Watch Those Taps on Shabbat!

The latest in extremist Halachic innovations: turning on the tap in high rise buildings violates Shabbat. Many high rise buildings use an electricity driven pump to bring water up from ground level to the upstairs apartments. Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landa from Bnei Brack decided that the electric pumps posed a problem because their motor does not run continuously on Shabbat. His solution: force the pump to run continuously.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to prohibit something out of concern for a motor being turned on.   Some people have claimed that refrigerator doors shouldn’t be opened because it might cause the refrigerator compressor to turn on.  One rabbi last year declared Shabbat elevators in violation of Shabbat because the extra weight would make the engine work harder.  There are even people who put all the water they want to use for Shabbat in jugs for fear that drawing tap water will make municipal water pumps work harder.

It would be easy to ridicule these chumrot as yet one more example of extremism, but we learn much more as Jews by looking at why they seem crazy.    As Jews it isn’t enough to simply feel something is wrong.  We need to name why so we can understand our deepest convictions and use them to build a better Judaism.  Close examination of the arguments for and against such prohibitions teach us a lot about the core values at the heart of Judaism.

Obviously there were no electric motors in the time of Moses nor in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud.  So where do these prohibitions come from?  Why is there any ban on electricity at all? Is this a better Judaism or a Judaism that focuses on a few halachic principals and ignores other equally important principles?

In truth. it isn’t at all clear that there is a ban on electricity itself.   The arguments against electricity are actually very weak.

The first argument is that any electric circuit might create a spark. Lighting fires on Shabbat is prohibited and of all the prohibitions, this ranks as one of the most serious. The counter argument is that sparks are “d’var sh’aino mitkaven” (something not intended).   For one, you can’t guarantee that a spark will happen. In fact, in a well functioning electrical circuit there should be no sparks. Further a spark isn’t something that one would enjoy, even as a side effect. It represents a potentially dangerous malfunction of a circuit.

“d’var sh’aino mitkaven” is more than a dry legal principle.  Moral responsibility and intention are inextricably linked.  Many of the talmudic disputes over Shabbat observance also form the basis for a Jewish philosophy of moral responsibility.

The second argument is that machines open and close electric circuits. Perhaps the opening and closing circuit is a form of building? Building is also prohibited on Shabbat. However, building implies something permanent. What ever is created by the closing of the circuit is a temporary thing.  Further the opening and closing of a circuit within a machine is part of its normal operation.  It is no more building than is opening and closing a baby’s bottle on Shabbat.

A third argument against electricity is that one is creating something by generating a current.  Since even God rested from creation on Shabbat, creating a new thing (molid) is prohibited on Shabbat.   However, “a new thing” isn’t any new thing it is a technical term and only applies to a limited list of things.  Electrical current isn’t on that list and can’t be added.

A forth argument is that one is doing the final step to completing something, hammering in the last nail, so to speak.   However, traditionally the final step has to be something that takes personal effort.   Some argue that closing an electrical circuit doesn’t apply because closing a circuit does not create a permanent state which can’t be easily reversed.  A circuit is meant to be opened and closed.  It is no more adding the final touch to an electrical system than opening and closing a door is adding the final touch to a room.

The weakness of the arguments against electricity has lead many to conclude that electricity and electric motors are not in and of themselves prohibited.  They are only prohibited if they are being used to intentionally do something that would be prohibited anyway even without electricity, , e.g. light a fire or boil water.    This position is supported by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, as well as many Conservative rabbis.

If one agrees that there is nothing inherently prohibited about electricity, then the only relevant question is:  “Is the end result allowed?”  Drawing water from a pipe on Shabbat is not prohibited in and of itself.   Hence, it is not prohibited even if an electric pump is involved.

Of course, for many Haredi rabbis, this is still more to the story.  Even though it is difficult to make sound arguments against electricity, the fact remains that nearly all of the rabbis accepted by the Haredi comunity have at least tried to come up with a reason to ban electricity on Shabbat.    This alone makes banning electricity into a tradition and Haredim are reluctant to challenge or depart from anything viewed as a tradition, even when unfounded.   This is expressed in the mantra “minhag c’halacha” (tradition should be treated as halakha).

So does this make the Haredi position more respectful of tradition and therefore more devoted or more religious?  Not necessarily.   Outside of the Haredi community where a broader array of rabbis are trusted, it isn’t so easy to argue that banning electricity is an undisputed tradition.  Furthermore, actual halakha, especially prohibitions, always takes precedence over tradition (minhag).  Finally,  embracing something because it makes Shabbat special is only valid if it doesn’t violate other prohibitions.

As is often the problem with extremist thinking, these counter balancing principles and prohibitions get ignored or downplayed.   Some of the counter balancing principles that deserve serious consideration include:

*  pikuach nefesh – the obligation to preserve life.  This trumps even Torah based Shabbat prohibitions.   It stands to reason that it also trumps prohibitions that are only minhag.

* tzar baali chaim – it is prohibited to cause pain to any living creature.  Torah prohibitions trump rabbinic prohibitions and of course, minhag.

* baal tashchit – it is prohibited to waste resources

* hefsek meruba – significant financial loss sets aside many prohibitions, particularly in situations where there is a dispute about the halachic status of a prohibition.

* hidur mitzvah – beautifying a mitzvah.   Clinging to the prohibition against electricity can sometimes interfere with making Shabbat  a beautiful day.

Rabbi Landa doesn’t seem to care about these even though his responsa indirectly acknowledges them as issues.  According to Ynet,

At the end of his letter, Rabbi Landa calls on the residents to accept the financial expenses involved in the solution and the noise expected to disrupt the day of rest until a permanent solution is found.  “On the contrary, hearing the sound of the pump will bring you some Shabbat entertainment and the joy of a mitzvah,” he wrote.

Thus his proposed prohibition

(a) causes financial loss

(b) generates a potentially annoying noise which both disrupts the beauty of the day, and potentially could cause painful headaches.

(c) the expense comes from leaving water and motors running.  This means excess electricity and water is consumed.    This waste violates the comandment not to waste resources.

What Rabbi Landa makes no mention of is the health risks of avoiding tap water on Shabbat.    People who are afraid to use tap water might be unwilling to wash dishes or flush the toilet.   Poor sanitation jeopardizes health and violates the obligation to protect and preserve life.

Categories: Building a Better Judaism, Extremism | Tags: | Leave a comment

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