Electricity on Yom Tov – A Meqori Perspective

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The following video (actually, it is an audio shi’ur uploaded to YouTube) was sent to me by a close friend in Israel. The speaker, Rabbi Haim Ovadia, an Israeli-Sefaradi rabbi who received his semikhah from HaRav Mordekhay Eliyahu z”l after studying at the Shehebar Center in Jerusalem and is now a community rabbi in Rockville, Maryland. He is fully-orthodox and also possesses several degrees from various universities. Yet, he admits that his children grew up in a home where they made full use of electricity on yomiym toviym. He also relates that using electricity was the predominant Sefardic practice until more recent times when it was abandoned for political reasons.

There have been many halakhists who have either permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov (and Shabbath) or have argued for its permissibility. Its use, of course, is limited by the boundaries of melakhah, but barring these concerns – according to Rabbi Ovadia and several of the poseqiym he cites – electricity can actually enhance the joy of the holiday. Imagine being able to microwave food on Yom Tov, or use the dishwasher, or turn lights on and off. It could make a real difference.

One of the arguments made by contemporary mahmiyriym who prohibit the use of electricity on either Shabbath or Yom Tov is that those who did permit it were simply ignorant about how electricity “actually” works. This, as stated by Rabbi Haim Ovadia in the shi’ur, is completely fallacious. The claims made by Haredi-Hasidic groups (usually Ashkenaziym) about electricity have been essentially as follows: [1] Electricity is fire, [2] electricity is (at least safeq) moliydh, makeh be-patiysh, boneh, or some other melakhah de-oraytha, [3] both of these claims were debunked by both science and halakhic reasoning (by both Sefaradiym AND Ashkenaziym) so they admit that it isn’t fire and is [probably] not a melakhah, but [4] those who permitted it in previous decades “didn’t really understand how it works.” So, they began by mistakenly prohibiting it by identifying it as fire, but even after having been conclusively disproven, they maintain that those halakhists who permitted it were just ignorant – which is a convenient claim since most of them have died and cannot defend themselves. This is ridiculous.

Further, it is just another version of the argument for latter-day “kabbalah” in the face of outright contradictions with Torah and halakhah. When confronted with texts written by Saadyah Gaon, Rambam, Rashi, Tosafoth, Ramban, and others who explicitly rejected teachings which were later espoused by the Zohar literature, Luria and his followers, and Hasidism they simply assert that these early authorities were ignorant and mistaken, claiming that they “did not have a mesoireh in the kabboloh” – a statement that is so incredibly stupid and fallacious that it would not be worthy of argument if so many people had not been taken in by it.

Now, just to be sure, while I am certainly an advocate a person’s right to choose whether they will use electricity on yomiym toviym, I am not for poking people in the eye, as it were, with the results of such a choice. What I mean is that there are those who are secure and socially adept who can choose how they will conduct themselves and the lives of their families within their own homes – these people are wise, and they are even more wise if there are ready with sources to calmly and cogently defend their religious practices to those onlookers who might express concern. There are others, however, who are socially inept and feel that it is their business to advertise everything about themselves that is either controversial or out of the mainstream, and then incite arguments with other members of their communities – these people are fools, and even if they knew all the sources to defend themselves, wisdom would still escape them.

As a movement, meqori’iym desperately need to overcome the tendency to want to the throw down at any given moment with fellow Jews or to figuratively wear their “Ani Ma’amiyn” on their sleeve (as Rav Ratson Arusi once personally taught me). We do not owe anyone a statement of faith just because they demand it, but we do owe others respect even if they do not. The rare times that call for harsh or direct exchanges with others should be done with care.

The following mishnayoth from Pirqey Avoth (1:12-17) encapsulate these principles:

TEXT

הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם.  הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה הוא היה אומר נגד שמא אבד שמא דילא מוסיף יסוף ודילא יליף קטלא חייב ודישתמש בתגא חלף

הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתיי

שמאי אומר עשה תורתך קבע אמור מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקביל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות

רבן גמליאל אומר עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק ואל תרבה לעשר אומדות

שמעון בנו אומר כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה ולא המדרש הוא העיקר אלא המעשה וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלושה דברים העולם קיים על הדין ועל האמת ועל השלום

TRANSLATION

“Hillel and Shamma’iy received the [the Oral Torah] from [Shema’yah and Avtalyon]. Hillel says, ‘Be like the students of Aharon; love peace and pursue peace; love your fellow creatures and bring them near to the Torah.’ He used to say, ‘One who announces (i.e. to seek personal renown) his name destroys his name. One who does not increase [peace], diminishes. One who does not learn [these lessons] is deserving of death.’ And, ‘One who makes personal use of the Crown [i.e. the Torah] will perish.’

“He used to say, ‘If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself [only], what am I? If not now, when?'”

“Shamma’iy says, ‘Make your Torah [study] a fixed practice. Say little and do much. Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.'”

“Rabban Gamli’el says, ‘Appoint for yourself a rav and [thereby] remove yourself from [halakhic] doubt.’ And, ‘Do not increase tithing by estimation [i.e. this is an example of where you should remove legal doubts from your observance of halakhah].'”

“Shim’on his son says, ‘All my days I have grown up among hakhamiym and I have found nothing better for the body other than silence. And the study [of a matter] is not the main thing, but doing. And anyone who increases their words brings about sin.'”

“Rabban Shim’on ben Gamli’el says, ‘The world is upheld by three things: by the law, by the truth, and by peace.'”

May HaShem allow these things to enter our hearts.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your upcoming Yom Tov.

Kol tuv uverakhah,

YB

11 thoughts on “Electricity on Yom Tov – A Meqori Perspective

    • לק”י

      Shalom, Kalman.

      I don’t have to prove or disprove anything in order to be intellectually honest. What the Haredi-Hasidic world wants to deny is that there were a relatively large number of scholars, mostly Sefaradi but also Ashkenazi, who permitted it, understanding full-well how electricity works, and were capable poseqiym. If that fact bothers you, then perhaps we need to question your intellectual honesty.

      As for the document itself, I plan to read it in depth. I am fascinated and encouraged when modern halakhists, from whatever stripe or bent, decide to openly discuss and evaluate modern technologies in light of halakhic principles. It is very important for our future that such things are discussed and written about, not just proclaimed assur because they are new. I appreciate you sending it my way. Thank you.

      This quntres does not really apply to our discussion here, however, since it is talking about LED lights (which do not involve heat) vis-a-vis the laws of SHABBATH, not Yomiym Toviym. The two are very different, as you may or may not realize. This is why the majority of poseqiym who permitted electricity to be used on Yom Tov, nevertheless forbade its use on Shabbath for various reasons.

      Kol tuv,

      YB

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  1. Rabbi Ilan,

    Before I say anything else, please allow me to apologize.

    My comment obviously upset you. This was certainly not my intention. I was using brevity, and the ‘tone’ evidently came across as insulting. The fact that such claims encounter ’emotional’ opposition is one which merits the prohibition itself, as explained in the link.

    I am not the person you assume me to be.

    As it happens, I do not know how to contact Rabbi Haim Ovadia, as no contact info was included. The reason offered to prohibit electricity on Shabbat is one which would apply to Yom Tov as well (Chidush Toladot).

    Again, I hope you forgive any slight I caused you!
    Kalman Yehuda

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    • לק”י

      Shalom, Kalman.

      Apology accepted. No worries. It is true that tone is often difficult to discern in an email, however I was responding specifically to the “if you are intellectually honest, you have to…” This is not true, as I have said. And my response was not “emotional” with regard to the discussion of using electricity on Shabbath or Yom Tov at all. I completely reject ultimatums based on nothing; they are dishonest and are conversation stoppers, not starters. If you want a more congenial response, then perhaps asking what I think about the quntres or presenting counterpoints from it would be better than simply stating that my entire argument rests on me engaging some strange, independent, and otherwise unknown document. But even if it were emotional, that does not make it an invalid response. When one side in an argument labels the position of the other “emotional” it is essentially a dishonest attempt to discredit the other side without engaging with the content of their words. Anyhow, moving on.

      I read the document entitled Yehiy Ohr regarding the use of electricity on Shabbath, LED bulbs in particular. I must say that the author (Rabbi Yitzchak Brand) in many places just seems to make things up, especially in the way of midrashic comparisons – most of which have nothing to do with halakhah at all. His comparing the “black light” of the a computer screen with the “hidden light of creation” by which one can “see to the end of the world” was cute, perhaps, but has nothing to do with halakhic principles. His saying that the mere creation of light, by any means even without fire is a toldah of mav’ir because of the “let there be light” in the creation narrative was also cute, but also ultimately baseless. He spends the majority of the time discussing how we can determine toledhoth of avoth melakhah even though we are not in the times of Hazal, but this is of course true and no one disputes this. He bases the majority of his reasoning on his own midrashic hidhushiym and mystical sentiments (which also equate to midrash, not halakhah). I found the document muddled in its composition and not very helpful. The essential message I got from it was that as new technologies come out, the rabbis of today have the power to continue to forbid their use on Shabbath – as if we didn’t already understand the Haredi-Hasidic point of view.

      His argument about hidhush toladhoth is moot without incisive legal argumentation to back it up. Writing oneself a blank check denoting an ability to endlessly derive “toladhoth” – coupled with an equally healthy penchant for mystical midrashic comparisons – essentially leads to almost everything having the potential to be forbidden. And this type of [flawed] reasoning has sadly become the case in almost every Ashkenazi-Haredi-Hasidic sector of Judaism. But this is not how halakhah is to be determined. Otherwise, you could tell me that I am not allowed to close the door between a dark room and a lighted hallway. I mean, closing the door is basically kibuy (extinguishing), and then there is that whole “separated between the light and darkness” part of the creation narrative. So, just closing a door becomes melakhah on Shabbath? Such a position is ludicrous and false.

      The fact is that a large number of poseqiym permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov, and a number of them also allowed it to a certain degree on Shabbath as well (although within a very narrow scope). And all of these poseqiym knew what Rabbi Brand knows, and judging from his rather bland assessment of the issue, it seems that they likely knew much more than he does about the halakhic matters under discussion.

      If you disagree with my comments here, please give specific examples of where you think I am mistaken.

      Until next time,

      Kol tuv uverakhoth,

      YB

      (BTW – I am not a rabbi, at least not yet. Kol tuv)

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      • My ’emotional’ sentence was not a parting dig! I was saying the ’emotional’ reaction to forbid technology is what deems the prohibition valid, as above. The Midrashic language is not meant seriously of course; who is unaware of the Chasam Sofer’s point about ‘yoking’ mysticism with Halacha?

        The whole topic, with lengthier argumentation is in the second link I attached – which did not show up above somehow. Click HERE.

        As for turning doors, the point is that doors have always existed. You may certainly disagree, but let us be very precise in our disagreement. The claim is emphatically not ‘the rabbis of today have the power to continue to forbid their use on Shabbath’. Rather the claim is that these new technologies are subsumed under the original ‘de’oraisah’ itself, with all the Halachic implications thereof!

        And if Rabbi Brand’s approach is the classic one, why are ‘a large number of poseqiym’ opposed? The Rabbi is most definitely in the ‘meqori’ camp anyhow; just peruse his site for a bit.

        I quote your ‘About’ page;

        ‘Being meqori does not necessarily mean being the same thing or being in agreement on all halakhic and hashqafic issues with all other meqori’iym. Several streams of Judaism take a markedly source-based approach to halakhah: “Gra-niks” (students of the Vilna Gaon z”l), Dar Da`im, Baladi Yemenites, Spanish-Portuguese Jews, students of Hakham `Ovadyah Yosef z”l, Rav David Bar-Hayim of Makhon Shilo, and others…’

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      • לק”י

        Shavua` Tov, Kalman.

        I’m sorry that we seem to get so many of our lines crossed! I hear you on the emotional piece. Lots of issues are unfortunately settled in the realm of emotions apart from examinations of the actual facts.

        I disagree, I think that his midrashic language is very serious, as he does not back away from it or clarify that he is not serious. He practically begins by saying that one may be hayyav on Shabbath for anything which simply produces light, by any means. And this is simply not true. I will peruse the second link.

        The fact that doors have always existed is irrelevant. And new technologies are not simply thrown into a rubric of de-oraytha melakhoth and then forbidden with all attendant implications. Even the initial assumption that electricity should be equated with fire is a serious leap, yet the “classic” approach readily equates them and then says that any use of electricity is in the category of an “av melakhah.” This position is certainly the “safe” one, as anything new will be simply forbidden and dismissed.

        Rabbi Brand’s approach is not the classic one. It is the classically Ashkenazi one. Jews from all other camps have been willing to examine the issue openly (including a few Ashkenaziym), and many of them came to different conclusions with regard to electricity. Conclusions, I think, that are more true to the sources because they did not imply assume its status as an “av melakhah” and dispense with it, but they rigorously related to it through the sources.

        What makes Rabbi Brand specifically meqori in your mind? I am aware of what my About page says and what I wrote there, but lots of rabbis quote sources. What classifies someone as “being in the meqori camp” is their faithfulness to the sources despite long-held beliefs or customs to the contrary. Does Rabbi Brand do that? I have not seen that thus far. What I have seen is the opposite. However, this is not to say that his work is not necessarily important or that he is not an effective person. Both may be true, but I would not call him particularly meqori at this point.

        All the best,

        Kol tuv,

        YB

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  2. YB,

    I contacted Rabbi Ovadia, and haven’t gotten a full list yet. I also fully agree with your sentiments on using Conservative responsa to these questions.

    What helps is that I have just started making my way through the Hilkhoth Yom Tov of the Rambam, and am learning what is mutar and what is asur.

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    • YB,
      קיבלתי תשובה זו מהרב עובדיה ברוקויל

      ‘You can turn light on and off and use all kitchen appliances (oven, coffee machine, blender, dishwasher etc.)

      Vacuum is OK but should be limited to real necessities.’

      שוקי

      Like

      • לק”י

        Shalom,

        That’s great! I was very happy to see this list as it should be very helpful to other readers. Anything else you find out from Rabbi Ovadia would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing!

        All the best,

        Kol tuv,

        YB

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  3. The ‘midrashic language’ is never meant seriously, but as poetry. His style is to use or discard this sort of thing based on his goal at the time. I don’t think I can convince you, but see this link, e.g. “שגם הגנים התחלפו”:

    http://www.rabbibrand.022.co.il/BRPortal/br/P102.jsp?arc=141667&kw=%D7%AA%D7%92%D7%95%D7%91%D7%94-%D7%9E%D7%90%D7%AA-%D7%9E%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%9F-%D7%A4%D7%95%D7%A2%D7%94

    Rabbi Brand analyzes all things anew, including the nascent Sanhedrin, Zionism, women’s wigs, ascent to the temple mount, restoring monarchy, the obligation to blow trumpets for public distress, the modern sale of Chametz, Tcheles, Eruvin, etc., arriving at very many radical positions. I suggest you peruse his site a bit.

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    • לק”י

      I have already begun to peruse his site. His methodology (or, perhaps his style?) is different than what I am used to. Glad that you enjoy his work. It encourages me to see such heavy quotations from and use of the sources, rather than assertions like I see so often.

      My apologies for not reading you right in your first couple comments. Glad to be on track now.

      Shavua` Tov,

      YB

      Like

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