More on Electricity: Shabbat/Havdala Candles

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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”.[3] This is because the light bulbs essentially accomplish the same role[4] as the traditional Shabbat candles are intended to serve.[5] 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.[6]

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”.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]


[1] Beit Yitzchak Y.D. 1:120, Achiezer 3:60, Melamed L’Hoil O.C. 49, Tzitz Eliezer 3:17, Chelkat Yaakov 1:52. There is much discussion as to exactly which melacha/ot the use of electricity violates.

[2] Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 13:32

[3] Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 43:N22

[4] Tosfot;Shabbat 25b

[5] There are two reasons why we light Shabbat candles. The first is for “Oneg Shabbat” which requires that the home be illuminated Friday night in order that people not stumble in the dark. The second reason is for “Kavod Shabbat” which calls for plentiful lighting in honor of Shabbat, as was the custom upon receiving a distinguished guest.

[6] Shraga Hameir 5:11

[7] Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:157

[8] Az Nidberu 1:79, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 43:N171

[9] Tzitz Eliezer 1:20

[10] Shaarim Metzuyanim Behalachah 96:6, Az Nidberu 8:2, Rivevot Ephraim 3:599

[11] Shaarim Metzuyanim Behalachah 96:6

[12] Har Tzvi 2:114

[13] Hachashmal L’or Hahalacha 3:88

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

35 comments

  1. If an incadescent lightbulb, we are told is mamish fire, then why would anyone say you can’t use it?

    Obviously, it’s not mamish fire…

  2. Or is the problem that it is an “aish” but not a “ner”?

  3. …this is the cyclicic (new word!) machlokes.

    Everyone agrees though that an incandescendant light bulb is forbidden to be used on shabbos, and most say it is because of its proximity to “aish”.

    Ari Enkin

  4. If we really believed in this equivalence couldn’t one adjust a dimmer on Yom Tov the same way one adjusts an (old-fashioned) gas stove? The only really consistent approach matching our behavior would seem to be that of the Chazon Ish, but having seen any number of rabbonim who wouldn’t dream of touching a light switch allow their congregants to set up folding tables that lock on Shabbat, I am not sure we really consistently believe that “binyan” and “stirah” apply to movable utensils.

  5. Although most poskim forbid the use of a dimmer on Yom Tov, Rabbi Michael Broyde writes:

    “It would seem logical, however, that either increasing the light intensity or dimming a light on Yom Tov (without turning off or completing a circuit) is permissible so long as it is needed for Yom Tov (letzorech ochal nefesh). This is analogous to adding fuel to a pre-existing flame on Yom Tov, which is permitted.”

    Ari Enkin

  6. It may interest you to know that Rav Ernest Weill, who was an important Orthodox “Grand Rabbin” in Alsace in the first half of the 20th century and who penned a French-language “Choul’hâne Aroukh abrégé”, wrote that electric lights were actually a hiddur mitsva for shabbat and chanukka candles because their light is so much more beautiful.

  7. “While such an approach should never be relied upon in normal circumstances”

    Fire was not allowed in YU dormitories. Our dorm handbook (I seem to recall approval from R’ Blau) said we should light a night light with an (incandescent?) bulb and say a bracha on it. Sounded pretty l’chatchila to me. I still do this sometimes.

    We lit Chanukkah candles in the lobby.

    Isn’t this much more obvious with an incandescent bulb- which has a heated, glowing filament- than with any other? Shouldn’t that point be stressed? R’ Chaim Ozer had no other sort of bulb.

  8. Electricity, lack of true scientific comprehension, and fear of radical change still plague Halacha. The Chofetz Chaim permitted use of electricity for the talmidim in Radin, but he himself did not make use if the new invention even midweek. That knowledge certainly alters perspective on the Mishnah Berura holding against electricity on shabbat. Use of trains remained highly controversial until post WW One, even after five million people left the Pale of Settlement via train. Too much focus is spent on minutae without any focus on the inherent fear of change and ignorance of technologic advances.

  9. Regarding the above comment about he Chafetz Chaim’s not using electricity due to fear of change, I wonder if the writer could provide evidence of this (both the fact that he did not use it and that the basis of his not doing so was fear of change).

    I suspect that the writer, like Daniel Sperber before him in his Toronto speech, is repeating a possible fact (no electricity in the CC’s home) and assigning it a motive that matches the speaker’s agenda.

    Meanwhile, see this, which is quoted from his son-in-law, who described how the Chafetz Chaim personally shunned all material luxuries but encouraged their use in the building of shuls and a mikveh.
    http://www.elmorahillsminyan.org/Home/gedolim/european-gedolim/episodes-from-the-life-of-the-chofetz-chaim

    And, see the story below:

    Of course, there is an implied criticism here against giving charity by placing a large sum of money into a fund, and then allowing the directors of the fund to handle all of the disbursements without further involvement. The Chofetz Chaim compared this to a real-life situation in his town of Radin, Poland. He lived at the time when the town first purchased an electrical generator and wired all the houses and courtyards with electric lighting. One evening something broke within the machine, and darkness descended upon all of the houses and streets, and even in the synagogue.

    He pointed out that before they had electricity, every house had a kerosene light — and if in one particular house the kerosene ran out, or the wick burnt away, or the glass broke, that only that one house would be dark. But when everyone is dependent upon one machine, darkness spreads over the entire city if that machine breaks for any reason.

    From here, he said, one must learn to not simply write one large check to the Federation (I didn’t know that they had them in Poland, but Rabbi Shmuel Greineman spells out “Federations” in Hebrew letters, in his collection of the Chofetz Chaim’s discourses on the Torah reading). It is certainly more inconvenient to receive people individually, or to respond to their mailings. But if people give individually, then if a particular organization, institution or impoverished family is turned away by a few donors, the institution or family can nonetheless find sustenance by turning to others. Whereas if everything is placed in hands of a few designated representatives, then if those representatives are unresponsive to a particular appeal, then the entire city loses the merit of supporting that poor family or Torah institution — and darkness descends over the whole city.
    See http://www.torah.org/learning/lifeline/5764/reeh.html#

  10. Shalom Rosenfeld

    For shabbos candles, do we say an incandescent works just as well as a candle, or do we say the mitzva was just illumination? How lechatchila/bedieved would a fluorescent or LED be?

  11. The poskim seem to prefer both ‘light’ and ‘fire’. As such, (among other reasons) a fluorescent light is unacceptable. Perhaps for shabbos candles one can be lenient in a shaas hadechak gadol, but a bracha should probably not be recited.

    Ari Enkin

  12. sd – “…Chafetz Chaim’s not using electricity due to fear of change, I wonder if the writer could provide evidence of this (both the fact that he did not use it and that the basis of his not doing so was fear of change).”

    i believe this idea emanated from the cc’s son who wrote in one of his seforim about his father’s refusal to allow electricity for lights in his father’s beit kenesset during the week (forget about shabbat)under “chadash assur min hatorah” rubric. i do not recall where it is written – hopefully others more learned than i can find it. please do your research before casting aspersions on others.

  13. “If an incadescent lightbulb, we are told is mamish fire, then why would anyone say you can’t use it?

    Obviously, it’s not mamish fire…”

    I don’t know what “mamish” fire means.

    The Rambam writes that if one heats a metal bar to the point that it glows, then you have violated the melacha of havara. That is basically how an incandescent bulb works, so the poskim all say that such is the melacha d’oraysa.

    Whether an incandescent bulb also qualifies as a “ner” for the purpose of Shabbos candles or an “avukah” for havdalah is a different question. Although, as R. Enkin indicates, there are indeed many poskim who hold it does qualify and there is ample room to rely on them, certainly in a time of necessity. (E.g., some is in the hospital over Shabbos, and the hospital, quite understandably, does not allow open flames, but will allow an electric bulb. When my wife was in the hospital after she gave birth to our daughter, the bikkur cholim lady brought her a plug-in candleabra with two little light bulbs to use.)

  14. Conventional fluorescent bulbs, whether of traditional or compact design, share a key feature of incandescent bulbs. Both feature electrically heated tungsten filaments. In the incandescent bulb, the light is produced by the glowing metal filament. In fluorescent bulbs, the glowing, coated filament liberates high energy electrons that activate a gas/mercury plasma whose radiation is then converted to visible light by the phosphor coating the inside of the bulb. The conventional (as opposed to cold-cathode) fluorescent bulb therefore features both a glowing metal filament and light. The fact that the fluorescent light is extended rather than confined to some glowing metal filament may put it into the category of an ‘avukah’ (torch), rather than ‘ner’ (candle). Then, again, Rav Grodzinsky is cited as considering an incandescent bulb to be valid, if not preferable, for havdalah since it can be considered an ‘avukah’.

  15. this is all true for INCANDESCENT lights which have a metal filament that heats up and mamsh becomes like fire. But what about FLOURESCENT lights that work diffferntly? Is it still considered like fire? CFL’s are becoming the norm in households so if the halacha is different for these types of bulbs it would be wise for the article to say so.

  16. The fact remains that incandescent light bulbs are not “mamish fire by the physical definition of combustion. The bracha “lehadlik ner” and not lehadlik aish supports the psak of using electric light for shabbat candles as the electric light bulb is the modern “ner” if we define ner as an appliance which produces light.
    As far as the issur is concerned if it is not hadlakat aish or havarah (Rambam heating metal till it glows)it is still boneh according to the opinion of the Chazon Ish so any electric light both incandescent an fluorescent would be forbidden.

  17. “Electricity, lack of true scientific comprehension, and fear of radical change still plague Halacha.”

    Regardless of the extent of early twentieth-century poskim’s knowledge of the nitty-gritty mechanics of electricity, their restrictive approach to it vis-a-vis Shabbat and Yom Tov reflects enormous prescience and foresight with respect to electricity’s potentially harmful impact on both Oneg Shabbat and Simchat Yom Tov. The Western world has devolved to the point where most professionals have grown a new appendage that, if allowed to function unchecked, prevents them from emulating Hashem’s behavior of “shavat vayinafash”: yes, I am referring to the Blackberry (or iPhone or Android, what have you). The blanket ban on the use of electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov has fostered and maintained the spirit of true serenity that imbued the Shabbatot and Yamim Tovim observed by our forebears. Having achieved this favorable result — an oasis in the midst of the ruthless productivity of the modern world — I could not care less that the Arukh HaShulhan, for example, believed that electricity was “fire running through wires.” More important than the narrow halakhic categorization of electricity as hav’ara, boneh, et al. is the broader understanding of electricity’s potentially harmful effects on the spirit of our days of rest, which the early twentieth-century poskim got spot on.

  18. R’Josh,
    that is certainly r’ asher weiss’s approach (it’s makeh bpatish which he considers a catch all category for anything chazal thought “not shabbosdik”) but are you saying that others put it in categories (conciously or unconsciously)it didn’t belong in , simply to assur it?
    KT

  19. Re the CC and technological change-there are other stories to consider on this issue -IIRC, the CC was asked about the development of railroads and trains and told the questionner that technological developments aided in Harbatzas Torah. OTOH, the CC viewed air planes, as the means of a new way of waging war.

  20. FWIW, one of the linked stories about the CC certainly mentioned that there was electricity in the CC’s house, and that the CC was concerned about how the use of electricity factored into Kavod and Oneg Shabbos.

  21. Meanwhile, see this, which is quoted from his son-in-law, who described how the Chafetz Chaim personally shunned all material luxuries but encouraged their use in the building of shuls and a mikveh.

    There’s a great story on that theme, if anyone hasn’t heard…
    A visitor once came to the CC’s very spartan home, and asked “Where’s your furniture?” The CC replied, “Where’s YOUR furniture?” The guest said “Why should I have furniture here? I’m only passing through!” The CC replied, “I too am only passing through.”

    But what about FLOURESCENT lights that work diffferntly? Is it still considered like fire?

    Fluorescent lights contain a miniature “filament” which becomes red hot while stimulating the fluorescence. The presence of this element makes their use forbidden due to “fire” concerns, but since the element does not contribute noticeably to the light you see, fluorescents would probably still be unacceptable for nerot/havdalah.

  22. KT: “are you saying that others put it in categories (conciously or unconsciously)it didn’t belong in , simply to assur it?”

    Not at all. I trust that those poskim who forbade the use of electricity (i.e., the closing of a circuit) on Shabbat in its earliest days were sincere in their halakhic analysis and conclusions, although the factual predicates for their piskei halakha may have been incorrect given limited knowledge of the science. However, I submit — separately — that these poskim were also cognizant of the meta-halakhic threat posed by electricity to observance of the Jewish Sabbath (especially since they could see that electricity enabled and propelled much of the industrial progress of the day), and may have intuited that there was some issur involved. (I am not saying that a posek’s intuition can be outcome determinative on a she’eyla, but rather that it is a crucial component of, and should be accorded great weight in, the halakhic decisionmaking process.) Knowing now what we do about electricity’s tendency to disrupt Oneg Shabbat, it appears to me in retrospect that the broad ban on electricity on Shabbat was appropriate, notwithstanding Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l’s conclusion that the traditional explanations for it (makeh be-patish, molid, etc.) are insufficient to justify the ban where no light or heat is generated (see Minchat Shelomo 74, 84).

  23. R’ Josh,
    “the factual predicates for their piskei halakha may have been incorrect given limited knowledge of the science. ” This raises a separate question (and this is about Rabbis in all branches of orthodoxy”) – I once heard a shiur where the Rabbi said something like “I used to pasken A, but then one of my baalei batim who is a plumber explained to me how the B worked so now I pasken C”. What is the requirement of a poseik to verify he has complete information before rendering psak?
    KT

  24. It seems to me that a posek should make a serious effort to understand the technical aspects of an issue – at least as they make affect the halacha, before rendering pesak. If he doesn’t have the background for such understanding, then consultation with independent experts (i.e, not the ones raising the issue) is the only option if time is not critical. Of course, questions involving possible danger to life and limb require prompt, imaginative answers to remove the danger. Such behavior, to my knowledge, characterized the approach of RMF and of RSZA. Those who do not use such an approach must expect that their piskei dinim involving technical matters will be questioned. Expertise in classical halacha is insufficient in dealing with modern issues.

  25. KT,

    While this is probably a question better directed to a posek, l’fi aniyut da’ati, poskim should take a “best efforts” approach to the investigation of metzi’ut: that is, they should consult as much as possible with experts in the area in question, as well as read the widely accepted literature on the subject, but at the end of the day, they have to make a p’sak based on the information available to them. The gnawing fear that science or knowledge may change should not impede the resolution of she’eylot, else Am Yisrael will have no clarity in their practice of halakha. (As my rebbi in yeshiva once said, this was the difference between R’ Chaim Brisker and the Chazon Ish: the former would be kept awake at night worrying about s’feikot, while the latter had a more decisive approach to p’sak.) On the other hand, I am troubled by the recent reports of poskim relying on faulty information provided by their talmidim without performing their own checks to verify its accuracy.

    Accordingly, in my humble opinion, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l, was justified in permitting (but discouraging) smoking in his 1964 teshiva: he made clear that he could not issue an issur because the science of his day did not unquestionably indicate the link that we now know exists between smoking and various ailments. (Granted, he did rely on “Shomer p’tayim Hashem / Hashem protects the simple” as a sevara for being matir smoking.) Since then, various poskim — including Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky — have explicitly “assur”ed smoking in light of the more definitive science. This should reinforce the notion that p’sak can and should be made in light of contemporary knowledge, but should also be susceptible to “updating” as new knowledge is acquired.

  26. As early as 1903 a rabbi-engineer published an article in a Torah journal about the halakhic implications of electricity. And it is explicit in the writings of the 1930s and 1940s that major poskim were consulting with scientists and engineers about electricity, some even quote them by name.

  27. What’s early about 1903? In 125 years are we going to be talking about how as early as 2035 rabbinic journals began discussing ipads?

  28. MiMedinat HaYam

    shlomo — the CC’s visitor was harry fishel. (noted orthodox philanthropist, etc, and father in law of r dr harry goldstein of WSIS (then in harlem) fame.

    2. the discussion of CC’s electricity is weak, but i note RMF’s extreme reluctance to allow “shabat clocks” timer only for mitzvah purposes such as tzorchei tzibur. today, it has become any tzorech, or even none.

    as for elctricity in a shul and “chadash assur min hatorah”, i note the discussion in “taamei haminhagim” of putting in a clock (i presume non electric) in the shul of talmidim of the chatam sofer (no mention which “faction” of talmidim, but the ktav sofer is not mentioned). in the end, the clock was put up.

    3. can we use a kosherswitch in a hospital or yu dorm to light shabat candles? (humor of mixing two posts.)

    4. josh — RMF allowed smoking because there no clear danger. pretty explicit in igrot. though he did discourage it there, but from a halachic POV, he allowed, for this reason.

  29. “Knowing now what we do about electricity’s tendency to disrupt Oneg Shabbat, it appears to me in retrospect that the broad ban on electricity on Shabbat was appropriat , notwithstanding Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l’s conclusion that the traditional explanations for it (makeh be-patish, molid, etc.) are insufficient to justify the ban where no light or heat is generated”

    The argument Josh presents is similar to why some banned the reading of newspapers on Shabbat in the late 19th century. They were the business crackberrys of their day. And lest we forget, a mere 20 years ago, mass availability of the Internet and 24/7 connectivity was the dream of futurologists.

    For every example of how electrical appliances can be disruptive to Oneg Shabbat, one could give an example of the opposite. Indeed, no one I know sits in the dark on Shabbat — the community simply employs legal fictions such as Shabbat clocks (which were also viewed with suspicion when they arrived on the scene).

    As the stuff of quotidian lives become increasingly computerized and as iPad/Kindles become our libraries, the disruption to Oneg Shabbat will be the insistence in forbidding electricity on Shabbat where there is no clear justification for a ban.

  30. Ruvie wrote to me (SD): “i do not recall where it is written – hopefully others more learned than i can find it. please do your research before casting aspersions on others.”

    Gee, Ruvie, I’m really sorry that I took the chance of possibly casting aspersions on anonymous you (asking you to substantiate your derogatory report) rather than allow you definitely cast aspersions on the Chofetz Chaim through unsubstantiated accusations against him.

    What was I thinking when I did something as crazy as that?

  31. sd – cast as good as you can – no problems with it. i was referring to your comment ala prof. sperber.

    “I suspect that the writer, like Daniel Sperber before him in his Toronto speech, is repeating a possible fact (no electricity in the CC’s home) and assigning it a motive that matches the speaker’s agenda.”

    you might disagree with him – no problem , many do – but to imply that he assigned a possible fact to a motive solely base on his pov (or that is his reasoning) is well casting aspersions.

    btw, i did not post as anonymous at 7:58am.

  32. sd – “asking you to substantiate your derogatory report) rather than allow you definitely cast aspersions on the Chofetz Chaim ”

    btw, where is the derogatory report here? the the CC used chadash assur min hatorah on things that were not ? certainly he did and was proud of it. he had to stem the reformers in his views by elevating things he disproved of (whether they were or not not halahkically) to the biblical level. i believe we call this part – jewish history. the fact that it might have included the use of electricity in a shul during the week is not shocking – just surprising.

  33. IH “I know of no one who sits in the dark on shabbat”

    IIRC this is one of the practices that differentiate between the Karaite and the normative halacha. The Karaites also do not ear hot food on shabbat. One of the Gaonim said someone who doesn’t eat hamin on shabbat is suspected of being Karaite.

  34. IH: “As the stuff of quotidian lives become increasingly computerized and as iPad/Kindles become our libraries, the disruption to Oneg Shabbat will be the insistence in forbidding electricity on Shabbat where there is no clear justification for a ban.”

    I have heard this argument as well (albeit with regard to electronic room keys), and I do not doubt that this may become the reality within the next decade (if not the next few years). Given this possibility, the observant community will have to figure out workable mechanisms for avoiding violations of “daber davar” on Shabbat, while still selectively permitting the use of various electronic appliances. For example — and I do not mean to be condescending here — is there a meaningful way to allow an average Jew to read a sefer on his iPad, but prevent him from sending a business e-mail from it? To give a better example, does e-mailing a Wall Street Journal article to a co-worker on Shabbat violate “daber davar”? Is it even possible to draft a psak that makes a clear distinction between these permitted and prohibited Internet activities?

    While I am not saying that a creative system cannot be crafted that balances all these factors, it is nonetheless possible that our current “lo plug except in case of great need” approach to operation of electronics on Shabbat may be the most workable one.

  35. Josh — A Shabbat Timer can also be used to turn on/off an electric oven, no? People who want to be mechalel shabbat will do so anyway. Have more faith in your fellow Jews.

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