Halakhic Discussions

Bulbasaur & Bishul: An Adar-Fueled, Unnecessarily In-Depth Analysis of a Nonsensical Halakhic Question

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Mark Glass

I. Introduction
Two years ago, in The Lehrhaus symposium on Torah u-Madda, Moshe Kurtz wrote of his personal blending of pop culture and Torah learning. Amidst a series of examples in which pop culture can serve as a catalyst for halakhic discussion, he asked: “Does ordering a Solar Beam attack in Pokémon constitute bishul be-Shabbat (cooking on Shabbat)?”

I imagine that most readers of Kurtz’s article quickly forgot this line, it being but one example among many. For myself, however, never has a question resonated so strongly; never has a hypothetical halakhic scenario piqued my curiosity so much. While other rabbis may devote their Torah learning to the kashrut of lab-grown meat or the impact of artificial intelligence upon Jewish observance, I found myself drawn to Pokémon[1] and bishul.

And so, in the spirit of the month of Adar—a time when Torah questions that are never otherwise taken seriously are given their moment in the sun (which, as will become clear, is a fantastic pun for this article)—I present the following analysis.

(A reader who simply wants to understand the interaction of solar energy with the laws of Shabbat and some thoughts on the value of nonsensical questions in the pursuit of Torah U-Madda, yet has no desire to understand Pokémon, should read Section III and the Conclusion.)

II. What is Pokémon and How Does It Work?
Though I doubt anyone uninterested in Pokémon is still reading, a basic explanation of the underlying game mechanics is necessary for understanding the question.

First, however, I must offer a defining caveat. Pokémon—a media franchise more valuable than any of Mickey Mouse, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Barbie—is encountered in three different mainstream formats: as a television series with associated movies, as a trading card game, and as a series of video games. Though all three formats share the same Pokémon world, they are defined by their differences. This article only considers the question from the perspective of the video game, and thus any references to Pokémon refer solely to these games.

Since its inception, the core of Pokémon has involved two “trainers,” the term used for the human beings who control the Pokémon, engaging in a turn-based “battle.” If we imagine two trainers, Reuven and Shimon, battling one another, they will begin by each sending out one of their Pokémon (as with sheep, the singular and plural noun is the same) to fight the other.

At the beginning of each turn, Reuven and Shimon will each select one of four “moves” known by their Pokémon to use against their opponent’s Pokémon. Behind the scenes, the game calculates a set of complex mathematical equations to determine which Pokémon moves first. The fundamental goal of the battle is for the Pokémon to inflict enough damage on the opposing Pokémon over successive turns so that it faints. As a trainer may only have a maximum of six Pokémon at any one time with which to battle, they lose the battle when they have no more Pokémon left.

The defining gimmick of Pokémon is that the impact of a given move upon an opponent is governed by “type.” In Pokémon, not only does each of the 1,025 current Pokémon possess one or two types, but moves themselves have a type. Though there are a total of 18 types in Pokémon, we will only consider three for the sake of simplicity: Fire, Water, and Grass.

Along the same vein as the game “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Fire is strong against Grass, Grass is strong against Water, and Water is strong against Fire. If Reuven commands his Grass-type Pokémon to execute a Grass-type move against Shimon’s Water-type Pokémon, Reuven will be far better positioned to succeed than if he were to do so if Shimon was using a Fire-type Pokémon.

(The brilliance and popularity of the Pokémon franchise is due, in large part, to the complex permutations possible when 1,025 different Pokémon—each with strengths and weaknesses that go beyond our simplified explanation—can be of one or two different types using four different moves, each of which has its own type that may be different to the Pokémon’s type.)

The question we will consider begins with the following scenario: Imagine Reuven and Shimon are battling on Shabbat. Reuven sends out his Grass-type Pokémon, Bulbasaur (which, technically speaking, is a Grass/Poison type), and commands it to execute the Grass-type move Solar Beam against Shimon’s Pokémon.

It must be noted that Moshe Kurtz’s choice of Solar Beam in the question is ingenious, for Solar Beam is a (somewhat) unique move. First, unlike most Pokémon moves, which are executed in the same turn in which they are commanded, Solar Beam is a two-turn attack. Second, and more relevant for the laws of bishul be-Shabbat, is the way in which Solar Beam works. In the first turn, the game simply states that the Pokémon “took in sunlight” or that it “absorbed light.” It is only on the second turn that the Pokémon unleashes that solar energy upon its foe.

Given that when one instructs their beast to violate Shabbat it is considered their own violation (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Shabbat 51b, 153b; M.B. 305, 1), the question is thus: Did Bulbasaur’s unleashing of solar energy constitute a violation, on Reuven’s part, of the prohibition to cook on Shabbat?

To appreciate the magnitude of this question, it is necessary to understand the halakhic discussion surrounding solar heat and bishul.

But, before going any further, I must stress that it is hard to imagine that, were we to live in a world in which Pokémon was real (something my eight-year-old son was determined to convince me of this morning), it would be permitted to engage in a Pokémon battle on Shabbat. But, putting that admittedly large obstacle aside, the question can now be considered.

III. Solar Energy and Shabbat
Before understanding the halakhic concepts impacting how solar energy relates to the prohibition of bishul, cooking on Shabbat, it is necessary to have a broad understanding of how Halakhah considers various heat sources in their relation to the prohibition.

Most obviously, it is biblically prohibited to cook food on Shabbat using fire. (Admittedly, the term “cook” in the previous sentence is one that requires greater definition for it to make complete legal sense, but such discussions go too far beyond the purposes of this article.)

Similarly, it is biblically prohibited to cook food on Shabbat using what is termed toldat ha-or (or ha-esh), “a derivative of fire” (Shulhan Arukh, O.H. 318:3). To use the Mishnah’s example, one cannot place a raw egg next to a hot urn in order to cook the egg (m. Shabbat 3:3). Though the egg is not being cooked directly by the fire, the urn’s heat is derived from the fire and is thus equated to the fire itself (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 9:2).

The mishnah quoted above, however, sparks R. Nahman in the gemara to note two other heat sources that a person may find themselves using to cook food on Shabbat (Shabbat 39a).

The first is the sun’s heat itself, which is universally agreed to be a permitted medium in which to cook food. Thus, one may leave an egg in a place where the solar heat is hot enough to cook it.

The second heat source is termed toldat ha-hammah, “a derivative of solar heat.” Imagine if, instead of placing the egg directly in the sun’s rays, a person left a metal pan that was subsequently heated by the sun, into which the person then brought the pan inside and placed the egg to be cooked by the solar-heated metal pan. In this situation, R. Nahman presents a debate between the Rabbis and Rabbi Yosei: the Rabbis prohibit this by force of rabbinic decree “due to derivatives of fire” (a statement that will be explained below), while R. Yosei permits it. Interestingly, the Yerushalmi unambiguously permits it (y. Shabbat 3:3).

Practically speaking, Halakhah follows the opinion of the Rabbis, and it is rabbinically prohibited to cook using derivatives of solar heat (Shulhan Arukh, O.H. 318:3). That being said, at the heart of this decree is a recognition that, just as solar heat is universally permitted, derivatives of solar heat should be permitted. Nonetheless, due to some undefined relationship within the gemara between derivatives of both fire and solar heat, derivatives of solar heat must not be used to cook.

Thus, Rashi explains that, while solar heat is permitted because it is atypical and thus can never be confused with actual cooking (Shabbat 39a s.v. de-shari), derivatives of solar heat are too similar in appearance to derivatives of fire, and an observer will all too easily (yet mistakenly) conclude that a person is cooking with a derivative of fire (s.v. atu toldot ha-or), hence the Rabbis’ decree.

Yet, it seems logical to deduce from Rashi’s comments that were a person to cook using a derivative of solar heat that could never be confused with a derivative of fire, then such a person would not be violating the decree. Nonetheless, Rambam includes—among his examples of when one violates the decree—instances that could never be confused for derivatives of fire, such as cooking with hot sand from the road (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 9:3).

Rashi and Rambam, then, can be seen as representing two different schools of thought on why derivatives of solar energy are prohibited on Shabbat. According to Rashi’s school of thought, the problem lies in the possibility of an observer reaching a mistaken conclusion. There thus lies the theoretical possibility of a situation which would not fall afoul of the decree. Indeed, Rabbi Solomon Luria—the famed 16th-century Polish rosh yeshiva of Lublin—permits cooking an egg on a hot roof, as such a manner of cooking could never be confused with a derivative of fire (Teshuvot Maharshal, 61). For Rambam, however, the decree is a blanket ban: no such situation can exist as all derivatives of solar heat are prohibited, regardless of how the heat source came to be.

Even though Rambam’s perspective is the dominant halakhic position (M.B. 318, 20), rendering positions like Rabbi Luria’s as predominantly intellectual curiosities, there are other situations in which the practical Halakhah is more complicated.

Of particular interest to this article is a situation in which a person uses a magnifying glass to direct the sun’s rays to cook an item. Here, Rabbi Isaac Maltzan argues that a person is merely directing the sun itself toward an object and is thus using universally permitted solar heat to cook (Shevitat ha-Shabbat, Bishul, Be’er Rehovot 44). The magnifying glass is not a derivative of the sun’s heat; it is merely a conduit.

Similarly, in the debate surrounding the permissibility of using a solar-heated water tank, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg cites a crucial distinction in the name of Rabbi Joseph Kapah. For R. Kapah, there is a difference between a medium that will retain heat when moved away from the sun’s rays—such as hot sand—and one that will cool immediately, such as water (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, VII:19). The former is a derivative of solar heat and thus prohibited, while the latter is not. In contrast, Dayyan Isaac Jacob Weiss argues that when a medium absorbs sunlight in order to convert it into energy, it is considered a derivative of solar energy (Responsa Minhat Yitzhak, IV:44).

IV. Bulbasaur & Bishul
With the above analysis in mind, we can turn to answering the Pokémon question. It must be acknowledged, however, that no definitive answer can be offered. But a few different approaches can be suggested.

A. Solar Beam as a Prohibited Derivative of Solar Energy
It is reasonable to assume that Solar Beam is a derivative of solar energy and thus prohibited on Shabbat. This is clear from the language and imagery of the game: the Pokémon absorbs the sunlight—rendering itself a derivative of the solar energy—and then emits it. The opposing Pokémon seems to have been clearly struck by a derivative of the original sun’s rays. Indeed, Dayyan Weiss’s position—that one example of a derivative of solar energy is when solar energy is absorbed and converted into another form of energy—bears a striking similarity to Solar Beam.

Further proof for this position can be gleaned from a different Pokémon move, the Electric-type Thunder. When a Pokémon uses Thunder, the clouds above the opposing Pokémon darken and a lightning bolt descends, striking the Pokémon. It is clear that the Pokémon has directed the lightning itself. In contrast, Solar Beam does not involve the sun’s rays themselves—which would be a permitted example of solar heat—but the converted energy from the sun.

B. Solar Beam as Solar Energy
Despite the above, a different conceptual framework may be suggested, one that does not regard Solar Beam as violating the laws of bishul. Though the first turn of Solar Beam displays text that declares that the Pokémon “took in sunlight,” the second turn simply states that the Pokémon “used Solar Beam!” In other words, whereas I have assumed above that the Pokémon is converting solar energy into Solar Beam, there is no indication that anything other than the sun’s rays are being unleashed.

In other words, the Pokémon is a glorified magnifying glass, a conduit for solar energy. A further proof to buttress this position is found in the move’s classification: it is a Grass-type move and not a Fire-type move. The world of Pokémon thus aligns with Rashi’s view noted above, as Solar Beam could never be confused with actual fire.

Indeed, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s justification of why solar heat is permitted on Shabbat—because it is not the typical manner in which people cook (Iggerot ha-Reiyah I, p. 183)—fits well with this view: a person wishing to use a Fire-type move would never use Solar Beam; therefore, Solar Beam cannot ever be considered any form of prohibited cooking.

Another reason to assume Solar Beam is not a derivative of the sun but the sun’s rays themselves comes, admittedly, from a more speculative conceptual point. Attacking moves in Pokémon are divided between “contact” moves and “non-contact” moves—that is, there are some moves in which the Pokémon makes physical contact with its opponent and other moves in which that does not happen.

It could be argued that a defining distinction between cooking via the sun’s rays or via a derivative hinges on whether or not the item being cooked makes contact with another item. By definition, a derivative of solar heat makes contact with the item being cooked in order to transfer its heat while, when it comes to solar heat itself, the item simply basks in the sun’s light. Not only does this distinction buttress the belief that a magnifying glass is not a derivative—as it simply channels the solar energy—but it also strengthens the view that Solar Beam is not a derivative of solar heat, as Solar Beam is listed as a non-contact move.

C. Solar Beam as Solar Energy—Yet a Problem Nonetheless
Rabbi Baruch Gigi, in his series on the laws of cooking on Shabbat, elaborates on a comment of Meiri which explains that the permissibility of cooking with the sun’s rays is because “the sun is a natural force, and it cannot be said that the human being harnessed it for his needs and cooked with it, given that the sun works as an independent force.”

While this is certainly true of our world, this is less clear in the world of Pokémon. Not only do Pokémon have the ability to channel the sun’s rays into Solar Beam; Pokémon also possess the ability to alter the weather. Indeed, though Solar Beam is typically a two-turn move, if any Pokémon previously used the move Sunny Day, which increases the intensity of the sun, Solar Beam will activate on the same turn it is selected.

Put another way, Pokémon do possess the ability to harness the sun’s heat, rendering an entire perspective on the permissibility of cooking using solar energy questionable in the world of Pokémon.

A different and far more substantial threat to the permissibility of Solar Beam on Shabbat lies in the above comment of Rashi. The entire premise of Rashi’s view—in contrast to Rambam—is that derivatives of solar energy can be too easily confused with fire.

While this view was mentioned to justify the permissibility of Solar Beam, it also casts doubt on it. This is because while Solar Beam is a Grass-type move, Pokémon of other types can also learn it, including 49 Fire-type Pokémon—a striking 50% of all Fire types. (This count excludes the sole Pokémon that is both a Grass- and Fire-type one, Scovillain.) This has two crucial ramifications.

The first is that it is entirely plausible that a person could witness a Fire-type Pokémon belonging to Reuven using Solar Beam and yet be unaware that it is, indeed, Solar Beam being used. Admittedly, there is a lot of context that would imply a Grass-type move is being used, but there is enough to suggest that Rashi’s distinction might not hold in the world of Pokémon.

More importantly, however, is the fact that the entire premise of solar energy’s permissibility rests on its fundamental difference to regular fire. The world of Pokémon, however, seems to call that into question.

A bedrock of Pokémon is a desire for verisimilitude. If a Pokémon possesses a move not of its own type, there must be a plausible reason—either within the lore or the Pokémon’s design—as to why it can still use that move. To give but one example, while many different Pokémon can learn the Electric-type move Thunder Punch, all the Pokémon that learn it must possess hands with which to punch.[2]

With so many Fire-type Pokémon able to learn Solar Beam, there is an implicit recognition that there is a strong fire element to solar energy. It seems that the very reality of the world of Pokémon is different from our own—and even if one could compellingly argue that Solar Beam is only the sun’s rays themselves, there is good cause to think that such a view would not apply in a world of ​​Pokémon.

This conclusion is not about the permissibility of Solar Beam on Shabbat but about the article in which Moshe Kurtz first posed his question. After listing his examples, which included his question about Solar Beam, Kurtz stated, “Granted, these ideas may sound odd to the uninitiated ear; however, they have all managed to spark serious halakhic debates and prompted otherwise uninterested parties to engage in Torah discourse.”

Despite having learned through the laws of cooking on Shabbat multiple times, I have always found myself skimming through the questions concerning solar energy. Given its seeming irrelevance to my own life—growing up in Manchester, England, the permissibility of cooking an egg in the rain would have been far more relevant—I never dwelled on the discussions surrounding solar energy.

Until now.

And so, there is at least one person who has learned more Torah than they otherwise would have thanks to a nonsensical question about a piece of pop culture they love—as my embrace of Torah U-Madda has been eclipsed these past few days by Torah U-Mankey.

[1] Pokémon (in italics) refers to the franchise and the games themselves; Pokémon (without italics) refers to the creatures (singular or plural) within the games.

[2] Fascinatingly, there is one Pokémon, Gastly, that possesses no hands yet still learns Thunder Punch—a fact that has perplexed the internet for decades.

Mark Glass is the rabbi of Congregation BIAV in Overland Park, KS. Previously, he was the rabbi at the Adams Street Shul in Newton, MA, and a Judaic Studies teacher in Maimonides. He received his Semikhah, BA in Philosophy, and MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. More Torah of his can be found on YUTorah.org and occasionally through his Substack: markglass.substack.com