Electricity on Shabbat
Many Jews who strictly observe Shabbat (the Sabbath), especially within Orthodox Judaism, refrain from what is considered turning electricity on or off during Shabbat. They may also refrain from making adjustments to the intensity of electrical appliances. Various rabbinical authorities have pronounced on what is permitted and what is not, but there are many disagreements in detailed interpretation, both between different individual authorities and between branches of Judaism.
Orthodox authorities of Jewish law have disagreed about the basis of this prohibition since the early 20th century. Many Orthodox leaders have held that turning on an incandescent light bulb violates the Biblical prohibition against igniting a fire (Hebrew: הבערה, hav’arah). However, the reasons for prohibiting the operation of an electrical appliance that does not produce light or heat, such as an electric fan, are not agreed upon. At least six substantive reasons have been suggested, and a minority believe that turning on an electrical fan is prohibited only because of common Jewish practice and tradition (minhag) but not for any substantive technical reason. Conservative Jewish authorities have argued that such reasons do not justify describing the use of electricity as prohibited.
Although directly operating electrical appliances is prohibited in Orthodoxy, several indirect methods are permitted according to some or all authorities. For example, Jews may look at the time on a clock, or set a timer before Shabbat to operate a light or appliance on Shabbat, and in some cases they may adjust the timer on Shabbat. Actions which activate an electrical appliance but are not specifically intended to do so may be permitted if the activation is not certain to occur or if the person does not benefit from the automatic operation of the appliance. For example, most authorities permit Jews to open a refrigerator door even though it may cause the motor to turn on immediately or later (not certain to occur); however, they prohibit opening the door if a light inside will automatically turn on (certain and of benefit). They also permit walking past a house with a motion sensor which switches on a light if the street is already well-lit (not of benefit), but not if it is dark.
Some uses of electricity are especially controversial in the state of Israel because of its majority Jewish population. The use of automated machines to milk cows on Shabbat, an activity that is prohibited if done by hand, is disputed because the farmer may derive economic benefit from the milk, although cows suffer if not milked regularly. The use of electricity from power plants operated by Jews in violation of Shabbat is also controversial because it is normally forbidden to benefit from the action of another Jew in violation of Shabbat. However, because of communal need and other halakhic factors, most religious authorities in Israel permit these uses of electricity.
Laws pertaining to the use of electricity on the Sabbath are followed mostly by Orthodox Jews. Non-Orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath, such as Conservative and Reform Jews, take a less restrictive view or choose not to limit the use of electricity at all. Some Conservative Jews, for example, consider electricity to be like running water—it can be turned on and off at the tap without igniting or extinguishing a fire, and therefore may be used on the Sabbath. Conservative Judaism allows the use of electricity on Shabbat as long as it does not promote any Shabbat-prohibited activity.
- 1 Range of views on the extent of the prohibition
- 2 Range of practices
- 3 Practical applications
- 4 Shabbat clocks
- 5 Use of electricity generated in Israeli power plants
- 6 Conservative Judaism
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
Range of views on the extent of the prohibition
According to many Orthodox authorities, the use of any electrical appliance that generates heat, such as a motor or oven, is prohibited on the Sabbath like any light-generating appliance for Biblical reasons. Others believe this prohibition is a Rabbinic (derabbanan) interpretation, and still others believe that operating heat-generating appliances is prohibited only by common practice (minhag).
Range of practices
The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has argued that "refraining from operating lights and other permitted electrical appliances is a pious behavior," but is not required.
Igniting a fire
The overwhelming majority of Orthodox halakhic authorities maintain that turning on an incandescent light on Shabbat violates a Biblical prohibition. An incandescent light bulb generates light by causing electric current to flow through a metal filament. The resistance to current flow generates light and heat. Sources in the Torah and Talmud forbid similar cases.
The Torah says: "You shall not burn fire in all your dwellings on the day of Shabbat." The Mishnah of Tractate Shabbat, in the context of laws prohibiting cooking, states: "One who heats a metal pot may not pour cold water into it to heat [the water], but he may pour water into the pot or a cup in order to temper [the vessel]." In the Gemara, Rav says it is permitted to add water to cool it, but forbidden to add water to mold the metal. Shmuel says it is also permitted to add enough water to mold the metal as long as that is not his intent, but if he intends to mold the metal it is forbidden. In a different context, Rav Sheshet says that "cooking" a metal filament is forbidden by analogy to cooking spices.
Thus, heating a metal filament might violate either cooking or igniting a fire or both. Rambam classifies heating metal as a subcategory of igniting a fire, but only if the intent is for metalwork. Raavad disagrees with the first category but does classify it as cooking or as completing a product (Hebrew: מכה בפטיש, makkeh bapatish: literally, "striking the final hammer blow"). The majority of later authorities accept that heating a metal filament is forbidden as igniting a fire, and also agree that turning on an incandescent light bulb falls within the definition of this prohibition.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins has argued that, according to traditional halakhic sources, heating a filament is not prohibited, because the heat does not cause any significant change in the metal and provides no benefit.
Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis in a seminary who asked him "is electricity fire?". He replied, "no", but asked why they wanted to know, and was shocked that they weren't interested in science at all, but just wanted to interpret the Talmud. Feynman said that electricity was not a chemical process, as fire is, and pointed out that there is electricity in atoms and thus every phenomenon that occurs in the world. Feynman proposed a simple way to eliminate the spark: '"If that's what's bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever—anywhere.' But for some reason, they didn't like that idea either".
Even for appliances that do not produce light, turning on electric current may violate other prohibitions. For example, the Talmud prohibits the creation of a fragrant scent in one's clothing on Shabbat because, according to Rashi "creating anything new" is prohibited under a Rabbinic category called molid. Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes suggested applying molid to the generating of electric current. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and many others disagree with this application. Among other reasons, they state that molid is a limited category that cannot be expanded past the definitions the Talmudic Sages imposed. Nevins has endorsed Auerbach's reasoning.
The Chazon Ish wrote that closing an electrical circuit to create current was Biblically prohibited as building, and opening a closed circuit was the corresponding prohibited act of destroying. - Shlomo Auerbach disagreed vigorously with the Chazon Ish. Among other reasons, he claimed that building and destroying must be fundamentally permanent in nature, whereas most electrical devices are routinely turned on and off at will, and the person who turns it on usually intends that it will be turned off at some later point, and vice versa. Building an item that is fundamentally temporary in nature is at most a Rabbinic prohibition, and Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach said that opening and closing a circuit is like opening and closing a door, which is not prohibited at all. Auerbach's view has been endorsed by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards as well.
Closing a circuit to render a device operational might also violate the Biblical prohibition of makeh bapatish (striking the final hammer blow, i.e. completing a product). The argument would be that an electrical device is not complete because it does not function unless the electricity is turned on.
Rabbis Shlomo Auerbach, Yaakov Breisch, and Nevins strongly disagree because makeh bapatish refers to a fundamentally permanent act that requires great effort, and turning on an electrical appliance is fundamentally temporary because it will be turned off, and requires a minimal amount of effort.
Intentionally creating sparks is prohibited as igniting a fire. Turning on some electrical appliances may generate sparks, but contemporary authorities do not consider this a reason to prohibit. The lighting of sparks is unintentional and might not occur, and the sparks are very small so they might not be considered final. With solid-state technology the probability of generating sparks is greatly reduced.
Additional fuel consumption
Turning on an appliance may indirectly cause the power plant to consume more fuel. For various reasons most authorities permit this indirect causation if the power-plant is operated by non-Jews. (If the power plant is operated by Jews, the issue is more complicated. See the section below regarding Israeli power plants.)
Heating a wire or filament
Injecting current into a wire might heat that wire according to the Chazon Ish. Some feel that the prevalence of solid-state technology has made the reality underlying this concern obsolete in many cases.
Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach rejects all the fundamental reasons for prohibiting electricity as cited above, except for turning on an incandescent light which is considered lighting a fire. Nonetheless, he prohibits using any electrical appliances except in cases of great need because Shabbat-observant Jews have traditionally acted on the assumption that using electricity on Shabbat is prohibited. Thus, according to this opinion, the prohibition of electricity on Shabbat is a minhag (common practice or tradition) without a substantive reason in the laws of Shabbat.
In general, from an Orthodox perspective, it is permissible to benefit from most electrical objects during Shabbat, provided they are preset before the start of Shabbat, and the status of the appliance is not manually modified during Shabbat. These include lights, heating, and air conditioning.
Cooking on Shabbat, whether by electrical or other means, is generally prohibited on Shabbat. Food may be kept hot when it is cooked before the start of Shabbat. There are various laws governing how this food is kept hot and served. Often, a blech or crock pot is used for this purpose.
Though most Shabbat observant Jews permit opening and closing a refrigerator during Shabbat, some authorities require that the door only be opened when the refrigerator motor is already running. Otherwise, the motor will be caused to go on sooner by the increase in temperature indirectly caused by the flow of heat from the outside. Most refrigerators and freezers automatically turn the motor on to operate the cooling pump whenever the thermostat detects a temperature that is too high to keep the food cold. However, Auerbach and most authorities permit opening the door because this result is indirect, and because there are additional grounds to be lenient.
Additionally, any incandescent light which is triggered upon opening the door must be disconnected before Shabbat. It is not permitted to open the door if the light will turn on because, unlike with the motor running, the light turning on is a Biblical prohibition whereas the motor running may be a Rabbinic prohibition, and also, the light is turned on immediately as an effect of opening the refrigerator whereas the motor turning on is an indirect effect.
Some rabbinic authorities have questioned that if a thermostat for a heating or air conditioning system is set prior to the start of Shabbat, if changes made to the temperature of the room in which the thermostat is contained may impact the system's on/off status. Of particular concern is action that intentionally triggers the thermostat; for example, if the thermostat is set to turn on the room's heat, and an occupant of the room wishes the heater would turn on, opening a window to allow cold air into the room, thereby triggering the heat to turn on.
While most rabbis have ruled that the example of intentionally letting cold air into the room to operate the thermostat constitutes a violation of Shabbat, if the person opens the window for some other, legitimate, reason, and the cold air enters as a side effect, no violation has occurred. Additionally, most agree that if a person who has no intention to operate the thermostat does something which happens to operate it, no violation has occurred.
A few rabbinical authorities have completely forbidden the use of heating or cooling systems controlled by a thermostat on Shabbat, declaring that human actions that trigger the system on or off constitute a violation, regardless of intention.
According to most Orthodox authorities, a lamp or appliance containing a light bulb may not be turned on or off during Shabbat. However, a time switch (shabbat clock) can be set to turn a light on and off at fixed times.
The Shabbat lamp is a special lamp in which the electricity remains on, but the light can be blocked out, thereby allowing the room that it is in to be dark or light at will. The lamp is constructed in such a manner that turning it "on" or "off" while powered on does not violate the laws of Shabbat. Specifically, the lamp operates by allowing the rotation of an outer shade that alternates between covering and uncovering a lamp that was pre-lit (before the onset of Shabbat) under the shade. This does not, however, take advantage of the energy conservation possible by extinguishing a lamp when not in use, and does not reduce the lamp's environmental impact. Such concepts have existed in Talmudic literature, but have recently been commercialized by companies such as Kosher Lamp.
Television and radio
Most rabbinical authorities have prohibited watching television during Shabbat, even if the TV is turned on before the start of Shabbat, and its settings are not changed. However, most rabbis have permitted programming a device to record television programmes during Shabbat, the programming to be done before the start of Shabbat and the viewing after.
Most authorities also prohibit either turning on or listening to a radio. The reason is, although electric current is not turned on, the radio makes a loud noise, falling under the Rabbinic prohibition of making a noise with an instrument designed to make noise. However, it may be permitted to turn up the volume of a radio that is already on because many authorities permit adding to an electric current. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg says that changing the station on a radio by using a dial[clarification needed] is prohibited, but Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach says that it is permitted.
Regardless of permissibility, almost all authorities (including Conservative Nevins) consider that watching television, listening to a radio, or use of appliances for similar purposes on Shabbat violates the spirit of Shabbat and is not ideal.
Computers and similar appliances
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (June 2012)|
While some authorities agree that the manipulation of a computer or any other appliance with a display screen (such as a digital watch or cellphone) is prohibited on Shabbat because of the use of electricity, other laws of Shabbat may also be broken when using a computer. One might be concerned that the acts of writing and erasing are performed, since one's actions on the keyboard or other control instrument may change what is displayed on the display. Rav Gedalyah Rabinowitz pointed out in Halachah Urefu'ah (vol. V) that words which appear on a computer screen are actually flickering many times a second (this applies to a CRT but not later types of display). Therefore, the text on a computer screen is not the same as written text. Text displayed on a computer console is not permanent at all; indeed, words on a console cannot even be classified as semi-permanent writing, which may not be erased due to rabbinic decree (Shabbat 120b). Such a display is not considered writing at all, and one may even "erase" one of the Holy Names (of God) if it is displayed on the screen.
It is also questionable whether the use of a keyboard or other input device to change what is displayed is a direct effect. Additionally, some of the action on the screen that occurs while the controls are manipulated are based on the pre-programmed behavior of the device rather than the person's actions. Even if the display was turned on prior to the start of Shabbat, and the on/off status of all lights remains the same throughout, other acts may constitute some violation. However, the use of a computer would be "Uvdin d'Chol" (weekday/mundane activities) which are prohibited rabbinically in order to preserve the spirit of sanctity of the sabbath by preventing one from carrying out unrequired or grueling tasks and weekday-specific activities on the sabbath.
The Shabbos App is a proposed Android app claimed by its creators to enable Orthodox Jews, and all Jewish Sabbath-observers, to use a smartphone to text on the Jewish Sabbath.  Developers stated that the application will be released on Google Play on December 1, 2014. In October 2014 the app caused an uproar among the public, and many rabbis spoke out against the development.
Clocks and watches
A clock may be used to view the time during Shabbat, since it is not touched or affected in any way by viewing it, and a watch may be worn during Shabbat. Some rabbis[who?] recommend alarm clock should not be set before Shabbat, because one may forget upon awakening that it is Shabbat, and may turn it off. Some rabbis[who?] nonetheless permit the use of an alarm clock if the shutoff switch is covered or some other object is put in place that would remind the user that it is Shabbat.
Like other electrical appliances, telephones are bound by similar restrictions on Shabbat. Operating a telephone may involve separate prohibitions at each stage of the operation. Thus, removing a telephone from the receiver to produce a dial tone closes a circuit and makes a noise. Dialing closes more circuits and creates more noises. Speaking on the phone increases an existing current, but Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach and many other authorities permit this. Hanging up the phone opens a circuit, which is a Biblical prohibition of "destroying" according to the Chazon Ish but a Rabbinic prohibition according to others.
Dialing on many phones, including cell phones, also causes the numbers to be written on a display screen, thus violating the prohibition of writing (even though the writing is not permanent). If a phone call must be made on Shabbat, other factors being equal, it is preferable to use a phone without a display screen.
It is questionable if it is permissible to use an answering machine or voicemail to receive messages left during Shabbat, since one is benefiting from a violation of Shabbat, particularly if the caller is a Jew.
In Israel, a special phone has been invented for soldiers that allows phone calls to be made with minimal desecration to Shabbat for borderline situations in which it is not known whether a life-threatening emergency is taking place.
Kosher phones and networks are, as the name implies, essentially phones with rabbinical approval that can be used for communication without entertainment functionality or connectivity. A particular example is said to be usable on the sabbath without breaking Jewish laws by essential workers with important needs such as health, security, public services, water and electricity.
There are varying views on the use of a microphone during Shabbat. While most Orthodox rabbinic authorities prohibit the use of microphones, there has been some argument for allowing the use of a microphone in a synagogue that is turned on before the start of Shabbat on the basis that a microphone does not create a human voice, but rather amplifies it. Those in the majority, who forbid the microphone, have various concerns, including the conduction of electricity that is affected by the human voice, and the attention that is drawn from the sound coming from the speakers.
A Shabbat microphone has been developed that uses constant electric current, so the sound source does not change the status of the electric current. It has not been approved by all Orthodox rabbinic authorities.
Washing clothes is not permitted on Shabbat, whether by hand or machine. Most rabbinical authorities have prohibited allowing a washing machine or dryer to run on Shabbat, even if it is set before the start of Shabbat. If the machine is still running after Shabbat starts when this was not planned, no benefit may be derived from clothes or other objects in the appliance during that Shabbat.
According to Orthodox authorities, while driving on Shabbat is prohibited directly because of the combustion of fuel, modern automobiles also have numerous electrical components whose operation is prohibited during Shabbat. These include headlamps and other external and internal lights, turn signals, and gauges. Additionally, the operation of the vehicle involves many uses of electricity and electrical circuits. According to many Conservative authorities, this use of electricity is not prohibited, and it may even be permitted to drive a car powered by an internal combustion engine in certain circumstances
Operating an elevator is generally prohibited by Orthodox authorities for multiple reasons. However, Shabbat elevators have been designed automatically to travel from one floor to the next regardless of whether a human is riding the elevator or not, so many authorities permit the use of such elevators under certain circumstances. The environmental advantages of reducing energy consumption when the device is not in use are lost.
The use of automated surveillance systems has been reviewed. Examples include closed-circuit television, video cameras, and motion detectors. A person who walks within view of an operating surveillance camera may permit photography if the camera must be passed to enter a building or location and the photograph is not of direct benefit to the passerby. This is called a pesik reisha delo nicha leih (Aramaic: פסיק רישא דלא ניחא ליה, loose translation: "an inevitable resultant action that does not benefit the one who indirectly caused that action"). However, it is prohibited knowingly to walk past a motion sensor which switches on a light on Shabbat if the street or place is dark and because the turning on of the light substantively benefits the person, and it is a pesik reisha denicha leih (Aramaic: פסיק רישא דניחא ליה, loose translation: "an inevitable resultant action that does benefit the one who indirectly caused that action"). Observant Jews are advised to avoid walking past a motion sensor that they know is there and will switch on a light, or close their eyes when doing so.
Most authorities permit a Jew to program a timer, referred to as a Shabbat clock, before Shabbat to perform automatically a prohibited action on Shabbat. For example, it is permitted to attach a timer to a light switch on Friday afternoon so that the light will turn off late on Friday night when people wish to sleep, and will turn on again the next day when people are awake. The underlying rule is based on a Talmudic principle, codified by Maimonides, that permits a Jew to begin an action on Friday even though the action will be completed automatically on Shabbat.
However, Rava in the Talmud prohibits a Jew from adding wheat on Friday to a water mill that will run automatically on Shabbat because the addition of wheat to the mill will cause a loud noise which disturbs the peaceful environment of Shabbat. Rav Yosef disagrees with Rava and permits this. Rishonim disagree as to which opinion is normative. Rabbi Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch permits this action, but Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Ramo) prohibits it absent great need. Accordingly, Rabbis Moses Feinstein and Shlomo Auerbach prohibit programming a radio to turn on during Shabbat, or allowing it to run on Shabbat, not because of the violation of electricity as such, but rather because the noise of the radio violates a separate prohibition.
Some authorities have raised other reasons to prohibit Shabbat clocks in general, but the consensus of many rabbis permits their use.
Adjusting a Shabbat clock
There are four scenarios of adjusting a Shabbat clock on Shabbat so that the automated action will occur earlier or later than originally intended. Reprogramming a Shabbat clock, which is a mechanical device, is not itself a violation of using electricity. The question is whether the resulting action is considered to have been caused by a human hand in violation of Shabbat. Some authorities hold that wherever there is a significant time delay between an action and its result, the action is considered to have been done indirectly and may be permitted. Thus, if one changes a Shabbat clock to turn on a light one hour earlier than it was previously set to do, it is permitted because there is still a significant time delay between setting the timer and its execution of turning on the light.
Other authorities do not accept the argument from time delay and distinguish among various cases for other reasons. Thus: turning on a light earlier than planned may be prohibited because it causes the prohibited action to occur earlier than it would have occurred otherwise. Similarly, turning off a light earlier than planned would be prohibited, but it may be permitted in extenuating circumstances because terminating a current flow to turn off a light is at most a Rabbinic prohibition. Turning on a light later than planned, or turning off a light that is already on later than planned, would be permitted because one is merely maintaining the status quo. Some prohibit only the latter case by analogy to adding oil to a burning lamp, but others reject that analogy. Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach notes that in certain timers, which are designed with a peg that must be removed in one notch and reinserted in a second notch, it is prohibited to reset when a light will turn on, even if the action will occur later than planned, because reinserting the peg in the second notch constitutes programming a light to turn on when, until that instant, the light would not have turned on at all because the peg had been removed. He did not comment on the case where a spare peg is available to be inserted in the second notch before removal of the first.
Design of the clock
A Shabbat clock is an electrical time switch of any type.
Shabbat clocks are used in halakhic management of public organisations such as hospitals and hotels on Shabbat. In Shabbat-observant kibbutzim and moshavim, Shabbat clocks may be used to operate dishwashers and milk cows.
Automated milking of cows
Some review articles have been published on the permissibility of milking cows on Shabbat using automated machines. Milking cows on Shabbat is fundamentally prohibited as mefareik (Hebrew: מפרק), a subcategory of dash (Hebrew: דש threshing). However, it is absolutely necessary for Jewish dairy farmers to milk their cows every day, including Shabbat, because the cows suffer greatly if they are not milked two or three times a day. In some cases the milk is needed to ensure the economic viability of the farmer.
This issue was widely discussed before the advent of automated milking machines. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, permitted dairy farmers to ask a non-Jew to milk the cow, in accordance with a medieval ruling by Maharam of Rothenburg. Although milking a cow is a Biblical prohibition, asking a non-Jew to perform a prohibited act on Shabbat is only a Rabbinic prohibition, so to alleviate the animal's pain it is permitted. On religious kibbutzim in Israel where only Jews live, it may not be practical to ask non-Jews to milk the cows. Rav Kook, acknowledging this reality in his time, and the Chazon Ish permitted milking a cow and allowing the milk to be wasted because this too is only a Rabbinic prohibition and can be permitted because of the mitigating factor to prevent the cow from feeling pain.
These authorities also permitted milking to waste using automated machines, but the Chazon Ish wrote that it was not allowed to milk the first few drops to waste using automated machines, followed by switching to containers and collecting the remaining milk in the containers. However, in practice, the Chazon Ish permitted farmers to adopt this practice to prevent economic loss because the action of milking for collection was indirect. Using a device invented by the Zomet Institute in the 1980s, which allowed the switch from milking to waste to milking into containers to occur indirectly without human intervention, the act of milking cows became more indirect and thus more likely to be permitted. Yet another solution, whereby the cows are hooked up to the machine with electricity off, and the electricity is soon turned on automatically to milk the cows, was permitted in theory by the Chazon Ish and became practical in the late 20th century. It is currently practiced by the religious kibbutz at Sde Eliyahu.
Although the primary halakhic concern in milking cows on Shabbat is unrelated to electricity as such, it is an example of the use of an automated device programmed on a Shabbat clock to perform a critical function that could otherwise only be done by hand. As with Shabbat clocks in other uses, the activity performed by the machine would be prohibited if done by hand.
Use of electricity generated in Israeli power plants
Several review articles have been written about the permissibility of using electricity generated in Israeli power plants. On principle it should be prohibited because one may not benefit from an action performed in violation of Shabbat. Thus, for example, if a Jew turns on a light in violation of Shabbat, neither he nor anyone else is permitted to read a book using that light. Similarly, if a Jew generates electricity in a power plant in violation of Shabbat, other Jews may not benefit from that electricity. However, there are several considerations to permit Jews to generate electricity in Israeli power plants and to use electricity generated in this manner.
The primary motive to permit generating electricity is pikuach nefesh (saving lives). The generation of electricity on Shabbat serves in many instances for pikuach nefesh (Hebrew: פיקוח נפש, "saving lives") because the flow of electric current is needed for the day-to-day operations of hospitals, first aid centers, outpatients who require medical care in their homes, or climate control for people who need it. Sometimes the use of a refrigerator is also considered pikuach nefesh when a baby or elderly person lives in the house and must eat specific foods that must be refrigerated. Sometimes street lights also operate for pikuach nefesh because obstacles may cause passersby to fall and injure themselves if lights do not make the paths visible. Based on these facts, some authorities permit Jews to benefit from electricity generated on Shabbat because it is permitted for workers of the electric company to violate Shabbat for pikuach nefesh, and the electricity generated in this manner serves multiple purposes, some of them pikuach nefesh. Because it is impossible to distinguish between the electric current going to purposes recognised as pikuach nefesh and to other purposes, all electricity generation is classified as pikuach nefesh, so there is no prohibition of ma'aseh Shabbat. This leniency has many associated doubts, so many Jews do not rely on it and seek alternative ways to use electricity as described in other sections.
The argument based on pikuach nefesh would allow a Jew to work at the power plant on Shabbat to generate electricity. Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach and Rabbi Shlomo Goren permit this, but Rabbi Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein question why non-Jews are not employed to do this work instead.
Using electricity is more clear-cut than generation; the purpose is unambiguous. Rabbi Shlomo Goren permits the generation of electricity because of pikuach nefesh, but prohibits using it in ordinary circumstances because of a precedent in the Talmud: if someone cooks meat for a patient who needs it for pikuach nefesh, nobody else may eat that meat, as this possibility could encourage the cook to prepare more meat than necessary, violating Shabbat without justification. However, Shlomo Auerbach, who permits the generation of electricity on Shabbat with some hesitation (see citation below), also permits the use of electricity based on a different Talmudic precedent: if a sick patient requires meat for survival, and no dead meat is available, a live animal may be slaughtered (otherwise in violation of Shabbat) and its excess meat may be consumed by others on Shabbat. Since in this case there is no way to cook any meat without slaughtering a whole animal, the rationale that the violator might do more than necessary does not hold.
Unintentional violation of Shabbat
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Some authorities say Jews may use electricity generated in violation of Shabbat because the violation itself was not wilful. The violation of Shabbat by the Jewish workers at the power plants is considered unintentional (Hebrew: שוגג, shogeg), not willful (Hebrew: מזיד, meizid). Some authorities prohibit benefiting from products of unintentional violation of Shabbat, not only for the violator but also for the beneficiary, who is in this instance the user of electricity. Some authorities permit the beneficiary of a violation of Shabbat to benefit from it.
Forbidden actions in power plants
Power plants in Israel increase their production of electricity during the day by heating water to generate steam which will rotate the turbines to generate energy. The operators of the power plants increase their production during the day by turning up the heat in the boilers, and they decrease production at night by turning down the heat, in order to match the demand from consumers. The violation of Shabbat involved in the operation of these power plants includes the forbidden activities of igniting a fire (הבערה), cooking (בישול), extinguishing a fire (כיבוי), building (בונה) and others. The operators of the five major power plants in Israel claim that the generation of electricity happens automatically without human intervention. However, a closer examination revealed that the operation is really semi-automated by computers, but human operators must operate the computers, so a human hand does drive the generation of electricity. Other actions performed by workers for the electric company are fixing various faults which occur occasionally on Shabbat. These actions include the forbidden categories of building, destroying, igniting a fire, completing a product, carrying and others. When these actions are performed by Jews, the electricity is generated as a product of violation of Shabbat (Hebrew: מעשה שבת). Because of this, it is forbidden to benefit from electricity created on Shabbat.
Alternatives to publicly generated electricity
Indeed, some authorities prohibit the use of electricity generated by Jews on Shabbat, and some neighborhoods with thousands of residents, especially Haredi communities, operate the electricity in their homes from a special Shabbat generator, without performing any forbidden action on Shabbat. Some people even refuse to use a generator because the end-product of electricity is indistinguishable from what is provided to ordinary consumers, so using electricity in any manner constitutes the appearance of violating halakhah. Some of these people use a kerosene lamp that provides them with a minimal amount of light, and some use only Shabbat candles for Friday night dinner. Some people who do not use electricity also do not use faucets or other mechanisms that provide water from public supplies because the water pumps are operated electrically. These people prepare containers of water on Friday sufficient to provide for their needs on Shabbat.
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- Rabbi Michael Broyde & Rabbi Howard Jachter, The Use of Electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov, part 1, section A. Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society No. XXI - Spring 1991 - Pesach 5751.
- Broyde and Jachter, note 3.
- Exodus 35:3.
- Shabbat 41a.
- Shabbat 41b.
- Yevamot 6b.
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 12:1.
- Broyde and Jachter, part 1, section A.
- Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, chapter Is electricity fire?, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), 1985, W W Norton, ISBN 0-393-01921-7, 1997 paperback: ISBN 0-393-31604-1 
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section A.
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section B
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section C.
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section D.
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section E.
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section F.
- Broyde and Jachter, part II, section G.
- Minchas Shlomo, Chapter 10; Broyde and Jachter, part IV, section A.
- Broyde and Jachter, footnote 59.
- Jachter and Broyde, part IV, section C.
- Hannah Dreyfus (October 2, 2014). "New Shabbos App Creates Uproar Among Orthodox Circles". The Jewish Week. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- David Shamah (October 2, 2014). "App lets Jewish kids text on Sabbath – and stay in the fold; The ‘Shabbos App’ is generating controversy in the Jewish community — and a monumental on-line discussion of Jewish law". The Times of Israel. Retrieved October 3, 2014.
- Daniel Koren (October 2, 2014). "Finally, Now You Can Text on Saturdays Thanks to New 'Shabbos App'". Shalom Life. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- "Will the Shabbos App Change Jewish Life, Raise Rabbinic Ire, or Both?". Jewish Business News. October 2, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- "Why We Cancelled Our Kickstarter Campaign". Shabbos App. October 22, 2014. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
- Erik Schechter (October 3, 2014). "Shabbos App for Sabbath Texting Roils Rabbis". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
- Broyde and Jachter, part IV, section B.
- J. David Bleich. Contemporary Halachic Problems, volume 5, pages 157-170.
- israelnationalnews.com: Introducing: A 'Kosher Phone' Permitted on Shabbat
- J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, volume 5, pages 129-156.
- Bleich, ibid.
- Ribiat, loc. cit.
- Broyde and Jachter, part IV, section D.
- Shabbat 17b-18a. Cited in Broyde and Jachter, section V, part A.
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 3:1. Cited in Broyde and Jachter, section V, part B.
- Broyde and Jachter, section V, part A.
- Broyde and Jachter, part V, section B.
- Howard Jachter and Ezra Frazer, Gray Matter, volume 1, pages 201-214.
- Techumin 15:394-410, cited in Jachter and Frazer 1:213.
- Shabbat 95a, cited in Jachter and Frazer 1:200.
- Jachter and Frazer 1:202.
- Jachter and Frazer 1:204.
- Jachter and Frazer 1:206-9.
- Jachter and Frazer 1:210-214.
- Howard Jachter and Ezra Frazer, Gray Matter, volume 2, pages 54-66.
- Levi Yitzchak Halperin, Teshuvot Ma'aseh Chosheiv 1:31, and Yisrael Rozen, Techumin 16:36–50. Cited in Jachter and Frazer 2:55.
- This section was translated from the Hebrew Wikipedia article on ma'aseh Shabbat (Hebrew: מעשה שבת) on June 3, 2008.
- Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 2:15 and Tinyana 24. Cited in Jachter and Frazer 2:56.
- Meishiv Milchamah 1:366-385. Cited in Jachter and Frazer 2:56.
- Teshuvot Igrot Moshe (Orach Chaim 4:127). Cited in Jachter and Frazer 2:56.
- Cited in Jachter and Frazer 2:56-57.
- This is according to the Hebrew book Shevut Yitzchak (שבות יצחק).
- Neulander, Arthur. "The Use of Electricity on the Sabbath." Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 14 (1950) 165-171
- Adler, Morris; Agus, Jacob; and Friedman, Theodore. "Responsum on the Sabbath." Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 14 (1950), 112-137
- Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America: New York, 1979.
- Michael Broyde and Howard Jachter (Pesach 1991). The Use of Electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society, No. XXI. Retrieved on 2008-05-16.
- Encyclopedia Talmudit, "Electricity" 18:155-190.
- Dovid Ribiat. The 39 Melochos: An Elucidation of the 39 Melochos from Concept to Practical Application. Nanuet, N.Y. : Feldheim Publishers, 1999. Volume 4, pages 1201ff.
- Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin To Be a Jew, A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, Basic Books, 1972, 1991, ISBN 0-465-08624-1, pages 89–93