Electricity on Shabbat? My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Jewish Standard Column for March 2020

Electricity on Shabbat? My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Jewish Standard Column for March 2020

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

Members of my community of Orthodox Jews who are shomer Shabbos refrain from turning on and off all electrical devices to observe their Shabbat rest. So, on Friday nights and Saturdays our practice is not to use, for instance, our phones or TVs or computers. And we don’t turn on or off lights or fans or heaters.

Lately, I’ve become lax in keeping these rules, especially regarding my use of my smart phone, my computer and my Alexa Amazon Echo devices. I feel that using these devices enhances my rest and my leisure. And I have found that avoiding them makes me uneasy, not relaxed or restful.

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I don’t publicly advertise my actions. But it’s increasingly evident to me that my family knows what I am doing and that they quietly disapprove.

I am worried and need your advice. Am I sinning by my behavior? I feel strongly that what I am doing is not a violation of any rules and likely will continue my uses. But what can I do regarding my actions if this all blows up and causes social friction in my family and community?

Electrified in Englewood

Dear Electrified,

Establishing sacred time is a powerful part of all religions. The notion that we Jews spend one day a week in a special world of restful restrictions starting on sundown on Friday is an amazing claim to make. And at the same time, it is hard for the community to enforce the Sabbath taboos.

On the one hand you should recall that to keep people aware of the seriousness of the Sabbath, the biblical punishment for violating the Sabbath was announced as stoning to death. That gives you an idea of how earnestly keeping the Sabbath was treated within traditional Judaism. For Orthodox Jews, being shomer Shabbos is at the essential core of being a good Jew.

But on the other hand, you should not agonize overly much about this. You are not going to get stoned or electrocuted for your behavior by anyone these days. Should you become known as a lax observer, at most you may find yourself subject to quiet disapproval and perhaps some social ostracism from the tribe by those who are adamant that what you are doing is forbidden.

And you should know that these Shabbat electricity taboos are complex and subject to numerous debates and disagreements. Sabbath regulations are one of the most intricate areas of Jewish law. And thus, some great rabbis have ruled at times that some actions that people refrain from in our commonplace communal life are not technically prohibited by Torah law.

To be sure, throughout the ages there have been disputes over what is permitted and what is forbidden within the tradition about many behaviors. The ancient Talmud is built on the analysis of disputes between rabbis and their followers over the thousands of details of Jewish life.

In the first century for example, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai went on record, as we find in the Mishnah, clashing about more than 300 issues of Jewish law. Yet we are told clearly that this did not create a schism in the society of the time. And we know that they did not stone anyone for engaging in disputes.

The children of one school still married the children of the other. They knew back then how to argue legitimately over interpretations of what the Torah mandated for a proper life.

More recently though, the Talmudic attitude abiding a pluralistic Judaism has given way over the years, the centuries, to a much more rigorous form of social expectation. The rigorous halachic world of contemporary Orthodox society does not tolerate much diversity of opinion or action. The ancient sages of the Talmud likely would be uncomfortable with the expectations of rigid conformity now implicitly expected in our Orthodox synagogues, neighborhoods, and towns.

But plural behavior is going to be part of any healthy society, no matter how much it values inflexible traditionalism. And as you vividly bring up, today, we know there is a growing of concern and discussion in the Orthodox community over this type of issue regarding the Sabbath use of electronic devices.

Mostly the discussion takes the form of technical analyses of how and why using various electrical devices violates the Shabbos regulations. These deliberations often are lengthy and complex, involving the opinions and alleged precedents of rabbis going back through the Middle Ages to the age of the Talmud in Late Antiquity.

But hold on. We know that before 100 years ago there were no electronic devices to discuss or debate. There was no electricity in ancient times. Plainly, the Torah could not know of it. So, it cannot be a direct Torah prohibition to refrain from using the devices in question on Shabbos.

Obviously, the Talmud could not conceive of electricity. Likewise, the medieval rabbis could not have imagined electronic devices. So how, you may ask, could anyone forbid actively using electronics on Shabbos, even as a rabbinic taboo?

Add to this the obvious fact that electricity itself is not a visible entity in any of its forms. You cannot see the electricity in our wires or in our over-the-air transmissions of TV, through mobile networks (2G, 3G, 4G or 5G) or in our Wi-Fi waves. It’s valid to ask, then, how can you forbid the invisible?

The answer is that through clever analogies and metaphoric techniques, the contemporary rabbis say that pressing a button or flicking a switch to activate invisible electrical actions is analogous to building a visible structure or at least to hammering a physical nail — and both of those are labors that are forbidden by the Torah on Shabbos.

But as you may already have been told, the most prevalent justification for the electricity taboo is that activating or de-activating the devices that run on electricity violates “the spirit of the Shabbos.” And it is said to be “not Shabbosdik.”

This “no” to telephones and TVs and cell phones — all powered by invisible electrons — is because these devices negate the “sanctity of the Sabbath day.” That holiness of the day also is powered by invisible spirits — such is the mystical nature of religious belief.

You find yourself in the middle of the clash of these imperceptible and unseen powers, and in a quandary, and you are asking for advice.

Well, my apologies to you. All of this is an area of authority that is way above this humble rabbi’s pay grade. I cannot tell you in this instance how to rectify your actions to conform to the unseen powers of the universe, whether electrical or metaphysical.

Hence, I cannot tell you if you are sinning on the Sabbath by eagerly texting to your friends on your iPhone, or by enjoying a Bill Maher comedy show on HBO, or by quietly reading a book on your Kindle tablet.

Maybe you are sinning — violating critical norms of sanctity and spirit — or maybe you are engaging in those perfect and valid forms of rest and leisure that are proper and appropriate fulfillments to your Shabbos and to your being.

However, I can tell you that this divide in your life is emblematic of larger social divides in our Jewish communities. And that is a problem that urgently and constantly needs the attention of prudent religious leaders.

It really comes down to continually and sensitively clarifying the question of who is a good Jew. Who is validly observing our core lifestyles and religious values?

Right now, Orthodox Jews, by consensus, publicly and universally accept the Shabbos electricity prohibition. So yes, you do put yourself outside that community if you choose to flout that taboo.

If you come out in the open on this matter, Orthodox people will say that “Electrified” is not a good Jew because he/she uses a phone and TV on Shabbos.

Do you want to be subject to that criticism? The good news may be that you can be discreet and hide your actions and use your electrical devices in private and still maintain your good standing.

But I will ask on your behalf, to follow up on your inquiry, wouldn’t that bifurcate your existence and cause you to act hypocritically? You will need to decide how to live comfortably within your own religious skin.

Whatever you do about these electrical devices, the overwhelming result of keeping the Sabbath for any Jew is to gain a sharper focus on your state of mindful actions. Sabbath becomes a day of mindfully considering every action that we take and asking whether it is permitted or forbidden for us.

And the Sabbath teaches us that we ought to consider as well whether our every activity is good or bad for the world.

This is not a new insight. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1951, in his classic book “The Sabbath,” “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money … is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”

That’s some profound food for thought for you, Electrified, as you ponder this Friday night or Saturday morning whether or not to ask your Amazon Alexa Echo device for the weather report as you dress to prepare to attend your synagogue services.

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published many scholarly and popular articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to the adherents of all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find this column in the Jewish Standard, usually on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to zahavy@gmail.com

[First published March, 2020]

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