The Kosher Switch has been in development for several years. According to the inventor, the device replaces the standard light switch and through the magic of technology and Jewish law allows Shabbat observant Jews to switch their lights on and off. Last week, the company launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds to satisfy minimum manufacturer requirements and begin production. The promotional video claims that leading rabbinic authorities approve the device for Shabbat use. In response, a proclamation signed by prominent American rabbinic authorities warned residents of Flatbush that the device was not kosher for Shabbat use and it should not be brought into one’s home.
A lot of the subsequent discussion has been somewhat juvenile. Questions about motive, credibility, and consistency have been raised in all directions and accusations of impropriety have been levied as well. To me, this is all just a distraction from the real issue here: Is the Kosher Switch Kosher? [Please show your work]
Instead of delving into the religio-legal issues raised by the Kosher Switch, I find far too much of the discourse to be declarative and even in the rare case that arguments are made in favor or against the device, the articles read like persuasive briefs instead of dispassionate legal jurisprudence. I have read everything I could find and would like to present both sides of the issue as I see it.
Needless to say, this discussion is for educational purposes only. If you are looking for a psak, ask a posek.
I. Flipping a light switch on Shabbat might be a Biblical prohibition, but according to many opinions it might be a rabbinic prohibition. If it is Biblical, one set of principles applies, and if it is rabbinic, another package of principles apply. Activating a circuit is presumed to be prohibited, but as has been noted, it’s extremely difficult to identify the actual prohibition. Lighting an incandescent bulb is the most likely candidate for Biblical prohibition due to the heating of the coils and the heat that it emits. But we live in a fluorescent world, and I think we can assume that the Kosher Switch is trying to solve a rabbinic problem as opposed to a Biblical problem.
II. The Torah forbids mindful acts of Shabbat desecration. Thus, there are several leniencies that can theoretically mitigate Biblical prohibition. When one performs an action that unwittingly causes a prohibited result it is permissible. This is called davar sh’eino mitkaven. But the leniency only applies as long as the unintended result was not inevitable, otherwise it is prohibited. This principle is called psik reisha, and the action is Biblically prohibited. However, if the unintended result of the action is undesirable it is called a psik reisha d’lo nicha lei and it is not Biblically prohibited. There is a dispute among the Medieval commentators whether a psik reisha d’lo nicha lei is still rabbinically prohibited or if it is permissible.
III. There is a secondary dispute among the late Medieval and Renaissance commentators when a psik reisha only produces a rabbinically prohibited result. Some say it is still prohibited rabbinically, and others say it is completely permissible. Even those who prohibit in these cases may allow psik reisha d’lo nicha lei. Some prohibit even in such cases, and others only allow under certain conditions.
IV. When it’s unknown if the psik reisha resulted in a prohibition it is called a safeik psik reisha. One late Renaissance opinion holds this would not even be considered a psik reisha, and is not prohibited at all. One Contemporary authority rules that safeik psik reisha is permissible when the result is rabbinically prohibited.
- Indirectly causing a prohibited result is called grama. The Talmud offers two seemingly contradictory positions on grama. One is permitted to place vessels filled with water in the path of a fire. The fire will be extinguished by the water in the vessels, and extinguishing fire is normally prohibited. The Talmud explains that this is a permissible case of grama. However, the Talmud also prohibits tossing wheat with its chaff into the wind to separate the kernel from the chaff, even though that appears to be a grama as well. Several narrowing definitions of grama have been proposed to reconcile this issue.
- When there is a time lapse between the action and the result it is considered a grama. It will take some time for the water to be released from the vessels but the chaff will be removed from the wheat almost immediately.
- Perhaps grama is only when the indirect cause is the normal manner in which the result is achieved. Normally, one would not extinguish a fire by placing vessels of water in its path, but one would toss wheat in the air to winnow.
- Perhaps grama is only when the person completes the indirect act, and an intervening act is still needed to cause the prohibited result. The water is trapped in vessels that are a distance away from the fire, so the fire must travel and burst the vessels. In the case of the wheat, the wind is already blowing when one throws the wheat in the air.
- Or perhaps grama is only when the prohibited result is not inevitable. There is no guarantee that the fire will be extinguished by the water in the vessels but it’s certain that the wind will remove some chaff from the wheat.
- Grama is not a blanket permission. The general consensus is that grama is only allowed in cases of great need. Some Modern and Contemporary authorities hold that grama would also be permissible when the result is not desired.
- One Contemporary rabbinic authority holds that oneg Shabbat (pleasure of Shabbat) is considered a great need.
Not Even a Grama
- The foremost Renaissance halachic authority for Ashkenazi Jewry says one can leave a candle near a door if the wind is not blowing, even if the wind will eventually blow. He also holds that grama is only permissible in cases of financial loss, and since here he makes no such stipulation, it can be assumed that he holds this is not even a case of grama.
- Perhaps grama is when the other contributing factor causing the prohibition exists. But where the wind is not blowing, the thing that is needed to complete the act does not even exist at the time of human act.
- Perhaps grama is when the human act is connected to the thing that will complete the prohibited act. The human is only opening a door to let the wind blow. The wind is the thing doing the extinguishing and the act is not connected to the wind.
The Kosher Switch
- Basically, two things are happening inside the Kosher Switch. First, there is an emitter and a receiver that complete a circuit. When the emitter and receiver are active, the circuit is complete and the light is on. The second component is a barrier that creates a blockage between emitter and receiver when the switch is flipped.
- When the light is on, the emitter and receiver cycle through sleep and active periods and an indicator will tell the user when they are asleep. The user will move the barrier by flipping the switch, and at a random time, the emitter will try to connect to the receiver. If it cannot connect, the circuit will be disrupted and the light will turn off. When the emitter and receiver are sleeping, an indicator tells the user it’s safe to move the switch. If the barrier is moved, the emitter and receiver will communicate at a random time and will attempt to complete the circuit. Even when the barrier is removed, the emitter and receiver do not automatically connect. They both randomly generate codes that must “match” in order to complete the circuit. After each failed attempt, the emitter will try connected again at a random time. If the barrier has not been moved, the emitter will not see the receiver and the light will remain off.
Show Your Work
- Flipping the Kosher Switch does not directly turn the lights on or off.
- Assuming it is considered a psik reisha, the result is a rabbinically prohibited act. This is permissible according to some authorities.
- Assuming a psik reisha that produces a rabinically prohibited act is still prohibited, the act of flipping the switch might be a safeik psik reisha. This is permissible according to some authorities.
- It might be a grama because there is a time lapse between the switch flip and the circuit completing.
- It might be a grama because an intervening act, by the emitter and receiver, is needed to complete the circuit.
- It’s possible that it could be a grama because the Kosher Switch is not the normal manner one turns on a light. Maybe.
- If the light is considered oneg Shabbat, grama plus a “great need” would render the switch permissible according to some.
- It might not be a grama at all, because the current is totally dead at the time of the act. Non-grama is certainly permissible.
- Or it might not be grama at all because the human act is not connected to the emitter and receiver. The human act only connects to the switch and barrier.
- Rabbi Rozen says: “Even if they added to the ‘Grama’ additional apparatuses, and even if there is a one in a thousand chance that the action will not occur, I have received from my rabbis (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Shaul Yisraeli) that this does not change in any way the halakhic status of regular ‘grama’ (just like grama D’grama and other artificial arrangements).”
- Rabbi Rozen says: “Even if the method of operation is non-active from the point of view of the agent, i.e. because he merely removes the “preventing element,” Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach and others wrote that this remains forbidden and is treated like it was done directly by the person, since the action occurs immediately after the human intervention/action. Even if the result comes only after a delay caused by an additional factor, this is plain grama, which is still not permitted L’chatchila.”
- Rabbi Student argues that the Kosher Switch is only a grama according to some opinions and even a grama is not permissible ab initio.
- Rabbi Tzvi Ortner says: “We must question whether a case can be built for permissibility based on what the Gemara does not say. That is, the fact that the Gemara does not speak of the halacha of something that has not entered the world does not prove that this case is less than a grama. Perhaps this case is deemed a grama too!”
- Rabbi Tzvi Ortner says: “Even should this logic be sound, one can hardly call the pulses “not in this world,” since the switch is designed for the function to turn on intermittently. It is an absolute certainty that the force will come back into existence, and this is by design. Even if we could find a case of wind that is not “in this world” that is permissible, this is only because the effect is not under man’s control, which thus “distances” his action from the eventual force (see Magen Avraham 328:53). However, the pulses in the Kosher Switch are designed and controlled by man to arrive with continuity, and thus bear no comparison to the case of the wind, which is beyond his control.”
- Okay, but there is precedent for “not even grama” under similar circumstances. Not everyone has to agree with what you received from your rabbis.
- Right, but this is a switch that is delayed and also dependent on random emitter and receiver contact which could have legal implications according to some precedents. Further, even if it is a grama, it could be combined with oneg Shabbat to establish a “great need.”
- There is a solid argument, with precedent, to say that it is not even grama. And again, even if it is grama it might be okay.
- The Talmud doesn’t say it, but the foremost Renaissance rabbinic authority seems to hold this way.
- Sure, this is possible. But so is the alternative proposed by Kosher Switch proponents. It might be different than the wind, but it might be similar as well.
So there you have it. A legitimate discussion about Kosher Switch from a religio-legal perspective.
It seems like two things might be happening here. It’s possible that the opponents of the Kosher Switch did not read through the responsa on the Kosher Switch website. All their questions are covered in their materials. But I think there is something deeper happening here as well. I have a feeling that the Kosher Switch proponents are using a different paradigm than the opponents.
The opponents seem to hold that in order for something to be permissible it needs to work according to all established rabbinic authorities. The Kosher Switch certainly does not meet that bar. Kosher Switch proponents hold that in order for something to be prohibited it needs to not work according to all established rabbinic authorities. Unfortunately, both sides seem to believe that their approach is the only correct approach so they do not acknowledge the validity of their opponents.
This represents a huge gap between two acceptable ways to look at halacha. I do think that the idea that we should try to satisfy all halachic precedent has some roots in the Talmud. But the importance and universal emphasis we give to this idea is somewhat a new innovation. It’s prominent in the Mishna Berura, a 20th century compilation and commentary on one section of the Code of Jewish Law. The Chofetz Chaim seems to have attempted to select and codify the halachic opinions that were most universally held. Today, the idea is very prominent in Brisk and its progeny. The hallmark of this approach is its lack of self confidence and self reliance. We are nervous that we are not doing it right so we try to fulfill as many positions as possible because one of them has got to be right.
We also have a tradition of “koach d’hetera adif” – the power to permit is great, and the concept of “limud zechus” – trying to find any halachic path to justify questionable behavior. The Aruch HaShulchan, by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, an exhaustive restatement of Jewish law written in the late 19th century, is known for its efforts on this side of the halachic coin. Rabbi Epstein tried to be machria and choose a path but he presented a potpourri of acceptable opinions in every section. It seems that this tradition is less prominent in our society. The hallmark of this approach is autonomy and courage. We try to research a topic as best we can, and attempt to forge a personal path that rings true to our genuinely held religious convictions.
I do harbor some concerns that our preference for the former over the latter is having a net negative impact on 21st century Orthodox Judaism. A society that looks for stringencies and looks down upon those with a different approach to Jewish law can become extremely uncomfortable for its non-conformist constituents. Autonomy and self confidence are authentic Torah values too. We ignore them at our peril.
This dispute might be a case study of this dichotomy or I might be completely off the mark, but either way, researching this topic inspired this idea in me. I believe there is a valid halachic path that permits the Shabbos Switch. I also acknowledge that this path will not be universally held. I think that’s okay. Variety and diversity can be good things. Let’s try to bring a little more of that back into our world.
I have included links to several published articles that have the sources for everything I quoted in this essay:
Rema on Kibui grama
Aruch HaShulchan on Kibui grama
Electricity on Shabbat
Rabbi Flug on Psik reisha
Detailed Kosher Switch Halachic Analysis
Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Shapiro Responsum Permitting Kosher Switch
How the Kosher Switch Works
Rabbi Rozen’s Objections
Rabbi Student’s Objections
Rabbi Ortner’s Objections
The Flatbush Ban
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) April 24, 2015
I was a bit dismayed by the lack of substantive discussion about the KosherSwitch so I decided to do it myself.
This is really long but it also is really clear and easy to understand. Print it out and read it over Shabbos. Or read it now. Or don’t read it at all and pretend you did.