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Dec 17, 2013

Interesting Psak: Turning on the electricity on Shabbos

Rav Yoni Rosenzweig, rav of the Netzach Menashe shul in Bet Shemesh, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar of Efrat, and one of the rabbonim of the rabbinic organization Beit Hillel has written about a personal experience that required an interesting psak in the heat of the moment (pun intended, as will son be seen).

Rav Rosenzweig was scheduled to be with his students in Efrat for Shabbos this past week. When the snow storm hit and found him with his family in Bet Shemesh, it seemed like alternate arrangements would need to be found. They could not get to Efrat, as roads were closed. Efrat, and the rest of Gush Etzion, was snowed in.

At some point he was told that the roads have been opened, and he and his wife decided they were going to make a run for it, before the roads would be closed again. Sure enough, they made it to Efrat and all was good. Eventually everything was shut down, but he was already in Efrat with his family and students.

You can read the entire piece in his article on NRG. I find it especially interesting that he published his personal experience and decision in such a way that exposes himself for discussion and criticism - specifically because such a thing can turn very personal and veer form being strictly halachic discourse. I am only going to be brief here in recapping what he wrote.

When they got back to their apartment on Friday night after the meal, they bundled the kids up in pajamas and put them to bed. At 3:00 am his wife wakes him up to check on the crying baby. He goes to check, calms her and covers her, and then notices all the electricity is off, including all the lights and the heaters. It was freezing cold. He checks the electricity and finds that the main breaker had flipped - it was not part of a general outage as many had been experiencing. This was a localized problem.

Rav Rosenzweig writes that he sat down to consider his options. On the one hand, turning on electricity and the heaters on Shabbos is prohibited from the Torah. On the other hand it is freezing cold, as it would continue to be during the coming day as well. On the one hand, he writes, he knew they could find a way to survive, either by changing apartments or sitting all day bundled in blankets. On the other hand, he could not get them all up and out to another apartment with heat at 3am in the freezing cold. He was concerned about the children getting sick.

Without getting into details, he writes the general ideas he reviewed in order to come to his decision. The rule set by chazal is that regarding cold everyone is called "sick", which gives certain allowances of leniencies. Combining that with the idea of using a shinui  - turning on the electricity in an unusual manner, there could be room for leniency. As well, electricity is not a direct act, as it is manufactured elsewhere, and turning on the flow of electricity is not the direct prohibition.

Rav Rosenzweig concludes by saying he decided to turn on the electricity. In emergency situations one must know how/when to be lenient, even though in day to day life we have plenty of stringencies.

Right? Wrong? I have no idea. The criticism has been quick in coming - talkbacks, articles, forums, etc. I feel that as a rav, who was even bold enough to publicize what he did and open it up for discussion, he clearly felt justified in deciding that there was an element in danger of the kids getting sick and combined it with the use of a shinui. At a time when the Chief Rabbis were allowing trains to run on Shabbos in order to get people out of the freezing cold temperatures and when they allowed emergency services to continue working on Shabbos to get people out of the freezing cold environments, there is definitely plenty of room for him to justifiably have decided there was an element of danger that would allow the electricity to be turned back on. The truth is, though, that I do not know which part of this is more interesting - the psak itself, of which we only know general details, or his publicizing his experience.

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  1. Both are quite interesting.

  2. It is interesting. I would think that you could make the argument for sakkanath nefesh, especially with the uncertainty of finding an alternative at 3 AM, and with having to take young children out in that cold.

    I should ask you if similar situations had ever come up in Chicago that you know about. What were the associated rulings of the local rabbis?

  3. Cold is a silent killer. It's entirely possible that one or more of his family might not have woken up, especially if they decided to just let the kids sleep in.

    Only kano'im who have no regard for life would consider it to be an issue. if the heater did not use an actual flame, like all heaters I've seen here in Israel, there is not even a question of a d'ohreisa.

  4. rav furerstein (har nof) actually sent out the following erev shabbat:
    במידה של נפילת חשמל, מותר וחובה לדווח לחברת החשמל, גם בשבת!!! משום תינוקות וזקנים התלויים בחשמל!!! במקרה של ספק יש להחמיר ולהדליק את החשמל על ידי נכרי או באופן עצמאי בשינוי.

  5. The Rav of the shul I daven at in Modi'in also sent out a Psak Erev Shabbat saying that if power goes out there are some circumstances in which you can ask a goy directly to flick the switch back on, and if no goy is available you can do it through a Shinu (he gave details and examples, I could send you a copy if you're interested).

    Because people are reluctant to take on Chumrot of Pikuch Nefesh, it is important to publicize these halachot both before an emergency (as was done in the email I received), and afterwards (as Rav Rosenzweig did) so that people aren't Machmir over Shabbat at a risk to their life or well-being.

  6. http://bit.ly/1bOAJer

    rav rozen wrote a very sharp response to rav rosenzweig's psak.

  7. The attitude expressed by what the Rav wrote אמרתי בליבי: חייב להיות פיתרון הלכתי is very disturbing. It brings to mind the attitude of those who have said the statement (in different contexts...) "If there is a Rabbinic will there would be a Halachic way."

  8. The SSK permits a doraisa bshinui for even a choleh shain bo sakana.
    ...nothing more to discuss. (though the tone and attitude of the rabbi/writer stinks.....)

    Michael-- plz send me whatever you can on this issue.

    Ari Enkin


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