Monday, August 28, 2023

August 26 Not Orthodox not Orthoprax Part 4


August 26

Not Orthodox not Orthoprax Part 4

Link to video:



So, let’s get to my example, which is the theory of work on Shabbat and its application to the problem of electricity in general.


There is a discussion in the Mishna that explains our quandry of Shabbat:

הֶתֵּר נְדָרִים פּוֹרְחִין בָּאֲוִיר, וְאֵין לָהֶם עַל מַה שֶּׁיִּסְמֹכוּ. הִלְכוֹת שַׁבָּת, חֲגִיגוֹת וְהַמְּעִילוֹת, הֲרֵי הֵם כַּהֲרָרִים הַתְּלוּיִין בְּשַׂעֲרָה, שֶׁהֵן מִקְרָא מֻעָט וַהֲלָכוֹת מְרֻבּוֹת. הַדִּינִין וְהָעֲבוֹדוֹת, הַטָּהֳרוֹת וְהַטֻּמְאוֹת וַעֲרָיוֹת, יֵשׁ לָהֶן עַל מַה שֶּׁיִּסְמֹכוּ. הֵן הֵן גּוּפֵי תּוֹרָה:Hagigah 1:8


Absolution of vows float in the air and have no basis, rules of  Shabbat, the Festive offerings, and misuse of sacred property are like a mountain suspended on a hair, that is, little text, yet many rules. Civil and criminal law, temple worship, ritual purity and impurity, and sexual relations have a basis in  the Torah, and they are the core of the Torah text.


So, for Shabbat, we are dealing with a mountain hanging from a thread. Much is said about Shabbat, from day 7 of creation, and on, but little is explained.


We have the prohibition of gathering Manna and leaving one’s home on Shabbat and baking before, the generic rule to “ rest” in the 10 commandments, a verse about “ Lo tevaaru” you shall not a) have a fire or b) light a fire. We have the words “ melakhah” labor, for holidays, and “kol melakhah”, all labor for Shabbat. We have the story of a man who gathers kindling wood on Shabbat, but we are not told if he is just picking up sticks or chopping them off.  There are references to not engaging in  business( Isaiah) and not moving objects( Jeremiah).There is a record of the custom of riding to Elisha the Prophet on the Shabbat ( II Kings 4), which would be against later Jewish practice.


Our sages are understandably perturbed. What does it mean to rest? What does work mean? What does fire mean? Why is a different word used for work on Shabbat than on a Festival? All of these have to be defined. We hate generalizations. We want concrete understanding of our actions.


Therefore, the sages looked for hints in the Torah and took them from the actions in the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness because every time instructions for the Tabernacle were given a reminder of keeping the Shabbat was also given.


Out of this they found the justifications, not necessarily the foundations, but the justifications for the observances that had developed in these years.

Mishna Shabbat 7:2

אבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אֶחָת


There are 40 minus one primary categories of labor. They can be  grouped in categories of essential economic activity.


אֲבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אֶחָת. הַזּוֹרֵעַ. וְהַחוֹרֵשׁ. וְהַקּוֹצֵר. וְהַמְעַמֵּר. הַדָּשׁ. וְהַזּוֹרֶה. הַבּוֹרֵר. הַטּוֹחֵן. וְהַמְרַקֵּד. וְהַלָּשׁ. וְהָאוֹפֶה. הַגּוֹזֵז אֶת הַצֶּמֶר. הַמְלַבְּנוֹ. וְהַמְנַפְּצוֹ. וְהַצּוֹבְעוֹ. וְהַטּוֹוֶה. וְהַמֵּסֵךְ. וְהָעוֹשֶׂה שְׁנֵי בָתֵּי נִירִין. וְהָאוֹרֵג שְׁנֵי חוּטִין. וְהַפּוֹצֵעַ שְׁנֵי חוּטִין. הַקּוֹשֵׁר. וְהַמַּתִּיר. וְהַתּוֹפֵר שְׁתֵּי תְפִירוֹת. הַקּוֹרֵעַ עַל מְנָת לִתְפֹּר שְׁתֵּי תְפִירוֹת. הַצָּד צְבִי. הַשּׁוֹחֲטוֹ. וְהַמַּפְשִׁיטוֹ. הַמּוֹלְחוֹ, וְהַמְעַבֵּד אֶת עוֹרוֹ. וְהַמּוֹחֲקוֹ. וְהַמְחַתְּכוֹ. הַכּוֹתֵב שְׁתֵּי אוֹתִיּוֹת. וְהַמּוֹחֵק עַל מְנָת לִכְתֹּב שְׁתֵּי אוֹתִיּוֹת. הַבּוֹנֶה. וְהַסּוֹתֵר. הַמְכַבֶּה. וְהַמַּבְעִיר. הַמַּכֶּה בַפַּטִּישׁ. הַמּוֹצִיא מֵרְשׁוּת לִרְשׁוּת. הֲרֵי אֵלּוּ אֲבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אֶחָת:



From farming to the final loaf of bread.)

One who sows, and one who plows, and one who reaps, and one who gathers sheaves into a pile, and one who threshes, removing the kernel from the husk, and one who winnows threshed grain in the wind, and one who selects the inedible waste from the edible, and one who grinds, and one who sifts the flour in a sieve, and one who kneads dough, and one who bakes.


(Clothing:From the shearing to the final garment)


One who shears wool, and one who whitens it, and one who combs the fleece and straightens it, and one who dyes it, and one who spins the wool, and one who stretches the threads of the warp in the loom, and one who constructs two meshes, tying the threads of the warp to the base of the loom, and one who weaves two threads, and one who severs two threads for constructive purposes, and one who ties a knot, and one who unties a knot, and one who sews two stitches with a needle, as well as one who tears a fabric in order to sew two stitches.


(Writing:From the hunt to the act of writing)


One who traps a deer, or any living creature, and one who slaughters it, and one who flays it, and one who salts its hide, a step in the tanning process, and one who tans its hide, and one who smooths it, removing hairs and veins, and one who cuts it into measured parts. One who writes two letters and one who erases in order to write two letters.


(Manufacture from the structure to the final product.)


 One who builds a structure, and one who dismantles it, one who extinguishes a fire, and one who kindles a fire. One who strikes a blow with a hammer to complete the production


(Transportation, a key element of commerce)


 and one who carries out an object from domain to domain. All these are primary categories of labor, and they number forty-less-one.


What do they have in common—these are activities that make a permanent change in the world around us. Permanent, not temporary.  


Mishnah Shabbat 12:1 declares,

 זה הכלל כל העושה

מלאכה ומלאכתו מתקיימת בשבת חייב


“this is the rule: anyone who performs work and his work is stable (or endures) on the Sabbath49 is culpable.”


The underlying principal is that, as God rested froorm creation, so , we too, rest from acts that create new, as opposed to using well that which has already been created. We are acting as a “tselem Elohim”, a likeness of God.


Thus, in the times of Rabbi Israel of Salant, when Jews ran the harbor , and ships came in on Shabbat, he authorized the use of a peg-board to track the cargo. The harbor could operate, Jews could remain in their positions, and a solution, on the basis ofbased on a temporary, not permanent marking, was made. In Israel, doctors on Shabbat, visting non-critical patients, would write their notes with disappearing ink, and then have them transcribed after Shabbat, before the notes would disappear. This itself was not new, but a direct application of the rule in the Mishnah, that writing with a disappearing ink , known in their day, was itself not a violation.


To these major categories and subcategories we add several important innovations.

 For example the concept of Shvut, work that is not directly prohibited but reinforces the idea of rest on Shabbat.  Giving direct instructions to a gentile is an example of Shvut.


Another concept that we find in rabbinic sources is the idea of muktzeh, which we might translate as untouchable. It's a fascinating concept as we push aside things that we would normally use during the week but don't touch them because we might by mistake use them. Simple example would be a hammer. I don't take out the hammer from the closet since I can't use it on Shabbat and I don't want to forget and pound the nail in my wall by mistake. Then there is concept of Muktze mahmat hisron kis: it is forbidden to to use it or to do it because it may cause a loss of property. For example during the week if I have some China that I don't like and I just want to smash it and throw it away that's fine. But on Shabbat I cannot allow myself to engage in wanton destruction of my property, lovely concept. Then there is Mukseh mahmat mius-it is forbidden to touch because it's disgusting and on Shabbat we don't want to deal with disgusting things. Therefore if we have a pile of dirt on the table, rather than just grabbing the dirt and throwing it away, we would pick up the dirt in a cloth and then put it aside and not deal with the dirt . Again a lovely idea.


Then we also have workarounds, so that if something has to be done we can get it done indirectly. So although to tell a gentile to do something is in the category of resting, because our servants are to rest with us, if I have contracted in advance for certain activities, that gentile is acting as a free agent and is  just doing what's in his contract without me telling him. In tandem was common custom with the “Shabbes goy” or “Goy shel Shabbat”,  I would hint to him, as was the case reportedly for Elvis Presley who would play Jewish records on Shabbat at the neighboring Jewish home and they would enjoy it. That's how he learned his cantorial thrills in his singing. In Israel today, in religious neighborhoods, you will see cars with the sign “Goy shel Shabbat”, who would be and Arab Muslim or Christian from the neighboring community who would be there on pay by the community to be available for household emergencies like a broken toilet. This actually served as one of the areas of mutual benefit between these communities in all ages.


Jews owned businesses  which sometimes had to continue to operate on Shabbat. The workaround was to create a partnership with a non-Jew who would be responsible for business on Shabbat.


Another approach, when it could not be avoided, was to do something “b’shinui”, in an unusual manner, different than on a weekday, such as push a button with the elbow instead of the hand.


Yet another work-around was the concept of Eruv- binding together. Thus, when the Rabbis rejected the Sadducees concept of staying inside the household on Shabbat—because the command said” You shall not go out of you habitations”—they expanded “habitation” to mean one’s community and a reasonable distance out—the” tchum”- 18 minutes walk.


But they also interpreted the verse to mean that one could not carry objects out of one’s household. Which immediately raised the problem, of what happens when we want to share Shabbat food with our neighbors. Out of this grew the concept of “ Eruv” – a binding, by a wire or thread, not just a common wall ,of the private domain of one household with the private domain of another household. It is a beautiful example of the idea of a shared community for the Shabbat== to the extent that this side of LA has an Eruv going from the Western Ave till the 405 and the 10 up to the 101. There are similar boundaries set up in other parts of Los Angeles.


Now finally for our question of fire.


The Torah text tells us :

לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃ (פ) Ex 35:3


You shall not light a fire in all your homes on the Shabbat—is it “ not light” or not allow it to burn at all?


Thus the Saduccees, the party of the High Priests, and the landed nobility, said there shall be no fire burning, This was later continued by the Karaites, as neither party accepted the traditions or the methods of the Pharisees, the Rabbis. Food could be kept warm by burying in warm sand that had warm coals in it ( Chamin-the origin of Cholent), but not flames, and dark is dark.


The Rabbi revolutionized the text and insisted that it was the act of creating a new fire that was problematic, and even then, it would apply only to Shabbat, but not to the festivals, as a fire could be lit from an existing flame and a new fire could be started by transfer to the next candle. They created a principal of “ tzorech ochel nefesh”- that which needs to be done in order to be able to eat. Since food could not stay fresh cooked more than a day, before refrigeration, and the Yom Tov could run, together with Shabbat, as much as 3 days running, cooking was permitted on the Festival, and if cooking was permitted, then having a fire was essential.


Not only that, but the lighting of the fire would now be the special privilege of the woman of the household, conducted with a special blessing” who has commanded us to light the lamp of Shabbat”. The house could be bright during the dark night, and the food could be warm and tasty, giving us “Cholent” and Chicken soup! ( Cholent- from an old French term, chalant, to warm, or “chaud” and “lent”, warm slowly).


Also, for those who remember the old days, before cancer warnings on the cigarette pack, on Shabbes, no one smoked, but on Yontof, everyone lit up, because “hutera letzorech, hutera shnami lo letzorech. Once you allow it for use for a special need, you have essentially allowed it also when there is no urgent need! You have let the cat out of the bag on Festivals.


Now, we come to our question about electricity.


The first question, since electricity, especially  in a light bulb looks bright like fire, is hot like fire and the wires can cause sparks, like fire, is it fire?


The first reactions, when electricity became widely used, was to label it as fire. Naturally, "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."


Or not.


Many halakhic authorities decided that it is, especially the old filament bulb, as it not only glows, but gives off tremendous heat.


Nevertheless, as famous an authority as Rabbi Shlomo Goren , the one who is always shown blowing the Shofar at the Kotel, later Chief Rabbi of Tsahal, the Israeli military, and then of the State of Israel, wrote an extensive teshuvah stating that electricity emphatically does not meet the conditions of fire .


( 126 סיני: ירחון לתורה, למדע ולספרות, כרך כד, חוברת א -ו. "הדלקת החשמל בשבת," ע' קמח-קנב וע' שכו-שכט .).


By the way, when he was chosen as the chief rabbi of Israel, it was under the understanding that he, with his halakhic brilliance, would renovate the rabbinate and find solutions to problems in Israeli society, between the orthodox and the non orthodox. He was derailed in his efforts by antagonism from the haredim .



Many Halakhic authorities recognized that “fire” was not the defining category for the prohibition of electricity, but were concerned about the slippery slope of usage.


Molid, “Making New- the electric current in itself is creating something new.


Boneh, “Building- when we close an electric circuit, we are creating a structure.


Makeh be Patish- the final hammer blow, that completes construction or Metaken—prepare for use.


These positions have been argued against by many authorities, as the physical world of hard objects cannot be connected to the world of physics, in which electricity constantly flows and circuits constantly open and close.


The one category of electricity which would be close to the rabbinic prohibitions, would be the use of intentional heat, such as an electric stove or microwave to actually cook. Bishul.


Much of the worries about similarity to fire dissipate with the use of LED and solid state electronics, which do not give off enough heat to scald the hand. That is increasingly accepted ,and, it turns out that North African Rabbis permitted the use of electric lights at the beginning of the last century.


There have been work-abouts, using electricity in limited capacity, such as electric vehicles for the disabled on Shabbat, that remain on at very low voltage during Shabbat, and the control merely increases and decreases the voltage. That is something that would be absolutely impossible if the electricity were considered fire, as increasing or decreasing the fire is a problem on Shabbat but not Yom Tov. My father-in-law used one like this to get to synagogue on Shabbat after  his stroke, in a very Orthodox neighborhood.


Finally we have our question of the use of electronic equipment in order to allow others to follow our services long distance.


This was essential during the pandemic but now that it is over, we can ask if these are still acceptable.


Naturally, within the Conservative movement ,there is great debate, and while much of the specific decisions of the law committee frown upon much of this, in fact, most of the major Conservative congregations in the United States are recording services and are streaming them. We recognize this causes potential problems.



For example it is not so much the problem of the camera watching us, but of the system creating a permanent record of what we are doing.


As we said something permanent is what we don't want to do in Shabbat.


However based on our earlier sources , the electronic recording, based on what is described in rabbinic literature, is in and of itself ,not writing. No true letters are created in this process, only a series of on and off of electrons, the bit and the byte. While there is a recording, that recording itself is not of a permanent nature. That YouTube and Facebook may want to keep it permanent by keeping it on their clouds is their action and not my action. There's a general policy in rabbinic law that if I do not intend to do something but it is being done by me indirectly that itself is not a problem as much as doing it intentionally directly.  It might be comparable to the opening of a refrigerator, where the opening and closing changes the temperature and causes the compressor to turn on as a result.Nevertheless, the majority do open and close the refrigerator ( after having removed the bulb for Shabbat, as that is operated directly by the door).


In fact, as I was putting this together, I remembered that video recordings began in Conservative congregations back in the 1980’s—as electronic data replaced film. Film is a chemical process that permanently changes the nature, a physical change. Electronic recording, the repositioning of electrons, was seen as a possible option. So I introduced it in my congregation and so did many synagogues- that was 40 years ago.



In an ideal situation we could do what the bigger congregations do, which is have the recording equipment positioned in such a way that no one sees it and that no one sees who's working it. We are a very small congregation and we have the dilemma of either being invisible to others or taking the burden of responsibility on ourselves and saying, like with driving, that it is better that our Jews be watching our services than out shopping and pursuing business.


In fact, it  can be clearly stated, that the use of electronic equipment is far , far less problematic than the use of an automobile. As I showed, most Halakhic authorities to day recognize that electricity in and of itself is not fire, and the prohibitions in Orthodox circles then are based on less serious categories. However, the automobile is powered, up till recent years,  by an internal combustion engine. In 1950, the Law Committee took a radical step, of giving a “ hekhsher “ to driving, on the basis, among other things, that the fire inside the engine was not the desired outcome, but an incidental by product, of the need to get from a to z. It was the kind of radical thinking that was once characteristic of early Rabbinic creativity. Rather than “ wink wink” at the Jews, who , in the 1950’s , no longer lived near the synagogue, it was better to have them come with permission than without.


PS The committee is now discussing the use of electric vehicles, as a preferred solution, something which  Orthodox Rabbis in Israel have permitted for my father in law after his stroke.


When someone will donate to us so that we can build proper equipment that would be hidden inside the walls and hire professional staff to do our video equipment for us, then we will be very happy to do so.


As point of fact, this issue is a Tempest in a teapot compared to critical issues that are arising with greater frequency such as the whole question of human sexuality, the status of artificial intelligence and human beings, issues of life and death, and more.


Now we do what we can do to present Judaism to as broad an audience as we can, Just as our friends at Chabad “wink wink” to the people who attend their services by car to get to the synagogue without saying how they get there , and as Rabbi ibn Ezra would say “Hameyvin Yavin”, If you understand, you what I am getting to.


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