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Parsha Acharei Mot

May 4, 2015

Kosher Switch for Shabbas: Is it ok?
Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5775
Shmuel Herzfeld

In March there was a horrific tragedy when a fire on a Friday night in Brooklyn killed seven Jewish children. This tragedy caused many of us to cry and shake with sadness, especially when it was reported that one cause of the fire may have been a hotplate that the family left on for 24 hours in order to heat the food in a kosher way for Shabbat.

Following this tragedy, many people asked me if they could heat their food with timers on Shabbat so that they don’t have to leave their electrical appliances on for 24 straight hours.

Recently a company called Kosher Switch--with the tagline, “control electricity on Shabbat”—launched a very successful crowd funding campaign to raise capital for their product.

The Kosher Switch claims that they have figured out a mechanical way to turn on an doff light switches on Shabbat without violating the Shabbat. Their website states:

“When you slide the on/off button, you’re moving an isolated piece of plastic. It is purely mechanical, and is not attached to anything electrical (electro-mechanically isolated). This is done at a time when you see a green Status Light, which provides 100% assurance that the relevant components within the switch are inactive. Subsequently, after a random interval, the device will activate and determine the position of the plastic by flashing an internal light pulse. The attached light fixture will be triggered only after the switch overcomes two failure probability processes – one prior to this light pulse and one after it. Halachically, your action is simply the movement of an isolated piece of plastic with no implications of causation.”

They support their argument with quotations and videos and letters from leading rabbis.

On the other hand, many other rabbis vehemently argue that using the kosher switch is prohibited and presents an existential danger to the observance of Shabbat. They argue that the Kosher Switch is simply a gramma, an indirect action that is prohibited on Shabbat unless it is for a situation of catastrophic loss. They say that there is nothing new about the Kosher Switch. The idea of combining technology with a gramma has been around for decades and there is thus nothing new about the Kosher Switch. (Here is a summary of some of the issues in the debate: )

First for some historical perspective:

The debate over the limitations and applicability of the laws of Shabbat is an old issue.

One major source for this discussion is a pasuk in our portion.

The Torah states: “Ushemartem et chukotai…va-chai bahem, you shall guard my laws and commandments…and live by them” (18:5).

The Talmud (Yoma 85b) asks the question: From where do we know that one can push off the Shabbat in order to save a life? Answers the Talmud: “va-chai bahem, ve-lo she-yamut bahem. We must live by the laws and not die by the laws.”

The very fact that the Talmud asks this question specifically about Shabbat hints to us that this idea that one can violate the Shabbat in order to save a life was itself at one time controversial.

Indeed, other sources tell us that it was a controversial idea.

The First Book of Maccabees tells us (2:29-37) that in the time of the Maccabees the Greeks attacked the Jews and killed 1000 Jews because the Jewish people refused to fight on Shabbat. The Jews quickly decided that from then on they should fight on Shabbat.
But more than 200 years later, Josephus tells us that even though they Jews had agreed to fight on the Shabbat, they still would not violate the Shabbat if it was only an indirect and non immediate attack. Thus, in his Antiquities (14 4:2-3) he writes that the Romans built a siege ramp to overcome the walls of Jerusalem and that they were only able to build this ramp because: “Even though the law permits us to protect ourselves against attacks, it still does not permit us to engage our enemies when they are not [directly attacking].”
Clearly, a new approach was needed. Around this time, the Talmud tells us that a group of scholars gathered in the attic of a man named Natzah in Lod and they took a vote and decided that a person should violate the whole Torah to save a life with the exception of three sins: idolatry, illicit relations, and murder. “Nimnu ve-gmaru be-aliyat beit natzah be-lod, kol aveirot she-betorah chutz mei-avodat zarah, giloi arayot, ve-shefichut damim…yaavor ve-al yei-hareg. Mai taima, va-chai bahem” (Sanhedrin, 74a).
Notice that they had to take a vote. This indicates that this was not a self-evident or even widely accepted view. The notion of violating the Shabbat in order to save one’s life sounds like it was a radical but necessary transformation in Jewish law.
The debate swirling around Shabbat in the late Second Temple period was not only about whether or not it was permitted to violate a Shabbat in order to save a life, but also about things that we take for granted today like the concept of lighting Shabbat candles.
The Mishnah (Shabbat 2:7) requires every household to say before the onset of Shabbat: “hidliku et ha-nerot, light the Shabbat candles.” Some scholars see in this command a response to a debate at the time between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. They argue that the Sadducees did not allow any fire even to remain lit on the Shabbat and that one was required to sit in the dark all of Shabbat . In response the Pharisees felt so strongly that this approach was wrong, that they required people to literally light a fire just before Shabbat started in order to disprove the Sadducees. The position attributed to the Sadducees by some scholars was a position that was adopted by the much later sect known as the Kaarites. (See Bernard Revel, The Kaarite Halakhah. Page 49. See also, Abraham Geiger, Judaism and its History, 266.)

And now for some modern perspective on how laws of Shabbat and attitudes about the observance of Shabbat have developed:

In 1977, Rav Moshe Feinstein, wrote a responsum in which her argued very strongly against the use of any timers on Shabbat. Rav Moshe said with respect to timers, “ein lekhah zilzul gadol mizeh, there is no greater cheapening of Shabbat.“ He further argued that timers were basically the functional equivalent of asking a gentile to perform prohibited work for you on Shabbat and that if this was in the time of the Talmud the sages of the Talmud would have prohibited timers just like they prohibited asking a gentile to violate Shabbat. Rav Moshe contended that the use of timers on Shabbat is a ziluta de-Shabbat, a disgrace of Shabbat. He did however, permit the use of timers for turning lights on and off on Shabbat, because that was already a widespread practice and also because he felt that that was not a ziluta de-Shabbat.

As great a posek as Rav Moshe Feinstein was, and as widely respected as he continues to be, his firm ruling here does not seem to have been accepted. And the vast majority of poskim do allow use of timers on Shabbat for a variety of reasons and not just limited to turning lights on and off on Shabbat.

Personally speaking I faced a similar issue as the rabbi of our shul when it came to negotiating with the city over the installation of a Hawk traffic light in front of our shul. The city told me that they wanted to install such a light, which they believed would make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street in front of our shul. The light would only be activated if a person would walk up to it and their presence would signal to the traffic light that it should turn on and start to work.

Before getting back to the city I turned to an array of poskim -- from both the left and the right --for their guidance. The poskim all essentially told me the same thing: it is permitted to use the Hawk light on Shabbat for the following reasons which we can only mention here superficially:

The traffic light would not immediately operate, it was not certain exactly when the light would turn on, the light being illuminated was an LED light and not an incandescent bulb, the light that was generated was not directly to our benefit as we just wanted the traffic to stop and so we really didn’t want the red light to illuminate, and it was for a great communal need. Others have suggested to me that the Hawk light should also be permitted, as one is not actively doing anything with their hands.

So if the Hawk traffic light is allowed perhaps then the kosher switch should also be allowed. And even if the current make-up of the Kosher Switch is not kosher, it would just be a matter of time before an engineer could manipulate the Kosher Switch to be in accordance with the technology of the Hawk light.

Of course, a major difference between the Hawk light and the Kosher Switch is that the Hawk light is about communal safety and not simple convenience. But is it really? I pointed out to the poskim who allowed the Hawk light that there is another light one block down that is a regular traffic light and I asked can we still use the Hawk light. They said, “yes.”

Another major difference regarding the Kosher Switch and perhaps one day a Shabbos approved smart phone is that people are concerned that if we allow these technologies it will lead to a ziluta de-shabbas.

People cherish the idea that Shabbos allows them to shut down from the world around them. They fear that allowing shabbas approved technology into our homes will destroy that special one-day a week break we get from our addition to our smart phones and everything associated with them.

I am sympathetic to this approach. Shabbas should be a time for increased spirituality and Torah study and davening and festive meals with our family and friends. The allowance of technology is a great threat to that.

However, if something is allowed on Shabbas then we should be careful about imposing our own biases about what Shabbas should be in response to excesses that we see in the world around us; i.e. we shouldn’t change the Shabbas to prohibit something just because we don’t like what the world around us looks like.

Lets go back to the pasuk that allows us to violate the shabbas to save a life -- va-chai bahem. The verse doesn’t only mean that. It also means that shabbas must be dynamic and alive. We have to live by the laws of the Torah—in this world, today. The Torah Temimah explains that the Torah in this week’s portion compares the observance of Shabbat to the holiness of the Temple Mount in order to teach us that the observance of Shabbat is eternal (19:30, note 231).

We can all imagine a world in which 50 years from now this debate will seem as obsolete as the technology we are discussing. Just imagine for a moment what you think a typical Shabbat experience looked like for a family 500 years ago or even 100 years ago. Fifty years from now, there many not even be LED lights or light switches. But there will still be the Shabbas to observe. We should be wary of saying something is prohibited just because we have too much of it during the week. That is our own fault, not the fault of Shabbas. Leave Shabbas alone.

A second point relates to a third pasuk in this Torah portion that relates to Shabbas. The Torah tells us in the same pasuk (19:3) that we must both honor our parents and observe the Shabbas. The Talmud tells us that the two commandments are placed together in order to teach us the law that if our parents tell us to violate the Shabbat we are not supposed to listen to them (Bava Metzia 32a).

But what about the grey areas where we do have conflicting values and it’s not a total violation of the Shabbas. Think about the case of that ramp that Josephus talks about in Antiquities.

We can compare Josephus’ ramp to a case where someone wants to use a shabbas approved smartphone in order to prevent a dangerous situation. For example:
a) A kosher switch for a cooking appliance that presents safety concerns (real or imagined);
b) or lets say we are growing older and more forgetful and we have important medicine that needs to be taken and we need to remind ourselves to take it;
c) or lets say we have an elderly relative being cared for by a new aide and we want to check on the relative on shabbas.

So sure, if your parents tell you to violate the shabbas, then we should not listen to our parents. But what if they aren’t telling us, what if we are concerned about their health and so we want to adjust the setting of their heating unit using a kosher switch? And what if the action is not a violation of the shabbas, but simply a “ziluta” of shabbas?

In all these cases we have competing values. And it is not so simple to say “just guard the shabbas” when maybe the shabbas isn’t technically being violated.

These are the difficult questions that need to be addressed very carefully on a case by case basis. They will all be addressed by qualified poskim over the next years. The answer to these questions is not to hide behind ad hominem attacks and incendiary rhetoric. The answer is va-chai bahem. We cannot be afraid to ask these difficult questions and certainly should not be afraid of the answers. Some might say that these situations present an existential threat to Shabbas. But they don’t. Shabbas is eternal. There will come a time when the iphone and the light switch will be artifacts in a museum that our grandchildren will have to ask us to explain. But at that same time people will still be observing the shabbas—it may not look exactly the same as the way it looks today – there may be a kosher switch or two in our lives --but it will still be the shabbas kodesh!

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