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Yom Tov Halacha Gone Insane

This is a short article about the use of electricity for preparing food on Yom Tov. Over the last 150 years it has become the halachic norm to view use of electricity on Yom Tov as forbidden. The absurdity of this relatively new prohibition has reached unbearable proportions.

Here are a few examples:

How is it that lighting an electronic cigarette is prohibited, but smoking a real cigarette with real fire is permitted!?

Photo Credit: TBEC Review (CC BY 2.0)
Photo Credit: TBEC Review (CC BY 2.0)
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Cooking using a microwave is prohibited, but using an outdoor BBQ grill is permitted!

Photo Credit: Mk2010 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Photo Credit: Mk2010 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Photo Credit: https://beautyofhome.wordpress.com
Photo Credit: https://beautyofhome.wordpress.com

Turning on one small switch on an electric kettle is prohibited, but boiling water on a gas stove to make a cup of coffee is permitted!

Photo Credit: Public Domain
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Has Halacha gone insane, or what?

Furthermore, it seems from these examples and more, that almost any advanced/quick method of doing something using “new” technology is prohibited, forcing us to use the more antiquated/primitive method instead. Is it the will of the Torah that we live like the Amish?

In the Torah it is written:

לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם ביום השבת (שמות לה, ג)

“You are not to light a fire in all your dwelling places on the day of Shabbat”

This Passuk speaks explicitly about Shabbat, but includes Yom Tov as well. The only exception being that on Yom Tov we may light fire (or do any other kind of normally prohibited labor) if it is used for the preparation of food, as the Torah states,

“כָּל מְלָאכָה לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה בָהֶם אַךְ אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל לְכָל נֶפֶשׁ הוּא לְבַדּוֹ יֵעָשֶׂה לָכֶם” (שמות יב, טז)

“No work is to be done during those days, except for preparing what is to be eaten by each person.”

The Halacha for Yom Tov is that a fire can only be lit from a pre-existing flame. Turning on an electric switch is also permissible – because a pre-existing electric current is in the wall.
All that being said, at least when it comes to Yom Tov, electricity as treated by most Orthodox Jews today is far more Halachically severe than fire is. Should we therefore edit the text of the previous Passuk as such so that it reads,

לא תבערו אש תדליקו חשמל בכל משבתיכם ביום השבת

“You shall use no electricity in all your dwelling places” in order to imply both the “less severe” fire, and more importantly to incorporate electricity, the new halachic reality legislated by the Rabbis?

After all, that is exactly what the Rabbis have done without physically changing the text of the Torah. The current wording in the Passuk has absolutely no meaning with regards to Yom Tov; the Rabbis have instituted a completely new reality which overrides the original Biblical commandment.

The next question that arises is whether the Rabbis even have a mandate to prohibit electricity on Yom Tov in such an absolute manner.

We know that the Rabbis cannot add or subtract any of the written Torah’s commandments unless it is a Horaat Sha’a, a temporary law (or a “protective decree” (G’zera) as we shall further discuss). But prohibiting electricity doesn’t fit into this category because the Rabbis clearly aren’t interested in this law remaining only temporary…

But can the prohibition of electricity on Yom Tov be considered a protective Rabbinical decree (G’zera)? It seems not. A G’zera is instituted in order to protect the Torah, “to make a fence” around the Torah (לעשות גדר/סייג). However, when this “fence” is not acting as a fence but rather is a beckoning exit-door , it cannot be considered a lawful G’zera. It is something that turns Jews away from Judaism rather than bringing them closer to Judaism or keeping them inside Judaism (as a fence is supposed to do…).

So, if the prohibition of electricity cannot be considered a temporary decree (Horaat Sha’a) nor a protective Rabbinical decree (G’zera), it cannot be prohibited and should be completely permissible, or at least permissible for Melachot (labor) on Yom Tov which have to do with the preparation of food and which the Torah explicitly permits on Yom Tov. (A separate discussion is needed in order to discuss the status and possible use of other electrical appliances such as telephones, computers, etc on Yom Tov/Shabbat)

It must be stated that our Halachic suggestion is not “new” at all. Historically[1], there were many Poskim who permitted turning on lights on Yom Tov:

Rabbi Yechiel Michal HaLevi Epstein – author of the Aruch Hashulchan (Beit Va’ad LaChachamim, Booklet 1, New York 5663),
Rabbi Rephael Aharon ben Shimon from Cairo (UMitzur Devash 9-10),
Rabbi Efrayim Zalman HaLevi Slutzki from Vilna (HaPeles 3),
Rabbi Binyamin Arye HaKohen Weiss (Even Yekara (3rd edition), 168),
Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Tolidano (Responsa Yam Hagadol, 26),
Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank (Yarchon Kol Torah, 5694, Booklet 1-2),
Rabbi Shalom Mesas (Responsa Tvuot Shemesh, Part 1- 27-28, 33; Responsa Shemesh Umagen, Part 2, 65),
Rabbi Eliezer Valdenberg (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, Part 1, 20, Ch. 6)

In addition to these Rabbis, there were also Poskim who entirely permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov (both turning on and turning off lights). These include:

Rabbi Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg (Maor HaChashmal),
Rabbi Yosef Mesas (Responsa Mayim Chayim, 1,94),
Rabbi David HaKohen Skali (Responsa Kiryat Chana David, 2,56),
Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel – the 1st Sephardic chief Rabbi of Israel (Responsa Mishpatei Uziel, 19)

Conclusion:

Going back to the examples listed above, there is much improvement that needs to take place in our current Orthodox Halachic reality. The current state of affairs cannot continue. The Torah tells that when the Gentile nations will hear about our laws they will say, “What a wise and intelligent people” (Devarim 4, 6). Living in the 21st century, we must truly ask ourselves if this is what the Gentile nations are saying when they see us prohibiting electronic cigarettes but permitting real ones, prohibiting cooking in a microwave but permitting barbecuing, or making coffee via a very lengthy and clumsy manner instead of just pressing the tiny switch on the electric kettle…

 

Notes:

[1] For further reading see:

אילן בן-יעקב, “החשמל בהלכה: התמודדות פוסקי ההלכה עם תופעת החשמל, 1875 – 1940”, דוקטורט 2010.

הרב זכריה זרמתי, “הוד יוסף חי”