in the Diaspora situation there have already been proceedings for a civil divorce and it is highly unlikely that the marriage can be reinstated.

A husband who refuses to co-operate in a gett will be counselled and every effort will be made to secure his consent, but it must be said that it is not always the man who causes problems; in something like 40% of cases it is the woman who, at least initially, withholds her co-operation.


Q. Is it true that the Talmud says that Esther and Haman are mentioned in the Torah? How can this be when the Torah predates the Purim story?

A. From the strictly historical point of view, characters from the M’gillah could not have been mentioned, since the Purim story took place centuries after the Torah was written.

But the sages were not joking or just cracking puns (Chullin 139b) when they saw a hint of Esther in the verse, “I will surely hide (‘astir’) My face” (Deut. 31:18).

They were saying that God is always there even if He seems to have hidden His face, and He emerges from “hiding” in order to save His people. Likewise there is a hint of Haman in the verse, “Did you eat from (‘ha-min’) the tree?” (Gen. 5:11), which indicates that the evil instinct goes back to the beginning of history.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem


3 Responses to “Ask the rabbi: electricity on Shabbat”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    It is more than obvious that these Halachic findings/pronouncements need modification, not only to take into account the 21st century, but also to acknowledge the parity of man and woman. It is becoming both a ridiculous and inhumane state of affairs.

  2. Dr Rafi Manory, CPEng MIEAust says:

    Regarding electricity on Shabbat, if this is what Shulchan Aruch says it is wrong. Electricity is created by closing an electrical circuit, and this is considered “Boneh”, i.e. creating something that was not there before Shabbat. Electricity is not fire and never has been. It is light and heat without fire, but the issue of closing the circuit is the issue. As an example, the same reason applies for not using automatic gates oh Shabbat, no fire of heat are involved there, but you create an electric circuit.

  3. Avigael says:

    Many Israeli Rabbis rule that electricity is mutar – no solid proof that it is fire or any other forbidden act has not been proven. Rabbi also neglects to mention that the Shulchan Aruch is not binding on the Klal, and is the work of one author. To state it is obligatory is the same as saying one member of parliament can rule into law across the nation – they cant. Only a body of scholars can rule Klal wide and that ended with Chazal. So hes quoting a strict opinion in law – not a source of Law – an important difference. One may or may not follow any opinion.
    Next, the shonda of the failure of this generations Rabbinate to get together and fix the legal issues in law mean a train wreck of victims – mainly women and families. Best to avoid altogether unless your fine having no marriage rights whatsover, because the Rabbinate will not help you. The tens of thousands of victims that have suffered from incompetent criminal Beth Dins mean that they need to be shut down and stopped from operation. This process is happening. Pre nuptial agreements do not deliver rights to the woman in this matter, so be warned not to enter there.
    Purim was also a time where part of the Erev Rav was destroyed. Time has come again …

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