Shmiras Shabbos in ‘Smart’ Items

By Yossi Golds

Harav Shmuel Yosef Shtitzberg

Harav Shmuel Yosef Shtitzberg is a noted Rav in Beit Shemesh and prolific mechaber of a number of popular halachah sefarim. His first sefer, Shaarei HaBrachah, on hilchos brachos, received the glowing haskamos of leading Gedolim, including Hagaon Harav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, zt”l, whom Rav Shtitzberg considers his Rebbi muvhak in halachah. His next sefer is on hilchos mezuzah — Sha’arei HaMezuzah— and he has also written a Haggadah shel Pesach: Sha’arei HaHaggadah. All of his sefarim are bestsellers.

Even though it is before Pesach, for a change, we aren’t speaking with Rav Shtitzberg about his Haggadah, but rather, his next sefer, which he has been working on for several years — Sha’arei HaShabbos — a sefer on the halachos and aspects of electricity on Shabbos. Rav Shtitzberg has been in contact with leading Poskim and with many leading experts and has studied the issue extensively. He gives shiurim on the practical applications of various electronic devices vis a vis issurei Shabbos.

“Make sure you stress that this is not a halachic article,” he notes, as we begin the interview. “The point of this is to raise public awareness and not to pasken which things are mutar and which are assur. Of course, one cannot rule from a newspaper article — even if it appears in Hamodia — and that’s totally not what I want to get out of this interview. If we save even one family from issurei Shabbos — dayeinu.”

What is the basis of the issur of using an electronic device on Shabbos? Why has it become such a topic of discussion these days?

I’ll word it differently. Many people ask what has happened, what has changed, that these days there are so many new issues with opening fridges on Shabbos, and that every new appliance brings with it a host of she’eilos. And the answer is that every new device, each new model of an older device, gets “smarter.” Everything these days is called “smart” — that’s without going into what it has done to the users of the devices, if it has made them smarter or otherwise — but as far as the technological advances, yes, they become much more complicated halachically.

I’ll explain. Back in the day, and we’re not talking about all that long ago, the machinery wasn’t so “smart.” Going back 50 or 60 years, the Tchebiner Rav, zt”l, and Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l, wrote many halachic teshuvos on the topic of the use of electronic devices on Shabbos.

But the devices then were a far cry from today’s complicated devices. Devices then were things like a simple fan — when you press the button, it spins around, when you press another button, it turns off. Today, with the green-energy motto, the idea has become to use as little electricity as possible. That is why many devices, like air conditioners, work with infrared sensors, for example. These sense when people are in the room and adjust the power accordingly; when people are present, the device uses more power, and when no one is there, it uses less, and lowers the thermostat and the temperature. These things make Shabbos much more complicated.

And refrigerators?

In the older refrigerators, the only issues that would be a problem for Shabbos were the lights, which turned on every time the refrigerator was opened, and the thermostat, which would work more powerfully when the door was opened and hot air would enter the system.

Rav Shtitzberg shows us a thermostat of an old fridge, and demonstrates how it was much “dumber” and thus had far fewer halachic issues. He shows us how it  worked on gas, and when it would expand the metal, it would cool down, and when it contracted, it wouldn’t be so cold. It’s all about physics. 

He then shows us a thermostat of a more current fridge — which looks more like a computer brain — and shows how quickly the temperature rises by just touching it, with body heat.

Even those poskim who ruled that a refrigerator may be opened on Shabbos to take something out if it is closed right away — under certain conditions, obviously — would certainly pasken otherwise on today’s refrigerators, without the correct Shabbos mode settings on the fridge.

Some people say that the problem with fridges is koseiv, as the screen writes the new temperature when the heat rises. The problem is actually far more serious. The numbers that one sees on the screen come from the computer brain — yes, every fridge, every appliance, has a brain, usually a chip — assessing whether it needs to work harder or slower, mechabeh and ma’avir.

It is the function of the sensors, the chips, to make the appliance work, and that is the basis of the issur. It’s all about the electric circuits that a person sets off, be it by actually pressing a button — as things used to be — or by just opening or closing an appliance. This is besides for the many new functions that fridges have, for example, the non-frost function or the sensor that beeps after the fridge door is left open for a long time.

The mishnah in Chagigah says that issurei Shabbos are like ‘mountains hanging by a hair.’ The Rav has just demonstrated one aspect of the possible issurim one might, chalilah, transgress, by just doing regular daily chores. What can be done to ensure proper shemiras Shabbos in this day and age?

You are right; it is not at all simple. And as we move ahead in this technologically advanced world, it will only get more complicated.

When a person spends Shabbos in a non-Jewish hotel, or in a hospital, does he realize how many issurei Shabbos he might transgress? By opening doors, closing doors, opening windows, closing windows, walking through automatic doors — the list is endless. Even opening the faucet to wash one’s hands or flushing the toilet can be an issur.

With Harav Hagaon Rav Nissim Karelitz zt”l

Water? What could be wrong with water?

Rav Shtitzberg takes out a water meter and places it on the table.

This water meter is the heilige water meter… It was on the table of the leading Poskim, including Hageonim Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, Harav Nissim Karelitz, zt”l, Harav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, among others. All the Gedolim were shown exactly how the new water meters work, and how different they are from the older models. In most new buildings today in Israel — I can’t speak for overseas, but everyone should check what they have — there are electronic water meters, which work by sensors. They can sense exactly how much water is being used, to the milliliter. These can lead to numerous issurim on Shabbos.

This is besides for the electric pumps that bring water up to the higher floors in taller buildings. These pumps operate in a smarter and faster manner than the pumps that existed even 10 years ago, and they may sometimes prohibit the use of water on Shabbos.

So what is the solution?

There are solutions to everything. There are numerous halachic machonim, institutes, that deal with these very issues.

There are various Shabbos modes and Shabbos functions that can be applied to the appliances, to fridges, to the water meters, you name it.

Of course, like everything else that we do, one should only rely on those institutes that are led by people who are yirei Shamayim and not just those looking to find kulos, but have properly dealt with the multitude of aspects and she’eilos that could arise.

On most other halachos, especially in hilchos Shabbos, there are so many sefarim, from all the leading poskim, but when it comes to these intricate halachos, there is much less.

Correct. As you mentioned, the mishnah in Chagigah says that hilchos Shabbos are like mountains hanging by a hair — there is little in the Torah and many halachos. Even though many sefarim have been written on hilchos Shabbos, from the Rishonim and on, when it comes to these aspects, very little has been written on it.

There is the sefer Meorei Ohr, by Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, on these issues.

That’s true, but the sefer that Reb Shlomo Zalman wrote some eight decades ago, about the appliances in those times, can’t be applied to the current appliances at all. Even he would agree with that notion.

There are many people who mistakenly claim that “Reb Shlomo Zalman is matir the use of fridges in Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchaso,” so they continue to use their fridge without installing any Shabbos mode or the like. This is a mistake, and at times can lead to many issurim. Yes, a fridge of 40 years ago might be mutar to use, but how many people still have fridges of those models at home?

I’ll give you an example. A person once came to me and claimed that his fridge would be mutar to use, as it’s an older model. I checked out which model his fridge is and told him that by opening and closing the doors, there is a “magnetic switch” that opens and closes the circuit.

Photo 2, refrigerator
Photo 1, refrigerator with magnetic switch

He did not want to believe that there was a magnetic switch in the door of his refrigerator, and he sent me a photo of his refrigerator [see photo #1], which seemingly shows that it is an older model, and said it is impossible for it to have magnetic switches.

I sent the photo to a yerei Shamayim technician, who sent back the picture with an arrow [#2]. He told him that he might be upset, but yes, there was a magnetic switch in the fridge door.

Photo 3, refrigerator

He still didn’t want to believe it, so the technician came and disassembled the magnetic circuit breaker and showed him with a sensor that there was a magnetic circuit breaker in the door [#3]. And this, mind you, was in an older-model fridge. One can only imagine what goes on in a more updated fridge.

Can the Rav perhaps elaborate on the other possible she’eilos that may arise?

I travel overseas and give shiurim on these issues. I was once in a certain European city, where I met with a group of local avreichim, who were very interested to hear all the she’eilos and the solutions.

One of the avreichim there, a serious talmid chacham, asked me to come to his house, as he wanted to show me his oven. On the way, he told me that when he bought his new oven, the default language setting was German. He started playing with the languages, as he is more fluent in English and preferred to have it in English. As he was going through the languages, he saw that there was an option for Hebrew, so he chose that. In the Hebrew, he noticed an option for Shabbos mode. “Brilliant,” he thought to himself. “I can leave the food in the oven instead of on the blech!” As we entered his house, I asked him to turn on the oven to the highest temperature, and on turbo. After a few minutes, I asked him to open the door of the oven, and — lo and behold — the oven stopped working when the door was opened. A clear issur Shabbos of mechabeh just by opening the oven door!

He asked me how I knew, and I explained that according to international safety guidelines, to which all major companies must comply, an oven can’t be left on and open at the highest heat level. “But it clearly said Shabbos mode,” he said softly, looking very upset, as he now learned that he had been using an oven on Shabbos that was not properly usable for Shabbos.

This brings us back to what I noted earlier, that even if the factory writes about a certain device that it is suitable for use on Shabbos, it is not always possible to trust the maker, but it needs to be supervised by a halachic institute. And as we mentioned, it is appropriate to trust only the hechsher of an institute that is run by yerei Shamayim.

Those who base themselves on the heterim given to older machines are like those who claim that the horse and buggy is as good as the car…

With Harav Hagaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l

What can be done in hospitals on Shabbos?

Of course, if it is necessary to go in and out of the hospital for the purpose of treating or even tending to a patient in a serious state, there is certainly no question, since it is permissible to violate Shabbos for the purpose of pikuach nefesh. The question arises when it comes to actions that are not necessary for the needs of the patient, such as the attendant going out for tefillos and the like.

Of course, one should ask their own Rav and posek, but there are various heterim, such as to do things with a shinui, or kilachar yad. There are special heterim for those hospitalized, as that is the need of the sick person. There are halachos for a choleh and for the one who is tending to him. But does that mean that the person can go up and down and in and out of his room all day, once he is in the hospital? Of course not. There are even those who question if one should better daven alone than to use the doors and set off the electronic eyes and sensors by going to daven with a minyan. I haven’t come to pasken, just to raise awareness. People need to be aware of the issues.

And hotels?

While a hospital can be considered a tzorech, a necessity, for a person who is unwell, spending Shabbos at a hotel is a totally different she’eilah. Must one spend Shabbos davka in this hotel? Perhaps it is better to stay home rather than to rely on all these kulos of sha’as hadchak? How many electronic eyes are being turned on and off when you simply walk through the corridor of the hotel? Is it really worth it?

There is the psak of Harav Wosner that these are considered psik reisha d’lo nicha lei, something inevitable that you don’t want and don’t need, and thus are mutar.

Yes, he wrote that in Shevet HaLevi, but that is referring to a person walking on his regular route and he does not enjoy the light that turns on, because it is a light on a lit street. But a person who walks in a dark stairwell and the automatic lighting is turned on certainly does not count as lo nicha lei. And this is apart from the fact that even where there is a heter, a person should think if it is worth putting himself in such a situation, of having a she’eilah. People need to think through what they do before doing it. Every few weeks, I get calls on Friday by people who are in hotels and have come up with she’eilos. They think they have thought through everything, but then I ask them more she’eilos than they can imagine. It’s not simple at all.

A final word from the Rav?

We are now heading into Pesach, which is known as Shabbos. Klal Yisrael already kept Shabbos in Mitzrayim, thanks to Moshe Rabbeinu, who convinced Pharaoh to allow the Jews a day off. Shabbos, to the non-Jews, perhaps, is just a day of rest. For us, Am Yisrael, it is a day of kedushah, a day to rise in Torah and tefillah.

May we be zocheh to all the brachos of Pesach and Shabbos, amein. n

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