Technology and the spirit of Shabbos

Rabbi Shlomo Cohen

From the time we initially received the Torah, until after World War I, technological innovation crept along at a snail’s pace.  Even for some time afterward, the average person did not have access to much that technology had to offer. A mere sixty or seventy years ago our grand-parents kept Shabbos in much the same manner it had been kept hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.  With quickening pace, improvements began to accrue, and more significantly, become available to the populace at large. Today, our very homes are so dependent on technology that an electric blackout renders most of the items in the house unusable. Our ancestors would not recognize our Shabbos. In almost every respect, it has never been easier to keep Shabbos.  On the other hand, we needn’t put ourselves out at all. There is little Mesiras Nefesh for Shabbos.

HaRav Moshe Feinstein wrote responsa in 1975 in which he prohibits the use of Shabbos clocks for anything but lights (Ig. Moshe OC vol. IV, Simen 60). Reb Moshe writes there that, had the Shabbos clock been known to the Tannaim and Amoraim, they would surely have forbidden their use, just as they prohibited telling a non-Jew to do a Melacha. He also prohibits moving the settings on Shabbos at all (Ig. Moshe YD Simen 47:4). He maintains that he would have prohibited lights as well but they were already accepted as permissible by the whole orthodox world. He did not include thermostats in the same ruling since he maintains that any electric appliance which had been on from before Shabbos is permitted (ibid. OC vol. IV simen 64:2).  Surprisingly, Reb Moshe permitted opening an oven door on Shabbos even when the flame is off since he maintained that it does not constitute a P’sik Reishei (ibid. OC vol. IV simen 74, Bishul #28). He does not discuss why thermostats are different from timers or why he permits opening the oven while prohibiting moving the settings of the clock.

Rav Neuwirth is far more lenient and permits adjusting the settings of a timer even on Shabbos (Shmeeras Shabbos K’Hilchasa 13:25,26 & 23:22 see there for the conditions he sets). He also permits adjusting the thermostat on a central heating unit on Shabbos (ibid. 23:20). Ostensibly, the same would apply to a central air conditioning system. On the other hand, he is far more strict than Reb Moshe in that he prohibits the use of a thermostatically controlled oven on Shabbos altogether (ibid. 1:29)

Since that time, the level of sophistication found in the average kitchen has surpassed the simplistic Shabbos clock. Gas and electric stoves, thermostatically controlled ovens, refrigerators, crock-pots, warming trays and hot water urns are just a few items found in every kitchen that were not available in yesteryear. As technology continues to find new improvements, the situation regarding Shabbos will only blur even more.

At some point, yet to be defined, we will have passed beyond the spirit of Shabbos even while remaining within the Halachic parameters of Shmeeras Shabbos.

Already we can find responsa permitting the use of Shabbos elevators although Rabbi Bleich indicates that these leniencies are all based on an error of interpretation (Contemporary Halachic Problems, Ktav 1977 pps 36-38). Rav Neuwirth permits their usage under certain conditions although he advises that we should be strict and not use them (Shmeeras Shabbos K’Hilchasa 23:49,50). There is a Halachic ‘Grommo’ phone. Its uses are limited to be sure. What’s next?

Thermostats are essentially the same as timers. They simply use temperature rather than time to turn on and off. The American Poskim don’t seem to care for any leniencies permitting an adjustment of a thermostat on Shabbos (see above re: Reb Moshe’s P’sak and the view of Rav Neuwirth). Israeli Poskim seem to be more comfortable with the idea and permit doing so. (There are many guidelines involved. Don’t try this at home without speaking to your Rav). Some people are extremely careful not to open a refrigerator door unless the motor is already running. Others go a step further and place a device on the frig to turn it on and off at set times, overriding the thermostat, thus avoiding the problem altogether.

To be sure, many advances have created, and will continue to create, problems for Frum people. Travelling is becoming harder as hotels switch over to electric, card operated door locks. Walk into the room and sensors turn the lights on and off. Don’t even think of going to the bathroom.

Hospitals have automatic doors. Many buildings have security cameras. Can you walk past one on Shabbos? Is it not a P’sik Reishei? The Be’er Moshe maintains that we should not rent apartments there and those who live in buildings which have this type of security should move if possible. If there is no choice one may, indeed, walk in front of the cameras with a Shinuy (Be’er Moshe Vol.6 Kuntres Electricity Simen 82).  He does not address the question of visiting hospitals, all of which have these systems.

More and more people are putting motion sensored lights on their homes for security. What if you forget to turn it off before Shabbos? Does that mean you can’t go home Friday night, after Shul? The same with alarm systems.

May I fill my coffee maker with water and grounds before Shabbos, put it on a timer and wake up Shabbos morning to freshly brewed coffee?  The Star-K of Baltimore says yes. Others feel that, while Halachically permitted, they will have somehow crossed a line.

If that is permitted, may I put my crock pot on a timer set for 9AM on Shabbos, remove the pre-cooked cholent from the frig and put it in the crock pot at 8AM before I leave for Shul in the morning and come home to freshly cooked Cholent? This becomes somewhat more problematical. We are forbidden to put a food in a place near the fire where it can eventually reach Yad Soledes Bo. That Halacha, of course, presumes the fire to already be there. Does the Halacha remain the same when the heat is not yet there and when it does come; it arrives through no human intervention on Shabbos?

Is this analogous to asking a non-Jew to do a Melacha on Shabbos? It would be a stretch to claim so. Our question becomes, “How have I desecrated Shabbos?”

The obvious next step is to set my microwave oven on the timer to turn on at 12 noon. I get home from Shul at 11, remove the pre-cooked cholent from the freezer, pop it in the microwave. Later, it turns on and, voila, steaming hot cholent at 12:10. Have I desecrated Shabbos yet?

Reb Moshe discusses microwave ovens and determines that the Isur is one of Toldas HaOhr. The responsa was written in 1971 and Reb Moshe, himself, writes that they were not widespread at that time. Reb Moshe seems to be determining that the oven operates on electricity, and the electricity is the Ohr rendering the cooking a Toldah of fire. He makes no mention of how he understood the microwave to operate or who explained the process to him. Actually, the electricity operates a unit which produces sound waves. These waves are tuned to a frequency, which causes water molecules to vibrate. The vibrations create friction, which, in turn, creates heat sufficient to cook the food.  It would appear that the cooking is several steps removed from the electricity itself, unlike an electric oven where the element is directly heated by the electricity. The cooking may only be Goreim Grommo.  Perhaps the mode of cooking is more analogous to Chamei Tiveria, the hot springs of Tiberias, where, the Gemora says, we may not put food into the water to cook nor may we run pipes of cold water through the springs to heat up on Shabbos.

From here, we are only a short step from popping in a raw cholent to cook completely on Shabbos.  What have I done wrong? I can sense your discomfort growing. What has happened to Shabbos? Okay, you don’t like the idea of handling raw meat, which may be Muktza, not to mention Makeh B’Patish. Try out a little box that is a frig and then switches to an oven, all programmed.

Wait. We’ve only just begun. Consider each of the following, each technically feasible right now.

A fully computerized drone car programmed to start up at 8:45 and whisk you off to Shul by 9. It will park itself and shut down until 11:30, when it starts up and drives you back home (in time to pop your cholent into the microwave).

You’ve pre-programmed your laptop with all the Shabbos Tefilos and the Torah reading and it will automatically flip the pages for you. You tape up the keyboard (look what’s happened to the Blech, Ma.) and park it on your Shtender before Shabbos.

Friday afternoon, not yet Shabbos. Can you fax something to your son in Yeshiva, in Eretz Yisroel? How about a phone call and he’ll listen to his answering machine while you wish him a good Shabbos? Can we do business this way? Have I crossed the line yet?

Your fully robotic, automatic widget factory runs all Shabbos, by itself, earning you big bucks (Reb Moshe foresaw this problem in his responsa on the use of Shabbos clocks). While we’re at it, you build a robot maid that cooks and cleans. It’s pre-programmed to cook on Shabbos. The thing is certainly not a goy nor is it an animal. We are not commanded on Shveesas Keilim (having our utensils rest). “Hey, R2D2, great kugel.”  “Thank you, Master.”

What possible prohibition is there in talking to your computer? This technology is already available. (Hey, you can talk to your plants and they’re Muktza, too.)  Can you instruct the computer to buy and sell stocks?

We may not write in sand or moisture even though the writing is not permanent. How about writing on a screen with a finger, (although I can’t see why a stylus is Muktza.)? The results, which show up on the screen, are certainly far removed from a Melacha. Perhaps its Grommo, perhaps P’sik Reishei.

Can you stroll about with your Dick Tracy wristwatch that contains a Geo –Locator? How about leaving my computer on, hooked to the internet so I can catch the news and weather. Is this much different than putting a TV on a timer to catch the World Series? That’s an old question. Sure, there’s no Halachic problem, yet most people clearly see that the spirit of Shabbos has been violated.

We certainly have no desire to return to the ‘good ole days’ yet, where do we draw the line?

Nobody can say, “Let’s hold the line where we are. This is as much technology as Shabbos can absorb and still remain Shabbos.” Nobody can know what developments are in store. The only sure thing is that the line will continue to blur.

***Flash***  ***Flash***  ***Flash***  Cutting edge technology!!! Scientists have just implanted a device into the brain of a chimpanzee enabling the chimp to move a cursor on a computer screen just by thinking about it. The possibilities here are mind-boggling (pun intended). Will it eventually be forbidden to think on Shabbos???? (Wow, is this dated! They have already implanted these devices in quadriplegics enabling them to turn on/off lights and a whole host of other tasks.

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