By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Common consensus among the halachic authorities is to consider electric incandescent light bulbs as fire for the purpose of Shabbat observance. Just as lighting a fire is a Biblical violation of Shabbat, so too is the flipping of a switch which turns on a light. As such, many families are particular to place a covering over the light switches in the home in order to ensure that they are not switched on or off accidentally over the course of Shabbat.
This concept has broad halachic ramifications and applications. For example, in the unfortunate event that a woman is without candles on a Friday afternoon, she may be permitted to simply turn on the common electric lighting that normally lights up the home and even recite the usual blessing over this “lighting”. This is because the light bulbs essentially accomplish the same role as the traditional Shabbat candles are intended to serve. The electric lights actually become the Shabbat candles and one may be able to discharge one’s Shabbat candle lighting obligations with them. While such an approach should never be relied upon in normal circumstances, it is permissible in extenuating ones. Some authorities suggest that when making use of electric lights for one’s Shabbat candles the accompanying blessing should be omitted.
If one is forced to use the electric lights in one’s home as the Shabbat candles they should first be shut off momentarily and then turned back on in order for them to now be designated as the Shabbat “candles”. Indeed, some authorities rule that every week before the lady of the house lights her Shabbat candles, she should momentarily turn off the household lights and then turn on them back on. When she recites her blessing over the candles she should have in mind that her blessing include the electric lights as well which will also provide light over the course of Shabbat. Those who are forced to use the electric lights instead of candles should endeavor to turn on even those lights which are not normally used in order for there to be some distinction that the electric lights are in honor of Shabbat.
The issues are essentially the same with regards to Havdala and one may use an electric light in place of a Havdala candle in a time of need. In fact, it is reported that Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky would always use an electric bulb for Havdala in order to demonstrate how strongly he felt that electricity is to be treated exactly like fire from the perspective of halacha.
Nevertheless, there are those authorities who discourage the use of an electric light for Havdala. Among their opposition to is the fact that the blessing recited upon the Havdala candle includes the word “fire” which seems to imply the need for actual fire, not merely light. As such a light bulb would not be acceptable according to this view. Even among the authorities who permit the use of electric lighting when needed many would disqualify the use of fluorescent bulbs as they work differently than standard light bulbs.