Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is Electricity in the Gemara?

In the comments to an earlier post, some discussion developed regarding whether the halachos of electricity are in the Gemara. Does the Gemara answer the modern question as to whether it is permitted to activate electrical items on Shabbos (I am not talking about electric lights, which is more problematic, but rather other electrical items)?

Various authorities have argued that activating an electrical circuit on Shabbos falls under the Talmudic prohibition of molid (creating something new), boneh (building) makeh bepatish (completing a construction), causing sparks, burning (the fuel), or cooking (the wires). Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, on the other hand, argued that electricity is not comparable to any of these things, and is thus only prohibited due to custom and due to the risk that it may lead someone to switch on an electric light.

Now, I am certainly not going to argue that Rav Shlomo Zalman is definitively correct; I do not even know how one could do so. However, the very fact of the existence of his view sheds light on the situation. Nowhere does the Gemara discuss electricity, because it hadn't been invented yet. Is electricity analogous to other activities described in the Gemara? In some ways, yes, and in other ways, no. So is it sufficiently analogous to the Gemara's activities to be prohibited? That is a matter of dispute between Poskim - i.e., it is a matter of personal judgment. The Gemara itself does not say whether electricity is analogous to these things!

27 comments:

  1. Nowhere does the Gemara discuss electricity, because it hadn't been invented yet.

    Strictly speaking, electricity was not "invented." People invented methods whereby it could be made useful. But it always existed.

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  2. What DES said. What changed was that electricity was recognized as a distinct phenomenon and had it properties and laws describes, enabling its use. People have been seeing lightning and getting static shocks since long before the gemara was written...

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  3. What do you mean when you say "personal judgement".

    Do you mean that any layman is qualified to make a personal judgement on this matter?

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  4. For more on this topic, RSZ's work: מאורי אש was republished last year. It also includes a collection of teshuvot and arcticles that he wrote and a third volume: קרני אורה by Rav Zalman Menahem Koren which summarizes mos of the issues and the opinions of RSZ and the Hazon Ish on each of them.

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  5. HaRav Prof Levi Ginsburg z'l used to enjoy telling this story:

    Dr. Alexander Marcus came to America from Germany roughly a hundred years ago. This was the first time he was exposed to elevators. On Shabbos they had to ascend a high building. Marcus asked Ginsburg if it was permitted to ride in the elevator. He replied that it was forbidden. Marcus then proceeded to climb the stairs. Ginsburg got in the elevator and went up. At the top Marcus confronted him with the contradiction. "I didn't ask a shaila" replied Ginsburg.

    Lest the gentle reader think that this is stam Lashon HaRa, in his biography "Keeper of the Law" it is stated that Ginsburg particularly enjoyed retelling this story.

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  6. Actually, there is some archeological evidence that electricity was known and used in Bavel in Gemorah times and earlier, albeit in somewhat limited fashion.
    the remains of curious earthenware jars lined with copper and with an iron rod in them have been found at several sites. The most rational explanation is that they are the remains of dry cell batteries. Their use is unknown but it is speculated that they may have been used for a form of electroplating.

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  7. Is electricity analogous to other activities described in the Gemara? In some ways, yes, and in other ways, no. So is it sufficiently analogous to the Gemara's activities to be prohibited? That is a matter of dispute between Poskim - i.e., it is a matter of personal judgment. The Gemara itself does not say whether electricity is analogous to these things!
    =============

    Which is why imho R' Asher Weiss puts it in makeh b'patish which he understands as a catch all category used by chazal for anything that did not fall into any other category but whose allowance would yield a significant depreciation in the sanctity of shabbat.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  8. In the time of the Gemara static electricity was certainly known, but the idea of flowing electricity, conductors vs. insulators, chemical and magnetic generation of electricity (i.e. what we now think of as "electricity") wasn't worked out until the 1700s at the earliest.

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  9. > puts it in makeh b'patish which he understands as a catch all category used by chazal for anything that did not fall into any other category but whose allowance would yield a significant depreciation in the sanctity of shabbat.

    Why not then just say that it’s not a melacha, but one shouldn’t do it because it will degrade Shabbos?

    If flipping a switch is makeh b’patesh because it completes a circuit, then closing a gate whichcompletes a fence, turning a faucet which completes the pipeline to your sink, opening (or closing) a bottle which makes it useful… these should also be assur.

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  10. Knowing that there is a very credible posek who holds that turning on (and using) electrical gadgetry on Shabbat is only “due to minhag” is quite applicable.

    Consider any of the following.
    a) a baby (or elderly person) can’t sleep because it is extremely hot. Do you turn on the fan on shabbat?
    b) Using the phone for urgent (but not life threatening) situations. (one can dream up dozens of scenarios).
    c) Electric cart for an invalid to go to shul.
    d) Non-shabbos elevator for d’var mitzvah or other urgent scenario.

    Etc. etc.etc.

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  11. Why not then just say that it’s not a melacha, but one shouldn’t do it because it will degrade Shabbos?
    ==========
    Perhaps because people tend to ignore such pronouncements based on their own reasoning?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  12. minhag Yisrael k'din. that makes it assur.

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  13. > Perhaps because people tend to ignore such pronouncements based on their own reasoning?

    Maybe so, but pretending something is a melacha when it’s not cheapens halachah and amounts to lying to the masses. Besides, why not make it a category like muktzah? No one holds it’s melacha to move a pencil, but everyone avoids doing so.

    > minhag Yisrael k'din

    It’s this little gem that’s responsible for Judaism becoming ever-more complicated.

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  14. Check out the mythbusters episode where they test an ancient babalonian device which they prove stores and discharged electricity. Noone knows what the electricity jars were used for, but they did exist.

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  15. Opening and closing a water faucet is directly analogous to flipping an electric switch. Allowing electrons to flow in a current is directly analogous to allowing water molecules to flow through a faucet. Stopping the electric current is directly analogous to stopping the water current.

    [Humor alert]Of course, if we had the custom of placing our Shabbat candles under faucets, it would become assur to turn water on and off during Shabbat.
    Gary Goldwater

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  16. I am not an expert in Shabbat or electricity, but Nireh Li:
    Can't be fire: Energy in fire comes from electrons coming closer to a nucleus, energy in electricity comes from the flow of electrons.
    Can't be Makeh BiPatish: Electrons always flow regardless of a circuit (see Electron Sea Model), and even in a when the circuit breaker (ie. the switch) is thrown electrons continue to flow across the gap (albeit at highly reduced rate).
    Can't be Boneh: See Makeh Bipatish, the flowing is always there even when the circuit breaker is thrown.
    Can't be Molid: See Makeh Bipatish, the flow is always there.
    Can't be Sparks: They are purely accidental and can be eliminated.
    Can't be Burning (the fuel): The useful electrons made by harnessing the energy of burning fuel have many steps in between the burning and their harnessing, and even the electrons are removed innumerable times from your use of them (they move another electron which moves another electron etc.)
    Can't be Cooking (the wires): Heat in the wire is usually accidental and can be reduced, and possible eliminated in a superconducting system.

    What then is it?
    -A halachah based on a misunderstanding.
    -A minhag based on a misunderstanding or a temporary situation.
    -A belief that electricity would allow people to do things on shabbat that would be "unshabbesdik".

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  17. Electricity hadn't been invented yet at the time of the Gemara? Of course it had! It was discovered hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Yechezkel. He writes it himself in Chapter 1 verse 4 of his sefer: "Va'ere...umitocha k'en hachashmal mitoch ha'esh." (:-)

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  18. FWIW, Rabbi Shlomo Sternberg says and writes explicitly that non-light, non-heat electricity is completely permitted on Shabbat -- that if the electricity just adds to something already muttar (e.g. electric knife, electric door lock) then the electricity is muttar also.

    I think Rabbi Sternberg is a congregational Rav, but not an international posek.

    His tshuva is mentioned in some of the comments of this post:
    http://torahmusings.com/2010/09/the-partially-observant/

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  19. Thank you for posting this. I think it makes your argument much more clear.

    Interestingly, and maybe to further your point...
    When I took a shiur on this subject none of the conclusions which you brought up were the conclusions of our Shiur. Rather we looked at the Gemora regarding responsibility for damages from a flood, of blocking or removing a dam in a river. We also concluded that "electricity" as a whole is not a valid subject. Rather we have a few different categories. 1. Machines which do melacha on Shabbat (such as writing, or building or milling etc.) 2. Electrical devices which heat up an element and might create a halachic fire. 3. Turning on/off electrical devices 4. Mukzeh electrical devices. (A power drill for example) 5. Altering an already on/off electrical device.

    Some devices came under the malachot that you enumerated in your post, but most other cases was a question of Mukzeh or Kavod Shabat. New E-paper and E-book devices were not covered back then, but I often wonder what the direction of those devices would be. Is it mamash writing, or will they be allowed if only e-books exist? Or will the Orthodox Jewish community ensure that paper books are never truly dead?

    Anyway, thank you again for making your position clear without the baggage of an emotional issue.

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  20. Danny Levy:
    I presume you are joking with your remark about Yechezkel, but, just in case you (or a reader) doesn't realize it, the word Chashmal in Yechezkel means "amber;" amber in Greek is elektron (or something like that), from which the word electricity came. The use of chashmal to mean electricity is an invention of the last century or so.

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  21. RSZA was concerned about the appliance, not the electricity.

    As I understand it, the issue was whether the turning on of the appliance would generate heat or light.

    If the appliance generates neither (an electric fan, for instance), then he prohibited turning it on due to wanting to subordinate himself to those who he viewed as being greater than himself.

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  22. "If the appliance generates neither (an electric fan, for instance),"

    Odd example. Anything with a motor generates heat through the friction.

    An mp3 player with no screen might be a better example.

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  23. I haven't seen the statement about the permissibility of some electrical appliances on shabbat by Rabbi Shlomo Sternberg. If this is the famous rav and Harvard mathematician/physicist of that name then I would assume that he is fully aware of the physics of electrical generation, distribution, and utilization in sundry appliances - as well as the halachic categories of melacha. However, I would disagree with his alleged assertion. While there may be no violation of negative biblical prohibitions concerning work on shabbat, there is a nullification of a positive commandment. At the beginning of Vayakhel we read, "For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day shall you consider holy - (a day of) total cessation (of work)..". Now, today much of our work is done by electrical means. Then that verse requires us, it seems to me, to refrain from such use in order to make the day special, holy, and dedicated to GOD. Of course, it is also understood that electrical appliances activated before the start of shabbat and serving a legitimate shabbat function are permitted on shabbat.

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  24. I should have added a caveat to the end of my last post "on a biblical level". In practice, some poskim are concerned with rabbinic scruples such as marit eiyin when it comes to appliances operated via timers preset before shabbat.

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  25. Lawrence Kaplan Comments:

    Y. Aharon: It is indeed he. I read Rabbi Prof. Sternberg's Teshuvah. He wrote in connection with the permissiblity of the use of electric keys on Shabbat in Harvard dorms.

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  26. Prof. Kaplan, if R.D. Shlomo Sternberg limited his remarks to the issue of electronic door locks, then I would not wish to be critical. Such a case is a far cry from voluntarily operating electrical appliances on shabbat. For one, it is something imposed on the student or hotel guest. There should therefore be room for leniency since it would otherwise effectively trap the person in his room over shabbat. Particularly, when there is no clear issur involved (the activation of an LED light doesn't count as turning on a fire).

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  27. Here's a link to an article about ancient batteries:

    http://irrationalgeographic.wordpress.com/2009/05/28/the-baghdad-batteries-were-humans-able-to-generate-electricity-in-250-bc/

    (If this is true, then maybe you should put an asterisk in your post next to "electricity, because it hadn't been invented yet.")

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