Yom Tov & Electricity

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

The Chazon Ish (Rav Avraham Karelitz, 1878-1953) held that illuminating light bulbs on Yom Tov was an issue of “Boneh”, and therefore he ruled that it is absolutely Assur on Yom Tov. Rav Soloveitchik on the other hand, based upon his understanding of the physics of electricity, felt that illuminating conventional light bulbs was an issue of “Ha’avarat Eish” , and therefore, Mutar Le’chat’chila on Yom Tov, for a Yom Tov need.

This opinion was expressed in the 1940’s and 1950’s and it was widely accepted in the Boston area where the Rav was the Mara D’Atra. Things changed however, in the 1960’s, – not because the Rav changed his mind in principle, but rather due to the influence of other large Jewish communities, like in New York and Chicago, where everyone was “Machmir” with electricity on Yom Tov. In the interest of maintaining a level of achdut in the United States the Rav refrained from “publicly’ expressing his opinion on the matter and in the 1970’s, hardly anyone, except for the people of Boston, was aware of Rav Soloveitchik’s lenient ruling on the matter. The stringent opinion of the Chazon Ish prevailed.

In a private conversation with his talmid and shamesh, Rabbi Aaron Adler, the Rav said that he even authored a Teshuva on “Electricity in Halacha” based upon his understanding of the complex issues that would revolutionize our Halachic attitude towards electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov. He never published this Teshuva.

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

3 comments

  1. According to the Rav ztz”l, why isn’t lighting an electric light on Yom Tov prohibited mid’rabbanan, like using a match?

  2. I understood the position under discussion to be more like motors (particularly brush-less / spark-less ones) and nowadays LED lights — cases where what the electricity was doing is permissible, and the only question is the electricity itself.

    But given that during the Rav’s lifetime incandescent bulbs were perhaps the most common use, my understanding would mean that a major caveat is missing from the text.

    (By the way, if there is any difference, fluorescent bulbs pose a bigger problem than incandescent bulbs. They too heat filaments until they glow. We don’t really use that glow for the light, but it does happen [pesiq reishei]. But the real problem is that that heat is used to boil mercury, so that there is a conductive gas through the bulb. And that’s outright cooking. Just felt a need to clear up a common misunderstanding. So, there really were few uses back then.)

  3. My zeidi, R Michel Bernstein, asked the Rav whether electric lights on Yom Tov were muttar. The Rav refused to give a yes or no answer three times in a row, each time simply responding “by Rav Chaim in the house they used to turn lights on and off on Yom Tov.” (“But rebbe, is it muttar?” “By Rav Chaim in the house…”)
    Zeidi stopped asking and that was that.

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