As technology changes, new opportunities arise for Shabbos-observant Jews that should not be ignored. However, when evaluating new technology we have to look at reality and not hype. Four years ago, the “Kosher Switch” launched online, billed by its inventor as a game-changer that will radically redefine the Shabbos experience.
At the time, I wrote a critical online review based on halachic sources. I will briefly present some of the issues here, although I will note that the inventor wrote a response to my review, albeit one that I found unconvincing, offensive, and at times misleading.
The Kosher Switch is a next-generation “Gerama Switch” that seems to me to fall short of the requirements of many major authorities. For decades, two institutes in Israel have attempted to find creative halachic solutions for the disabled and others with unique needs on Shabbos. They have been guided by leading authorities, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth. Among their inventions are switches that avoid specific Shabbos prohibitions.
However, due to problems we will review shortly, they only permit those switches in situations of great need. While the Kosher Switch goes a step further than prior inventions, it still suffers from the same flaws that would only allow it to be used in exigent circumstances.
Generally speaking, the Orthodox community embraces technological advances but only those consistent with halachah. There are now timers designed specifically for Shabbos, ovens and refrigerators with Shabbos modes, and even a widely accepted Shabbos Lamp. I do not believe that the Kosher Switch can take a place alongside those halachic devices, although readers should consult with their own rabbis. To better understand the product and why its halachic implications are probably minimal, we have to wade through some background.
Over a century ago, halachic authorities debated the status of a standard light switch. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the highly influential Aruch Ha-Shulchan, published an article in a 1903 Torah journal arguing that lights may be turned on and off on Yom Tov. Part of his calculations was the incorrect scientific understanding (as pointed out by Rav Yehudah Borenstein in a rebuttal in that journal) that electric current is fire running through the wires.
Another of his arguments was that flipping a switch is considered gerama, indirect action. While gerama is generally forbidden, it is allowed when extinguishing a fire on Yom Tov. In a similar fashion, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, published an article in a 1934 Torah journal arguing that flipping an electrical switch is gerama.
However, the overwhelming consensus of subsequent authorities rejected this approach. In 1935, the young Jerusalem scholar Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach dared to disagree with the two aforementioned scholars and devoted chapter three of his monumental study, Me’orei Eish, to this issue. He argued at length that flipping a switch is considered direct action, rather than gerama. He obtained for his book a glowing approbation from the eminent authority, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna. Rav Grodzinski also penned a responsum arguing the same, later published as Achiezer vol. 3 no. 60. Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, also a young scholar in Jerusalem, after studying Rav Auerbach’s book and a copy of Rav Grodzinski’s responsum (which he obtained from Rav Auerbach), wrote a responsum of his own disagreeing with details of argumentation but agreeing with the conclusion (Tzitz Eliezer vol. 1 no. 8). Others, both before and after, have concurred that flipping a switch is direct action. The reasons offered impact greatly both the Gerama Switch and the Kosher Switch.
Halachic engineers attempt to avoid issues like gerama through creativity. Examining their proposals and the objections they face will offer us insight into potential objections to the Kosher Switch. The Zomet Institute bases its solutions on the concept of modulating currents. This interesting but controversial approach is irrelevant to our present discussion. The Institute for Halacha and Science developed a Gerama Switch based on the concept of obstruction removal (meni’as meni’ah) that serves as a basis of the Kosher Switch. There is a certain amount of rivalry between the institutions that I do not fully understand. I suspect that I may be oversimplifying the distinctions between their approaches but this should suffice for our purposes. However, both work with the assumption that turning electricity on and off is forbidden on Shabbos. Their goal is to find workable solutions by avoiding the user’s closing and opening circuits.
The Gerama Switch is poorly named because it is designed to avoid gerama. The switch contains an optical signal that closes or opens a circuit through an impulse light sent at random intervals. If the light is received, the circuit closes and if not, it is opened. The switch, in the off position, blocks the impulse light and prevents the circuit from closing. By moving the switch to the on position, you merely stop preventing the circuit from closing. You are neither directly nor indirectly closing the circuit, just removing the obstruction. Because this is not even gerama, moving the switch should be permissible on Shabbos even to perform an act indisputably prohibited.
Why isn’t this gerama? Conflicting passages in the Talmud describe gerama as either permitted or forbidden. Placing bottles of water to break when hit by fire, thereby extinguishing the fire, is permitted. Tossing grain into the air so the wind separates the wheat from the chaff is prohibited. Some early authorities forbid all gerama except where explicitly permitted and others permit it except where explicitly forbidden. The Rema codifies what is essentially a compromise position: we forbid gerama on Shabbos except in cases of great need (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 334:22). However, he does not define the boundaries of gerama, leaving the task for later authorities.
There are four main theories explaining the difference between permitted and forbidden indirect actions (Rav Dovid Miller explains these views nicely in a lecture available on YU Torah).
1. A time delay between a person’s action and the subsequent action makes the first permissible.
2. If the second action will not definitely occur then the first is allowed.
3. If this is not the normal way of performing the act then it is permitted.
4. If the second action is not already in motion then the first is allowed.
The Gerama Switch does not rely on the rejected views of Rav Epstein and Rav Frank, because its user only removes an obstruction. It also entails a time delay, until the next light impulse. However, this is only permissible according to the first approach to gerama. According to the other three, it is still forbidden. For another important reason, which we will discuss later, the designers of the Gerama Switch only allow it in exigent circumstances—for the needs of the infirm and security reasons—when the Rema would allow gerama.
III. Kosher Ungerama
The Kosher Switch adds uncertainty to the Gerama Switch. Every time the device is supposed to send a light impulse, it calculates a random number below 100 and only sends the impulse if the number passes a randomly set threshold. If the pulse is received, the switch calculates another number below 100 and only triggers the device if the number is above a randomly set threshold. These two levels of uncertainty separate the action of moving the switch to the on (or off) position from turning the device on (or off). The first impulse may not change the circuit, and the second and third may not as well. There is a statistical possibility, albeit remote, that the person may have to wait days or even months until the light impulse is sent and received.
This improvement to the Gerama Switch is an important step forward. It renders the device permissible also according to those authorities who follow the second approach above. However, those who follow the third and fourth still do not allow it. This is particularly significant because those authorities are highly influential.
IV. Not So Kosher
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as reported by Rav Hershel Schachter (Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 169), follows the fourth approach. See also Rav Schachter’s Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, ch. 7 (“Ma’aseh U-Gerama Bi-Meleches Shabbos“). Because the Kosher Switch functions constantly, waiting for the switch to be moved so it can close the circuit, Rav Soloveitchik would presumably forbid its use.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (ibid.) follows the third approach, as does the Tzitz Eliezer (ibid.) based on the Eglei Tal (Soreh n. 4). So do Rav Yechezkel Abramsky (Chazon Yechezkel, Shabbos 120b) and Rav Nachum Rabinovich (Si’ach Nachum, no. 25). Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also reportedly follows this approach (Shevus Yitzchak, p. 138; Orechos Shabbos, vol. 3 ch. 29 n. 52). See also Rav Nissim Karelitz, Chut Shani, vol. 1 p. 206 and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Responsa Ma’amar Mordechai, vol. 4 no. 101.
Because flipping a switch is the normal way of closing a circuit (e.g., turning on a light), these authorities would not allow any type of Gerama or Kosher Switch. If this switch becomes widely adopted, as its designers hope, then it will be the standard way of closing and opening circuits, turning lights on and off. This is precisely the situation that Rav Grodzinski and the others forbade.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach clearly followed this third approach in his Me’orei Eish, quoting Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer on the matter (Me’orei Eish Ha-Shalem, p. 217). He restated it in an early responsum on milking cows on Shabbos (ibid., p. 612ff.) and a later responsum on telephones (Minchas Shlomo, no. 9; Me’orei Eish Ha-Shalem, p. 576). A manuscript was posthumously published in a memorial book for Rav Auerbach, Kovetz Ateres Shlomo, which seems to contradict this approach but his son, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, insists that his father maintained his original attitude (Orechos Shabbos vol. 3 ch. 29 n. 52).
However, Prof. Zev Lev (Ma’archei Lev, p. 241) reports an important ruling from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rav Auerbach ruled that if an action is performed in a specific way only on Shabbos, that does not constitute the normal way the action is done. The Kosher Switch has a weekday mode and a Shabbos mode, which function differently. According to this ruling of Rav Auerbach, perhaps turning lights on with the switch in Shabbos mode is not the normal way of turning on the lights and is therefore permissible.
I find this difficult to understand. This is a switch that is designed to work this way, functions the same way as other switches (from the user’s perspective of merely moving the switch when the light is green), and performs in the same way once a week plus holidays. I make no claim to expertise but that seems to me to be the normal way the action is done. From what I have seen in the name of Rav Elyashiv, he disagrees with Rav Auerbach’s ruling and forbids all types of Gerama (or Ungerama) devices. I think this aspect of the issue requires further elaboration and evaluation by halachic decisors.
V. Publicity and Endorsements
The Kosher Switch has reportedly received numerous rabbinic endorsements, including from Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth, Rav Nachum Rabinovich, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, and Rav Yisroel Belsky. These five have since denied approving the device for common use, even expressing astonishment at the claim. Rav Nachum Rabinovich had even previously published a responsum effectively forbidding such devices. Rav Neuwirth had been advising engineers for years that such devices are only allowed in cases of great need, and subsequently confirmed this in writing regarding the Kosher Switch. However, the device’s promoter claim that it is appropriate for every home. Indeed, in his halachic defense of the innovation, he claims that the device will eventually become standard in all homes. In addition to the above, I believe that this is problematic for other reasons even by those who rule leniently regarding gerama.
The Institute for Science and Halacha, the designers of the Gerama Switch, only allow its use in exigent circumstances for the following reason (Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin and Rav Dovid Oratz, Shabbat and Electricity, pp. 32-33):
“The difference between a gerama switch and a standard switch is not readily discernible to a layman. A person seeing someone using a gerama switch might conclude that the action is permissible with any switch. As a result, people could mistakenly permit many prohibited Shabbat actions, resulting in mass desecration of Shabbat. Under such circumstances, it is appropriate not to permit actions that should otherwise be permitted. To prevent such misunderstanding, the use of the gerama switch is limited to uses where an ordinary gerama would be permitted, hence the name gerama switch and not meni’at hameni’ah switch… Accordingly, the Institute uses the gerama switch only under those conditions in which ordinary gerama can be permitted.”
The promoter of the Kosher Switch, in his halachic defense, argue that this is unnecessary for a number of unconvincing reasons. Among them is that the Kosher Switch looks very different from regular switches. I cannot speak for the situation in Israel, but in the US switches come in very different shapes and sizes. The Kosher Switch looks like another kind of up-down switch, often used with a dimmer function.
In addition to the potential for confusion, other issues enter this discussion, such as zilusa de-Shabbos, diminishing the Shabbos experience, and shevisah ha-nikeres, resting in a manner different from the remainder of the week. These are also important Shabbos values. For these reasons, Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron (Binyan Av, vol. 4 no. 17) rules that even a switch that works based on the meni’as meni’ah concept and featuring a time delay may only be used in exigent circumstances.The Kosher Switch is an important step forward in Shabbos technology and will improve devices designed for security and health situations. However, I struggle to see how it satisfies the requirements of many important authorities and how it could possibly become a standard feature in Shabbos-observant homes. Despite my strong feelings about this issue, I emphasize that readers should not rely on me but should ask their own rabbis practical halachic questions.