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  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Halachot of Yom Tov

yom tov & electricity


Rabbi David Sperling

Nisan 19, 5776
I read an essay by Rabbi Sholom Klass z"l citing Aruh Hashulhan and several later poskim, that one may, on Yom Tov, turn lights and electric appliances on & off. He also stated one was halachically permitted to rely on this psak, even tho others may disagree. Today, many appliances have moved from electric to electronic. Does that change anything?
Shalom, Thank you for your question. Firstly let me state that I have not seen the article you quote, although I am aware of the Rabbinic opinions that do in fact allow the turning on of electric lights on Yom Tov (as opposed to Shabbat). While these are emanate Rabbis, there opinion is on this issue has not been widely accepted. Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef zt"l, summarizes the issue in these words "Since there are those who permit the lighting of electric lights on Yom Tov, one should not strongly rebuke people who turn on lights on Yom Tov - specifically since many congregations in the Diaspora have this tradition with the approbation of their rabbis. Nonetheless, it is proper to explain to such people in a mild voice that most rabbinic authorities are strict about this matter, and the law follows the majority." With this in mind – that the generally accepted practice, which one should follow, is to refrain from turning on and off electricity on Shabbat – I can now turn to your question as to whether according to those who are lenient, do electronic devices differ in this issue? There are two major lines of thought as to why Yom Tov differs from Shabbat in this regard. The first states that turning on a light is considered as "transferring" fire, as one would do with a flame taken from an existing candle to light the stove. This assumes that there is already a "flame" in the electrical wires, which on merely allows to "transfer" to the next wires when the switch is turned on. This reasoning has been generally rejected (see Encyclopedia Talmudit "Electricity" 18:179) as it is based on an erroneous understanding of the physical properties of electricity. The advent of electronic devices makes this line of reasoning even more tenuous – for while one could have perhaps understood that the fire is merely transferred to the light bulb, it is hard to imagine that one could say that turning on a smartphone was merely transferring the "fire" that exists in the battery into the device itself! That is, the advent of electronics would seem to strengthen the argument against this reasoning. The second line of reasoning is that turning on a light is only indirectly causing the light to go on. This type of indirect action (grama), while generally prohibited on Shabbat, is permitted for rabbinically prohibited actions on Yom Tov. Here too there might be a distinction between different types of switches. The standard light switch is (according to this opinion) not considered as directly lighting a flame with one's hands. However, it seems to me that certain types of electronic switches today – such as touch screens etc – might very well be considered as direct action, as when a finger hits the screen a tiny electrical charge is transferred to the finger to complete the circuit, creating a voltage drop on that point of the screen, which may be considered as a direct action and not grama. Although I readily admit that questions of this sort need to be answered by those with greater expertise than myself, such as the Zomet institute for halacha and technology. In summary – even according to those who permit turning on an electric light on Yom Tov, they could very well hold that this is not true with electronic devices. All this is very theoretical, as I would like to stress again that the standard halachic approach is to forbid the turning on or off electrical appliances of any sort on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Let me add a reference to a very good article on this subject in English – Blessings.
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