I appreciated Rabbi Gil Student’s fascinating analysis of texting on Shabbat (“What’s Wrong with Texting on Shabbat?” spring 2012). It is time for the observant world to take a realistic look at electronic gadgets and their halachic ramifications.
Use of electricity was not even a concern in the writings of our sages until recently. Electricity was not used to build the Mishkan. In fact, it is a completely separate and distinct force from anything known at that time. Use of electricity is not a melachah, nor does it resemble a melachah.
Will communication gadgets end up being prohibited after a realistic halachic reinterpretation of electricity? Probably not, is my guess. Electronics are increasing in use and will soon be ubiquitous. With ubiquity will come acceptance.
Rabbi Gil Student Responds
Gary Goldwater’s call for a reevaluation of electricity in halachah is not as radical as he may think. This process has been ongoing since at least the 1930s, as can be seen in the often-bold writings of great halachists like Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and Rabbi Gedaliah Felder. The old thinking about electricity as fire has long been extinguished. However, other concerns—both rabbinic and Biblical—have been raised regarding use of electricity on Shabbat that cannot be easily dismissed. Many acts are forbidden even if they do not entail a Biblical labor (melachah) nor directly correlate to the building of the Tabernacle. Despite the redundancy, I feel compelled to state that something rabbinically prohibited is still prohibited.
Additionally, beginning in the 1970s, rabbis and engineers in Israel joined together to study and resolve halachic issues, particularly those related to electricity. The results can be seen in the many books and journals (most notably Techumin) published by Zomet and the Institute for Science and Halacha, two Israeli organizations devoted to this research. The devices these institutes have created—such as Shabbat telephones and wheelchairs—are specially designed to avoid halachic prohibitions. But even these fall short according to many authorities and the institutes themselves explain why they only permit use of their devices in extenuating circumstances.
For decades, hesder rabbis have been consulting with IDF engineers to answer halachic questions for their soldier students. These rabbis cannot afford to be overly strict and have generated a fascinating literature combining the best in scientific and halachic knowledge. None have reached the conclusion that use of electricity is permitted. Instead, they have carefully delineated which technologies are less forbidden than others and in which situations the minimized prohibitions may be violated.
Two excellent compendia of Shabbat laws that incorporate scientifically accurate information are Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchatah and the more recent Orchot Shabbat. Both series of books, as well as others, answer relevant questions regarding motion sensors, security cameras and many other electronic devices. The mechanisms for proper evaluation of new technologies are already in place, as can be seen in my new refrigerator and oven, both of which have Shabbat modes. However, legitimate leniencies are not easily found for electronic devices. I fully believe that those committed to Shabbat observance will find alternatives to motion sensors and the like and will be able to survive for twenty-five holy hours without their gadgets.