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Thoughts on the Kosher Switch

April 29, 2015

1. For obvious reasons, you can not find the halachoth of switches and electricity in the classical codes. Electricity only became a household item a little more than a century ago, depending upon where you lived, and despite the many halachic authorities who did not see electricity as a sabbath-problem in and of itself, it became the conventional wisdom that flicking on a household light switch on the Sabbath was prohibited because most switches controlled incandescent lightbulbs, and activating those is a straight violation of anti-m’lacha regulations, or because switches controlled other machines, like washing machines, that also performed m’lachoth. An ordinary, electro-mechanical switch can only be as prohibited as the device it controls, and everything we know about the rules of timers, switches, and so forth assumes the worst. Nowadays, we have many electrical devices that are not inherently forbidden and, most importantly, our lightbulbs are increasingly less likely to be performing m’lachoth. Many pos’qim have acknowledged that the time has come to reevaluate the way we relate to electricity.

2. As technology advances, the everyday actions performed by and associated with our technologies will by force become less and less analogous to the forbidden labors that were performed in the preparation of the Tabernacle. The consequence: expect more technology that makes achieving the results of many classical m’lachoth much more easy, and often by completely circumventing the m’lacha. This is one of the basic principles behind all of the gizmos and gadgets that the Israeli military, Zomet, et al., are always developing. 

3. Consider that the following might be perfectly permissible on the Sabbath: Creating a controlled nuclear fission or fusion reaction without a thermal trigger. Yes, both would generate a lot of heat, but like utilizing solar energy and volcanic heat, they are not analogous to classical fire, coals, and glowing metals, and therefore permissible and never prohibited by the Rabbis. Unless, of course, modern authorities step in and declare that they are prohibited because of their result and despite their dissimilarity to that which used to be done. Case in point: Watering plants is usually considered a m’lacha because it makes them grow, but providing plants with sunlight and fresh air often achieves the same purpose and is done for that purpose, yet neither were ever remotely prohibited on the Sabbath, because, once again, they have nothing to do with activities performed in the Tabernacle. Yet, 20th-century authorities like the Chazon Ish did eventually prohibit both. The position was not accepted by many of their contemporaries:  how did people walk around outside for thousands of years without alternately casting shadows on and illuminating plants that lived along their paths? 

4. Something inside me tells me that there are some parties that may not endorse the idea of a kosher switch only because they themselves did not invent it. I was also thinking about, for example, how the Zomet institute creates these types of devices, like the Grama electric outlet, and also certifies them. That’s like the food purveyor certifying his own products as kosher, and then declaring that other purveyors’ products are not. Lest you say that Zomet only makes products for use in exceptional circumstances, like hospitals for instance, then note that before every Yom Tov rolls around, they advertise their Chagaz device, which somehow circumvents the prohibition against extinguishing flames on the Festival, for everyday home use. They would do well to explain why it is that all their contraptions are Kosher, but others’ are not, or to just not cast aspersions lest their ideas also get called into question.

5. Rabbi Yair Hoffman, who has yet to acknowledge my refutation of his claim that Maimonides did not identify the Karaites with the Sadducees, invokes the “are you a a gadol/Rav Elyashiv?” fallacy, among others. It is surprising that no other blogger has yet to properly fisk him.  Firstly, there are still parts of the world that respect local pos’qim and have not fallen for the Daas-Torah doctrine. Secondly, we can use this for any halachic ruling anybody makes. If a certain rav permits x, just say that sorry, that particular question is out of his league because it may affect actual halacha, and therefore the question has to be brought to someone bigger. It has no place in Talmudic thought. In classical Jewish courts, the junior-most members were made to express their opinions first, and Moses himself told the rabbinic judges whom he appointed to only consult him when they did not know. The repercussions of this invention are also not that bad: for a brief period of Jewish history these things called switches were both common in houses and problematic on the Sabbath, and now they are not. So what? As an aside, assuming a particular rabbi or Rabbis did have universal authority, it does not mean that a particular ruling that can potentially be seen around the world needs to be vetted by them. When local rabbis rule about how and when to mow one’s lawn during sh’mitta, do they have to consult with Daas Torah? After all, the entire Jewish community can hear about and potentially follow that ruling! Rather, if there were a centralized authority, it would have the right to issue rulings that bind everyone or to overturn local rulings. But no one ever said that individual, qualified rabbanim should abstain from issuing honest rulings, even if they are permissive.  

6. If some rabbis can not find anything problematic about the Kosher Switch, but resort to cautiously prohibiting it because of the fear that it will lead to a situation whereby people will come to use this product to get too much electricity on demand, a slippery slope with regards to the mood and aura of the Sabbath, then I am confident that the device will take off. Such an argument was advanced against both Shabbos-timers and electric hotplates: “what will be with Shabbos?” and there were those, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who permitted both, noting that the Sabbath could be enhanced by such items because they ultimately reduce the incidences of people actually performing prohibited labors and because they help people enjoy the Sabbath even more.

7. As for Rabbi Belsky’s declaration about how one could theoretically perform every m’lacha with this type of switch, he might be on to something. If we could make it so that the average layman’s household no longer presents him opportunities to regularly desecrate the Sabbath, we will have come a long way. Minimally observing the Sabbath will become that much easier. The only trouble is getting those laymen to then maximize their time studying Torah. This is a point that gets lost by many, just like obsessing over trying to eat large quantities of matza and maror detracts from the internalization of the meaning of such acts. “Laborious work,” or in the words of our sages, “calculated labor,” is a major biblical prohibition on the Sabbath, but as the sages emphasized, it is for us a means to three ends: commemorating that God finished creating the world, commemorating that we were freed from serving Egypt, and freeing ourselves from mundane matters so that we can spend time studying God’s ways and teachings, but too many get caught on the details about what not to do.

8. I believe that not only have these technologies made it so that we have less reason and less opportunities to perform forbidden labors on the Sabbath, they will also lead us to a state of never having to actually perform m’lacha even during the week, an ideal Maimonides envisioned as the Eternal Sabbath Day of the Messianic Era (MT Kings and Their Wars, 12:4-5):

The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come, as explained in the Laws of Repentance.

In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, envy, or competition, for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.

Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah 11:9 states: “The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

Technology should make our lives easier; if we decide to make things harder on ourselves by then holding ourselves to higher standards, tighter deadlines, and increased production, that is our fault alone. God is making it easier for us to both keep his Sabbath and live in a world free of toil. The only question is, are we playing along?

9. I would love to install a Kosher Switch in my own house to test extensively on a weekday, and I call upon rabbanim throughout the world to at least concede that the Kosher Switch may be used for household devices that we know are no longer involving forbidden labors, e.g. by operating certain non-incandescent lightbulbs.


From → halacha, original

  1. I appreciate your logical refutation of the illogical reasoning presented against the kosher. I myself will have to do some more research.

    But, I would be very happy if rabbeim would accept that gezeroth on fire do not apply to an electric plata before accepting a kosher switch.

  2. Hacham Ben-Haim of Yeshiva University (also talmid muvhak of Rabbi Bentzion Hai Uziel, and the chief posek for the Persian community of Great Neck) has the leading endorsement for the kosher switch. It’s too bad that it hasn’t really taken off, because it could prevent lots of chillul Shabbos. Imagine if every non observant Jewish household in the world had them. Then they would probably be keeping Shabbat than they would have been otherwise.

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