Shabbat and modern technology by Rav B. Horovitz

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Shabbat and modern technologychallah-shabbat

Shabbat and modern technology

by Rabbi B. Horovitz

The eternal principles of Torah Law apply to all ages and conditions. The conditions may change, but the principles remain the same. This is shown by the Shabbos laws in their application to modern conditions of life.

Man’s control of nature is growing at an immense rate in the twentieth century. In the world of scientific discovery and invention, in every field of human endeavour, man feels his increasing power to fashion his natural environment to suit his purposes. This feeling has produced two problems affecting the future of humanity:

With the advancing tide of technology, man may become dominated by the very machine he has created. In the age of automation, life is in danger of becoming an artificial, existence, in which everything is relegated to mechanical devices. Machine-minded man may thereby lose his individuality and become soulless.

The creative power of man and his mind over matter is such as to make him lose his humility. This makes man feel that he can do whatever he desires. Man to-day, more then at any other time, thinks that there are no limits to what he will be able to achieve through scientific progress. He feels that he owes no gratitude or account or reckoning for his deeds to his Creator. Worse still, the more he develops the Means at his disposal, the more does he tend to forget the End of all progress. But it is essential that man should be aware of his destination. The faster a person travels, the more dangerous it is for him to be unaware of his direction. The greater the Power of man over nature, the more must he know the Purpose and the correct manner of using this power. If not, this power may become destructive and endanger human survival. This is the greatest threat that faces mankind to-day.

The Shabbos laws free man from his servitude to the machine. They grant the Jew complete relaxation from the strains and stresses of the modern rush of living, from the turmoil of technical civilisation. His eyes are freed from the compulsion of the television screen, his ears take no heed of the ringing of the telephone, his hands do not automatically move to his purse, pocket, pen, typwriter or electric switch. his feet are freed from gears of a vehicle. The Shabbos proclaims that the machine and the habits it forms do Not master man. The Jew is master of the machine.

The Shabbos returns the ‘Tselem Eloah’ — the ‘G-d-Iike image’ to the Jew. For man was given a G-d-like creative power to build worlds. But this very free creative power can be the downfall of man if he does not realise that it is G-d-given to be used only for the service of G-d, The Shabbos, by its prohibition of creative work, asks us to lay down our creative powers at the feet of G-d. It teaches us that any power that we have comes from the Alm-ty and is to be used only for His service; for the construction-and not for the destruction of the world.

Today, in the age of automation, a mere press upon a button, a turning off or on of a switch, a movement of a lever changes our environment builds up – or destroys our world. The Shabbos teaches us how to control this power, whereby man controls nature. This is a most vital lesson for the future of mankind. The prohibition of creative work therefore extends to these slight actions of man, which produce such important consequences.

Man’s social life should also be ruled, not by his arbitary will and whim, but by the rule of G-d. Hence the Shabbos, the day when we return our G-d given world to our Creator, demands that all our social behaviour, between individual and community and within the community, be governed by the Law of G-d. We are therefore asked not to carry from the ‘private domain’ to the ‘Public domain’. Thereby we declare that G-d is the master of our social life, even as we regard Him, as the master of our natural life.

The Major Categories of Work

The Torah states repeatedly, “Ye shall do no manner of work” — this being the major Shabbos-regulation. The type of work forbidden is an act that shows man’s mastery over the world by putting some practical and constructive purpose into effect. The thirty-nine categories of forbidden work are recorded in the Mishnah as follows: —

  1. 1.Ploughing
  2. 2.Sowing
  3. 3.Reaping.
  4. 4.Sheaf-making.
  5. 5.Threshing.
  6. 6.Winnowing.
  7. 7.Selecting.
  8. 8.Grinding.
  9. 9.Sifting.
  10. 10.Kneading.
  11. 11.Baking.
  12. 12.Sheep-shearing.
  13. 13.Bleaching.
  14. 14.Combing raw materials.
  15. 15.Dyeing.
  16. 16.Spinning.

17. 18, 19. Weaving Operations.

20. Separating into threads.

21. Tying a knot.

22. Untying a knot.

23. Sewing

24. Tearing

25. Trapping or hunting

26. Slaughtering

27. Skinning

28. Tanning

29. Scraping pelts

30. Marking

31. Cutting to shape

32 Writing

33. Erasing

34. Building

35. Demolishing

36. Kindling a fire

37. Extinguishing

38. The final hammer-blow (putting the finishing touch to a newly manufactured article.)

39. Carrying from the private to the public domain (and vice versa.)

These types of forbidden work Avot Melachot are primarily known from the Oral Tradition Torah Sheb’al Peh which is recorded in the Mishnah. They are hinted at in the Chumash, Torah Shebichtav according to the following classification in the order of the Mishnah:

A.        Agricultural Work Nos. 1-7.

“Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest; in ploughing and in harvest thou shalt rest.” (Shemos 34:21.)

B.        Preparation of Food Nos. 8-11.

“And on the sixth day they shall prepare that (the Manna) which they shall bring…….. To-morrow is a holy Shabbos unto the L-rd. Bake that which ye will bake, and seethe that which ye will seethe.’ (Shemos 16:5, 13)

C.        Craftsmanship Nos. 12-38.

This was shown in all its varieties in the erecting of the Sanctuary and its appurtenances (which also included A, and B.) in the following manner: –  

(1) Cloth Work Nos. 12—24.

(2) Leather (and Parchment) Work  Nos. 25—31.

(3) Building Work  No. 32—35.

(4) Metal Work  Nos. 36—38.

In the upbuilding of the Sanctuary מלאכת המשכן the varied creative, G-d-given, skilful powers of man were used to dedicate a Holy Place unto G-d. On Shabbos, we are asked to build a Sanctuary in Time, by refraining from using our varied creative skilful powers, thereby dedicating a Holy Day unto G-d. Therefore the work of the erection of the Sanctuary was forbidden on Shabbos, as is clearly indicated in:- Shemos Chapters 25-31, which contain the Divine instructions concerning the building of the Sanctuary. This is immediately followed by the reiterated prohibition of work on Shabbos (Ch. 31:12—17). Mosheh introduced his instructions to the people concerning the Sanctuary with the exhortation not to work on the Shabbos (Shernos 35:1-3).

This parallel between Shabbos and the mishkan is connected with the fact that both are connected with the Work of the Creation of the world. Varied activities with a common purpose are united under one heading which represents a general principle: e.g. No. 11 also includes boiling, roasting, smelting iron, etc., the general principle being, changing the physical or chemical status of a substance by means of heat. No. 36 is any activity that initiates or prolongs combustion, including the switching on of electrical devices. This most easy action is one of the most creative activities of man, and forms the key to his control of nature. By not switching things on and off on Shabbos, the Jew demonstrates that his great power over the world is G-d-given, and is to be used only in His service. This is a most important lesson for twentieth century man, whose survival depends upon the sane control of electrical and nuclear-power switches. All these types represent creative work, thus refraining from these sets the seal of G-d’s will upon all human activity. No. 39, which also includes carrying more than four cubits in the public domain, sets the seal of G-d’s will upon all social relations between the individual and the community, and within the community.

Many of these categories of work, as well as rabbinical safeguards (Gezerot) are involved in the use of machines and modern appliances.

D.        Carrying No. 39.

This was invioved in A.B. & C. and is indicated in: Shemos. 16:29. “Let no man go out of his place to gather Manna on the seventh day” See also Shemos, 36:6., Bamidbar, 15:23.


The Shabbos is intended to be a day of serene joy and happiness. For whilst the six days of toil are concerned with the means of life, the Shabbos is concerned with its ends. The six days represent the temporal and transitory, the Shabbos the eternal and enduring. The Shabbos gives a foretaste of עולם הבא in which the material will be pervaded by the spiritual. Therefore preparation for material comfort, joy and luxury should be made during the week so that the physical-spiritual rejoicing of the Shabbos should be complete. Any automatic preparations for good food, warmth and comfort that can be set before the Shabbos, thus allowing the Jew to relax completely and to desist from creative work on the Shabbos – שתהא מלאכתך עשויה, are to be welcomed. It is here that the technological advances in automation can help the Shabbos atmosphere.

All the following laws that apply on Shabbos also apply to Yomtov, but not vice-versa unless otherwise stated. Some of the laws are different in Israel where the electricity etc. is generated by Jews.

1.         LIGHT

It is forbidden to kindle or extinguish — switch on or off all forms of gas and electric light.

A time switch may he set before Shabbos so that the light will go off or on automatically on Shabbos.

One may not open or close the door of a cupboard or fridge if this automatically causes an electric bulb to go on or off. The bulb should be removed before Shabbos. A portable electric lamp may be moved on Yom-Tov even when it is alight.

2.         HEAT

It is forbidden to kindle or extinguish – switch on or off all forms of solid fuel, oil, gas and electric heaters and stoves. Cooking on the above stoves is forbidden. Pans of ready-cooked dishes and boiled water may be placed on an asbestos, tin or alluminium sheet over the burners before Shabbos, with the heat adjusted to keep them hot during Shabbos until needed.

If a gaslight has blown out, the gas may be turned off, but not in the usual manner.

Cooking for Yom-Tov meals is permitted. The gas and electricity may be turned up when this does not kindle an extra element, but not down. A thermostatically controlled oven may not he used on Shabbos or Yom-Tov.

A dry thermos flask may be filled from a K’li Rishon.

A dry hot water bottle may be filled from a K’li Rishon.

An electric or gas oven may be used if one can ensure that no raising or lessening of temperature or extinguishing is caused by turning the taps on or off and if it is cut off from intake of cold water. The latter condition is not necessary on Yom-Tov.

Time-switches and programmers for room or house heating, whether it be central hot water, warm air, or floor heating, may be set before Shabbos and Yom-Tov.

A room or house thermostat may not be set on Shabbos. It is better not to place an uncovered thermostat in a position where it will be affected by draughts.

Central Heating radiator taps should not be turned on or off on Shabbos. On Yom-Tov they may be opened. The hot water taps may also be used on Yom-Tov except where this use causes ignition and extinguishing of the flame etc. under the hot water boiler (a pressure jib and waliflame, but not in vaporising oil boilers) Where the domestic hot water supply can be cut off before Shabbos from the boiler and from further intake of cold water, the hot water may be used on Shabbos as a K’li Rishon. If the water running from the hot water taps is less than l04% Fahrenheit (40 degrees C) they may be used even if there is further intake of cold water as long as the domestic hot water is cut off from the boiler. The hot water from a sun-tank may be used on Shabbos as a K’li Rishon.

It is forbidden to place a magnifying glass in the face of the sun in order to kindle something underneath it.

(Electric blankets and cushions may be set before Shabbos if there is no possibility of the element becoming too hot for use if it remains on for the duration of Shabbos). A portable electric fire may be moed on Yom-Tov.

3.         COLD

A refrigerator may be opened and closed on Shabbos whilst the engine is working.

One may not place water in the freezer on Shabbos to produce ice. On Yom-Tov it is permitted.

Air-conditioning may be set before Shabbos and then used even if thermostatically controlled. One may ask a non-Jew to switch it on on Shabbos.

4.         SOUND

An electrical hearing aid that has been set before Shabbos may be worn on Shabbos. The volume may be turned up as long as the element and wires do not become red-hot. The hearing aid may not be carried in the street (Reshuth Harabim) It is entirely embodied in spectacles one may wear it in the Street as well.

The radio or gramophone may not be set on Shabbos or Yom-Tov. (They may be set before Shabbos and Yom-Tov for a person who is depressed and needs to listen to the music etc. to raise his spirit). A Jewish radio programme may not be listened to under any circumstances.

A bell, telephone, microphone or loudspeaker may not be used on Shabbos or Yom-Tov.

5.         TRAVEL

One may not pass through an electrically-controlled automatic opening door. One may not use a lift or escalator.

One may not travel on a bicycle, car, bus, train or plane.

One may embark on a boat before Shabbos even though it travels on Shabbos. One may not disembark until after Shabbos.


An automatic watch may be worn on Shabbos where there is no prohibition of carrying. It may not be put on whilst it is not working.

One may not purchase anything on Shabbos from an automatic, slot-sales machine. If a Jew owns such a machine, then he may benefit from it even if it used by non-Jews on Shabbos, as long as it is not standing in the domain of a Jew, and in a place where no one knows who owns the machine, and where nothing is done on Shabbos, and where the owner declares before Shabbos that (a) the articles which are sold from the slot machine on Shabbos should belong to the purchaser from before Shabbos; (b) that he (the owner) only wishes to acquire the money deposited in the machine after Shabbos.

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