Is the KosherSwitch Kosher?

16 Apr 2015
Technology

Note: The Orthodox Union does not endorse this product.

We’ll begin by saying, as OU staff writers, we don’t know and that the halachic authorities at the Orthodox Union have not yet stated a position on it. But given the attention this invention is getting, we thought we’d offer you a quick look at the product and the halachic areas that it operates in.

The most complete run-down on the KosherSwitch is by Jewish Action book editor and blogger Rabbi Gil Student in his blog, Hirhurim, from 2011. It’s a long read, but definitely worthwhile. It will give you a greater understanding of the laws of electricity on Shabbat, and of the concept of Gerama (and be sure to read KosherSwitch’s response as well).

Essentially, the KosherSwitch is a form or improvement on the Gerama switch. Gerama is indirect action that is both forbidden and permitted in certain circumstances on Shabbat. As Rabbi Student puts it, in case of a fire one can leave bottles of water out, thereby indirectly extinguishing a fire. However, one cannot throw wheat up to have the wind separate it from the chaff (in case you were planning to do that this weekend). A Gerama switch, notes Rabbi Student, causes an action to happen through one step beyond an indirect action, and therefore, in some circumstances, allowed to be used. (Hence, as he notes, it should be called the UnGerama switch.) The developers of the switch, the Institute of Science and Halacha, wrote that it is only to be used in exigent circumstances, since if its use becomes too common it may lead to the desecration of Shabbat.

The KosherSwitch itself is a piece of plastic that blocks an electrical pulse. When the piece of plastic is up, it doesn’t block the electrical pulse and the pulse, which is only triggered by an algorithm if a number in a specific range is calculated by the KosherSwitch, makes a connection with a light receiver, that is also only triggered by a number in a specific range. The double safek renders activating the switch permissible since the only action being performed is the moving of a piece of plastic. The switch also has a normal mode that allows it to function as a regular light switch. Read this for a better explanation.

Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz, of Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere, called it “brilliant.”

“Theoretically it’s possible the light will never turn on till after Shabbat,” he said in a talk on YU Torah. “Practically, it turns on after 30 seconds,”

Most of the question boils down to four different definitions of Gerama that Rabbi Student describes, but that we won’t go into here. If you hold of the first approach, the KosherSwitch is fine. If you hold the second, because of the KosherSwitch’s innovation, you would be able to use it too.

The questions get thornier by the third and fourth approach. The third approach to Gerama is held by Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (as reported by Rabbi Hershel Schachter) and the fourth by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. In those cases, the use of the KosherSwitch may be problematic.

KosherSwitch, controversial as it may be, has a number of prominent rabbis signing off on it. (One endorsement from Rabbi Sternbuch was pulled, and Rabbi Student writes that Rabbi Yisroel Belsky forbids it).

One interesting feature of the KosherSwitch its approbations have been published with accompanying videos so you can investigate them for yourself. There isn’t much doubt about the approval of Rabbi Noach Oelbaum, of Kew Gardens Hills, NY, who states in his video: “There’s no question of any melacha being done by using that switch, but metzad sheni [another side] I recommend anyone ask their own Rav if it is in the spirit of Shabbat.”

Either way, at the end of the third day of KosherSwitch’s Indigogo campaign, they raised 90% of their funding budget to begin production. The KosherSwitch, like other famous Shabbat-friendly concepts, from eruvin to the Kosher Lamp, may become part of the fabric of modern Jewish life.

Update

JTA’s Uriel Heilman has an article about the KosherSwitch and writes that Rabbi Noach’s Oelbaum’s son, Moshe Oelbaum, told the JTA that his father’s position was distorted.

“I regret that my father’s position on kosher switch was misrepresented by stating that he endorses it l’maaseh,” he wrote and, while not a violation of the laws of Shabbat, the KosherSwitch is a desecration of the spirit of Shabbat.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.