"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


Why do observant Jews use pre-set "Shabbat timers" to turn lights and other electrical appliances on and off on Shabbat? It seems like using a loophole, against the spirit of Shabbat.


This is an interesting twist. Usually we hear complaints that traditional Jewry is too restrictive; now all of a sudden we aren't restricted enough!

In Shabbat law, opening and closing electrical circuits is related to the kindling and extinguishing of fires.(1) Kindling fire is the only one of the thirty-nine major categories of forbidden labors on Shabbat that is spelled out explicitly:

"You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day" [Ex. 35:3].

In accordance with the precise wording, the prohibition is the act of kindling on the Shabbat day by a Jew. If the fire is created in any manner before Shabbat, or on Shabbat by a non-Jew for his own benefit, the law is not violated, nor, really, is its spirit.

All the work involved in setting the "Shabbat timers" takes place before Shabbat, of course. In that sense, setting a timer is like any other work we do before Shabbat, such as lighting the candles or leaving the cholent on the stove with the fires and the controls covered. Clearly the verse specifies that it is Jewish people who are commanded to abstain from work on Shabbat, not Jewish-owned utensils and appliances.

Once set on Friday, there is no need to think about the timers further, nor even to pay attention to them on Shabbat, when they click on and off. A creative act may be taking place, but no Jew is doing it. It is happening by itself so there is no need to be concerned, just as we pay no attention when the rain waters our lawns and gardens on Shabbat, causing things to grow-a creative activity which is forbidden to actively do ourselves.

Not only is it permitted to use these timers on Shabbat, it may even be considered desirable to do so! Let's risk a comparison with secular law.(2)

When sharp accountants and lawyers find ways for their clients to legally escape paying taxes, that is indeed using loopholes in the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law, and the government and full- tax paying citizens can only gnash their teeth in frustration. Because people tend to associate loopholes with this first type, the whole concept has come to have a negative connotation.

But some loophole-deductions-for real estate purchases, pension plans, venture capital investment, etc.-are designed by the authors of the laws, the government itself, as a desirable means to stimulate the economy. They want those "loopholes" to be used more than they want the tax income that would otherwise be generated; if not, they wouldn't have written those particular deductions into the law.

Similarly, interpretation and extension of Torah law by qualified rabbis is part of G-d's plan, and is built into the Torah too.
"You must approach the Levitical priests [and other members of the supreme court that will exist.... You must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you..." [Deut. 17:9-11, Living Torah translation].
It is not tricking G-d; it is something he wants us to do.

Much of the "spirit" of Shabbat is determined by the command, "you shall call the Shabbat Day a delight" [Is. 58:13]. Certainly G-d, who is infinitely kinder and wiser than any government (excuse the silly comparison), intended the Shabbat to be a day of enjoyment-within the parameters set by the Torah, of course. The sages' above-cited interpretation-we, not our possessions-besides being solidly rooted in the words of the verse itself, is consistent with G-d's expressed intention for Shabbat as an enjoyable day.

This becomes even clearer when we consider the Karaites, a breakaway-from-Orthodoxy sect more than a thousand years ago. They refused to accept any rabbinical "extras" and insisted it was sufficient to live according to the simplest meaning of the verses. You probably think this would make Judaism "easier." Well, perhaps so, but not in our case of fire! Insisting that the verse prohibits any benefit to Jews from fire on Shabbat whatever, they would eat only cold food on Shabbat. Not only that, they refused to use fire and its derivatives as a source for heat as well, which is no joke if you live in climates with severe blizzards and freezing temperatures. It is said that the only way they were able to survive Shabbat during the Russian winters was to dig holes in the earth and bury themselves for 25 hours. It may sound too fantastic to believe, but among the few remnants of the sect today, most of whom now live in Israel, there are still some who remember those harrowing days, or who were told about it by parents.

Their total commitment to their beliefs was certainly admirable, but solely in terms of the spirit of Shabbat, most would agree that leaving fires lit and/or using timers is more in tune than eating cold food while buried in a pit! It seems safe to say that G-d does too.

Indeed, eating hot food on Shabbat is part of the mitzvah of delighting in the Shabbat, to such an extent that anyone who refuses to do so may be suspected of being a heretic-Karaite style!-who does not accept the teachings of the sages. Of course, the food must be kept hot in a permissible manner. This does not apply to the minority that prefer cold food to hot. Even so, I personally know some very religous Jews who prefer not to eat hot food on Shabbat day, but they still leave a covered fire going in their stove to obviate any possible misunderstanding of their position.

When timers are set before Shabbat to turn on lights, an electric hot plate, etc., they are helping to make it possible to enjoy Shabbat in a way that is pleasing to the divine giver of Shabbat. When used to shut them off, they make it possible for people to sleep better in those rooms (which is also part of the mitzvah of Shabbat delight), to prevent appliances from being burnt out wastefully, etc. Certainly from an ecological viewpoint they deserve a hearty vote of approval too! Of course, if timers are used for turning the television on and off, you could make a good case for "against the spirit of Shabbat." But don't blame the Shabbat timer for that!


Yrachmiel Tilles

1. The comparison is not precise. Much rabbinical research and debate is still being conducted on the exact nature of the prohibition of electricity on Shabbat. For a summary in English, one possible source is "Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society" Spring 1993, pp 89-126.
2. The theme of the next two paragraphs is based on a cassette by Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan of Baltimore.


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