The Hazon Ish Wasn’t Writing About Using Computers

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Dan Margulies

The recent psak which was issued by several prominent Sepharadi rabbis in Israel concerning the use of video-conferencing technology on Yom Tov to facilitate the participation of isolated individuals in a family seder during the current pandemic, and the responses from poskim opposed, bring to the forefront the more theoretical question of how to classify the use of electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Specifically, this ruling leads us to consider and interpret the position of the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, regarding electricity. Unlike most other poskim, who if they see any biblical violation of melakhah at all in the use of electricity on Shabbat (and Yom Tov), view it as hav’arah—igniting or kindling a fire—the Hazon Ish’s position is notable both for its originality and its stringency[1] in that he assigned the use of electricity to the melakhah of boneh—building.

The commonplace presentation of the Hazon Ish’s position is that the violation of Shabbat occurs when one completes, i.e. builds, an electrical circuit.[2] The electrical connection formed when a switch is closed, bringing two wires in contact, is classified as “building.” Some note as well that the Hazon Ish also thinks this is a violation of the melakhah of makeh ba-patish, since the completion of the circuit is the finishing touch to complete the usefulness of the circuit itself.

I would suggest that the application of the Hazon Ish’s position to prohibit any use of any electronic device at the biblical level, (which would obviously extend to webcams, computers, and smartwatches, besides those appliances which he was explicitly considering in the 1950s like lamps, refrigerators, and fans), is based on a misreading of the Hazon Ish’s central argument about how and why he considers the use of electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov to be a violation of the melakhah of boneh. I would offer instead that a precise reading of the Hazon Ish’s position would prohibit specifically to turning on or off an electrical or electronic appliance or device, but would not assign a biblical melakhah violation to the use of a device that is already on, and further, that the technical details of which switches and circuits are being closed and opened are not really his concern.[3] My excerpted and annotated translation of Hazon Ish Orah Hayyim 50 follows:

[Turning on an electric light] constitutes fixing an object, since it sets it to its use to continually transmit the electric current. This is close to [a violation of] building, [which is prohibited] by the Torah like making a new device, and all the more so in this case, since the wires are attached to the building and it is thus like building something attached to the ground.

Initially, the Hazon Ish engaged with what was the dominant view of other poskim at his time, that the use of electric lights (sc. incandescent bulbs) on Shabbat constitutes a violation of Shabbat at the biblical level due to either the prohibition of cooking (which applies to heating a metal to the point that it softens) or burning (which applies to heating a metal to the point it is at least red hot). He then introduces his own view, that introducing an electric current into an electric bulb or other device is comparable to building the device or fixing a broken device, because until the point that the current flows through it, the device is useless for its designated purpose.

This is a very different idea from the claim that completing the circuit is an act of building. The Hazon Ish is less concerned with the physical action (bridging a gap in a wire) that takes place when an electrical device is activated; he is instead concerned with the pragmatic or result-oriented change that occurs when the device is powered on and becomes usable. He frames this using metaphysical terminology (geshem and tzurah—substance and form) which are parallel to, for example, Rambam’s description of the classes of created beings in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:3-8. According to the Hazon Ish, before the power is turned on the device is considered broken, destroyed, or dead—mere substance without form—and after the power is turned on, it is fixed, newly-built, or alive—the substance of the device has been imbued with its intended form (the energy which makes it operate) in the form of electrical power.

The Hazon Ish’s main support for his opinion comes from an innovative reading of an example from Tosefta Shabbat as quoted in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 47a, as he explains:

They said that “With regard to the plasterer’s pole, which has several component parts, one may not reassemble it in the first place, but if he did reassemble it, he is exempt from bringing a sin-offering, although it is prohibited.”[4] Seemingly, the Tosefta’s ruling regarding the plasterer’s pole is comparable to its ruling regarding [the pole of] a lamp as appears in the prior clause, in that we are discussing attaching the pieces tightly, and nonetheless in the case of a plasterer’s pole one is exempt [from a violation of Shabbat at the biblical level]. The reason why is that the lamp is primarily used assembled, and when one disassembles it, it is not in order to use it but rather for a different purpose [DM: i.e. to store it away]; however, the plasterer’s pole has two usable forms: to reach a low place a long pole is unsuitable, and to reach a high place a short pole is unsuitable. Thus, when one lengthens it temporarily, even if it is tightly joined, it is like stacking one tool on another to reach a high place and it is never [formally] designated a “long pole.”

Before the Hazon Ish, the interpretation of this passage from the Tosefta focused entirely on how tightly the pieces were joined. In the case of the plasterer’s pole, the pieces were commonly assumed to be only loosely attached, and thus only a rabbinic prohibition is involved in its assembly, while in the case of the lamp-pole, the pieces were assumed to be tightly attached, and thus their assembly would constitute a biblical act of building (cf. Ramban, Ritva ad. loc., Rambam Hil. Shabbat 22:26, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 313:6).

However, as the Hazon Ish explains the Tosefta’s cases, it is prohibited to build a new tool or device on Shabbat because of “building.” Tools constructed of component parts which are then joined tightly are problematic for this reason. However, if the tool has two useful states—e.g. a plasterer’s pole which is used in both a long and short configuration—then no biblical violation is ever violated, since although the pieces are tightly joined, the tool always exists in an incomplete state of sometimes-short-sometimes-long.

In order to claim that the use of electricity on Shabbat constitutes a biblical violation, the Hazon Ish argues that (a) the joining of parts involved is considered “tight,” (b) that any electrical device is more similar to the lamp-pole (with one useful state) than the plasterer’s pole (with two interchangeable useful states), and, most importantly, (c) that this is an apt analogy to use as the basis for an entire model for the use of electricity in general. He continues:

Opening the [flow of] electricity, which deposits the current in the wires, must be unambiguously considered “tightly” attached. Even if you would suggest that in the case of the plasterer’s pole even something tightly attached is only rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat, that was specifically in a case of two objects [geshem] which can be thought of as two partners together in one action such that the fact that they are tightly joined does not transform them into a single object, as long as it remains necessary to separate them in order to plaster a low place. But transforming the form [tzurah] of the object such that it becomes usable is certainly considered building even if the use will be only temporary and afterward it will be terminated, since the termination would be from that point going forward, but the original form cannot be separated from the object.

The Hazon Ish dismisses the question of “tightness” (point [a]) as obvious, although in his later correspondence he addresses it. Instead, he focuses on why he thinks the use of electricity on Shabbat is worse than the assembly of the plasterer’s pole (point [b]), itself only rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat.

The Hazon Ish claims that any electrical device is considered by Halakhah to be broken when the current is not flowing within it, since the “object” does not have the “form” necessary to be useful in the way in which it is normally used. When the electric current is connected to the “object” and its electrical components are activated, it attains the “form” necessary to become useful. In the case of the plasterer’s pole, the two lengths of wood which comprise the long handle are both objects. According to the Hazon Ish joining two objects together is a less intrinsic change than joining together an object and the electrical power which changes its form. Thus, the act of causing the current to flow through the electrical components constitutes an act of building the device itself—transforming it from a form in which it was unusable to a form in which it is usable. The analogy the Hazon Ish gives in a later paragraph illustrates this point further:

So too one who is practicing how to sharpen a knife for slaughter who [on Shabbat] prepared the knife to be able to slaughter with, even though he intends to nick it immediatly after the slaughter, nonetheless this is considered building, since temporary building is still classified as building.

Here the Hazon Ish makes clear that it is his opinion that Halakhah equates imbuing an object (the knife) with a new form (sharpness) with the act of causing an electric current to flow through an electrical device. It is not, as many have suggested, that the act of closing or opening a switch builds or destroys the circuit itself—i.e. the wire path—but that the current flowing through the device “fixes” it in so far as it becomes useful for its designated purpose.

It was this highly original opinion (indeed one which went against the precedent for how to interpret the passage from the Tosefta) which initiated a halakhic controversy. Other poskim, most notably Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, were not satisfied with the suggestion that when an electrical device is powered down, Halakhah sees it as broken, and that the act of causing the current to flow through it builds or fixes it, since in no discernible way is a powered down object broken. One does not go out and replace a powered down electrical device; it is functioning normally. It is designed to be shut down when not in use and to be activated when ready to be used. This disagreement rides on the aptness of the analogy between electricity and the lamp-pole, which is also only useful when assembled (point [c]); although the comparison is clear, the general applicability of the Hazon Ish’s entire model to the question of electricity is debatable.

What is not debated, however, is that if the Hazon Ish’s assessment is taken as correct, that this would be universally applicable to any and all uses of electrical or electronic devices, as he clarifies further when he describes what he sees as the intrinsic change that constitutes the melakhah of boneh. In Hashmatot 156, a correspondence between the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach published as an addendum to Hazon Ish Orah Hayyim 313, he explains his original formulation with an even starker choice of words:

This matter is dependent on shikul ha-da’at.[5] Heating metal does not introduce a new nature in the metal, rather the heat resides temporarily in the metal and the metal tries to expel it; however, the wire’s electrical connection awakens the electric power which is inherent in the wire itself and which is part of its natural composition since its initial creation. This use is continuous and we are concerned that putting it into place by way of the [wire] attachment such that the severed wire becomes a single body conjoined with the power station is a violation of [the prohibition of] building. First, because of attaching the pieces together, to which the leniency of “loose” does not apply since the flow of current connects them in a way which is classified as “tight,” and second, since fixing the wire itself from death to life is building.[6]

As one can see from his own words, the Hazon Ish’s understanding of how Halakhah should classify electrical processes — that the electrical power is a quality inherent in the metal which is awakened by attaching the wire to a source of voltage, that an electrical device is “dead” or broken when off and “alive” or repaired when on, and that the ability to conduct current across a switch is indication that the switch is tightly attached — is poorly summarized by the claim that the closing of a circuit constitutes an act of building and that its opening constitutes an act of destruction. The Hazon Ish’s opinion relies on more subtle halakhic arguments (which he admits, in acknowledging the significance of shikul ha-da’at), and is not in direct conversation with the terminology used by engineers or physicists to describe the phenomena of electricity.

Poskim issuing halakhic rulings about the use of electricity on Shabbat are obviously entitled to agree with the arguments of the Hazon Ish if they find them compelling. And they are entitled to show deference to his opinion even if only as a reason to be more inclined to stringency given the severity of the prohibition that results from his analysis. But the Hazon Ish did not think that completing a circuit on Shabbat constituted a violation of boneh. He did think that enabling electrical current to flow through an electrical device currently powered down constituted building or repairing that device from a useless or unusable state to a useful one.

Although he disagrees with the Hazon Ish about the aptness of the analogy from the Tosefta, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach corrects some of his contemporaries in their (over-)zealous application of the Hazon Ish’s position beyond what he intended. He notes in Minhat Shlomo 1:11:

Subsequently I saw in Rabbi Chaim Shaul Grainiman’s Hidushim u-Beurim Orah Hayyim 2 that he wrote according to his own reasoning that the opinion of the Hazon Ish should even forbid [someone from pushing a button on an electric device] even at a time when the current is not flowing [DM: by implication, that pressing the button completes the circuit even when no current is flowing].

But in my humble opinion it seems, and I will explain later on, that the Hazon Ish only forbade in a case like this, where through one’s action he creates new forces within the wires which seem to us like “from death to life,” and he so wrote explicitly in his book that it is because of connecting the form [tzurah] to the object [geshem].

It directly follows from the repeated emphasis that the boneh paradigm being “from death to life” or “transforming the form [tzurah] of the object [geshem] such that it becomes usable” that the Hazon Ish only intended boneh to apply to turning on (and therefore for soter — destroying — to only apply to turning off) a device, but not to normal operational usage of a device which is on.

The Hazon Ish’s argument that electrical devices are prohibited on Shabbat is predicated on the assumption that every electrical circuit has an “off” state and an “on” state, and that the “off” is unusable but the “on” is usable. Thus, the sort of building that combines the object [geshem] of the device with the electricity which provides its form [tzurah] is more comparable to assembling a lamp-pole on Shabbat (which is biblically prohibited) rather than assembling a plasterer’s pole (which is only rabbinically prohibited). However, as Rabbi Ike Sultan notes in his discussion of the inner workings of a smartwatch (and this is true of almost all modern electronics):

Turning to the smartwatch, although no circuits are noticeably being opened and closed, the inner workings of the silicon chip involve opening and closing circuits constantly. On the silicon chip inside the smartwatch, as is the case of a smartphone and computer, are thousands or millions of tiny transistors and circuits that are constantly being changed in order to enable different processes and apps …

In general, closing an electric circuit on Shabbat is forbidden either Biblically or rabbinically.

The operation of any electronic device involves the opening and closing of many circuits in the thousands or millions of transistors needed to complete even basic computational functions. However, since a transistor performs calculations and stores data with both the “on” and “off” states playing necessary and useful roles, the Hazon Ish would concede within his own paradigm that the operation of these electronics cannot possibly constitute a biblical violation of Shabbat, since their function is closer to the more lenient case of the plasterer’s pole than the more stringent case of the lamp-pole. Further, since the device as a whole remains on the entire time, and is never “dead” or without its tzurah, there can be no biblical violation of boneh as the Hazon Ish described in the normal use of an electronic device which remains on.

Although many poskim cite the opinion of the Hazon Ish as a knock-out punch in support of prohibiting the use of electronics, computers and the like on Shabbat and Yom Tov, in fact, as a close reading of his own writing demonstrates, the paradigm which he developed is based on distinguishing between devices which can be interchanged between two useful states (and are thus only rabbinically prohibited to assemble on Shabbat) and those which can be interchanged between a useful state and a useless state (which are biblically prohibited to assemble). To turn on an electrical or electronic device which is off (and useless) would constitute the prohibited joining of the geshem—the object of the device itself and the tzurah—the electricity which powers it. But to use a device which remains on, even though its normal use involves opening and closing thousands of circuits is not the sort of boneh the Hazon Ish was concerned with.

[1] Classifying electricity as boneh is particularly stringent because, unlike hav’arah, there is no permission to employ actions otherwise prohibited as boneh for immediate benefit on Yom Tov, called okhel nefesh (however, see Tosafot Shabbat 95a s.v. “Ve-harodeh”). 

[2] See Rabbi Yair Hoffman, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, and Rabbi Ike Sultan.

[3] Some of the ideas in this article were developed through correspondence with Moshe Schorr, and appear here with his permission.

[4] Patur aval assur—the common talmudic idiom generally referring to a rabbinic prohibition.

[5] Judicial discretion, cf. Sanhedrin 33a, Tur-Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 25

[6] Consider the idiomatic English phrase “live wire.”

Dan Margulies is on the Judaics faculty at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, MD. He received semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from his teacher Rabbi Simcha Krauss, and also studied in the kollel at YU-RIETS. He previously served as the Rabbi of The Riverdale Minyan, as Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and on the Talmud faculty of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. He studied chemical physics and mathematics at Columbia University.