Being green — and observant

Being green — and observant

Face it. Cholent is not green.

Come to think of it, the ultimate "earth day," Shabbat, is not all that green, either, which is bizarre, since by definition it should be the greenest shade of green.

Nothing can help the cholent (except, maybe, an energy-efficient slow cooker). Much, however, needs to be done to restore Shabbat to its God-given position as the eco-friendliest day of the week.

That, however, is not so easy for those for whom electricity is the equivalent of fire — many Conservative Jews included, especially in our Hudson-Bergen-Passaic area and in downstate New York.

Kindling a fire on Shabbat is a violation of Torah law: "You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3). There is no wiggle room here.

There also is no wiggle room in the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat. Says Exodus 16:’3-‘5, "Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath of the Lord. Bake what you would bake [for tomorrow today] and boil what you would boil [for tomorrow today]; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning. So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered….Then Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath of the Lord….’"

Please notice, by the way, that 19 chapters separate fire from cooking. These are unrelated laws, not dependent on each other.

Since one may not cook on Shabbat, the only way to keep food warm is to keep the stove burning all Shabbat long and keeping a burner lit on the stovetop. This, however, wastes either gas or electricity and itself violates halacha.

According to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b, "One who covers an oil lamp or uncovers [a lamp fueled by] naphtha transgresses [the decree proscribing] needless destruction." As explained by the commentator Rashi, covering an oil lamp or uncovering a naphtha one makes the fuel burn faster, thereby requiring more fuel than is necessary to produce light. This violates the Torah-based ban on needless destruction (bal tashchit).

It follows that keeping the home fires burning, so to speak, violates bal tashchit. That is why cholent is not green. Cholent (or chamin, its Sephardi equivalent, also known also as dafina) is a dish that was created especially for Shabbat. Because it requires cooking in an oven for most of the day, it was the perfect hot dish to prepare for a cold Shabbat afternoon. (Why this is not considered cooking on Shabbat is for another column.)

It also follows that the practice of leaving gas or electric ovens on and stoves burning for ‘5 hours straight should be prohibited, not encouraged.

The same holds true for leaving lights on for Shabbat. That is a great deal of electricity to waste.

(There is also another reason why such things should be prohibited: The gas we burn and the electricity we use profit those who would push Israel into the sea.)

Keeping the stoves cold and the rooms dark on Shabbat, though, make very little sense for a number of practical reasons.

The only sensible solution would be to allow people to turn their electricity on and off on Shabbat and to allow stoves and ovens that are ignited electrically to be turned on and off on Shabbat. Here, however, we come up against the ban against kindling a fire on Shabbat. As noted earlier, the Torah leaves no room in which to wiggle.

On the other hand, the Torah does not explain what it means by "kindle." We can guess, of course. Rubbing two sticks together certainly would be kindling in the Torah’s view. Putting a flame to something flammable also would be kindling in the Torah’s view. Would it consider flipping on a wall switch to light up a room kindling? Would it consider turning on an electric oven (as opposed to a gas one) for the purposes of warming a Sabbath stew kindling? Would it consider reheating in a microwave to be kindling?

The answer is probably not. Thus, for example, the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the most prominent Orthodox decisors in the second half of the ‘0th century, bluntly stated that "there is no ban on using electricity on Shabbat unless the electricity causes a prohibited act such as cooking or kindling a flame." (See Minchat Shlomo 74, 84.)

Nevertheless, Auerbach prohibited the use of electricity on Shabbat except in cases of extreme emergency. Why? Because he feared that people would unwittingly cause a Shabbat violation by turning on incandescent lights.

According to a great many authorities, but by no means all, turning on incandescent lights violates Shabbat rules (whether biblical or rabbinic is an open question) because the filament inside the bulb heats up. Why this is so (and why some sources say it is not so) would take an analysis that is too complicated for this limited space. Non-incandescent light sources, such as fluorescent bulbs, on the other hand, have no filament and, thus, technically create no Shabbat violation in anyone’s mind.

That means, of course, that ovens and stovetops that depend on heating coils could violate Shabbat rules, no matter how they are fired up, depending on whose opinion one follows.

In addition to not defining what it means by kindle, the Torah also does not define what it means by fire. It was left to the Oral Law to define fire and it did: Fire has a flame (see BT Pesachim 75a) and reduces what is being burned to ash or charcoal (see BT Shabbat 4’a). Electricity never fit that definition and, in the age of solid state technology, certainly does not fit it today.

Still, in order to redefine electricity, there has to be sufficient faith in the public’s ability to distinguish between what is acceptable on Shabbat and what is not — and as Auerbach’s statement clearly demonstrates, this may be too high a leap to make. Will people really know the difference between acceptable warming of food on Shabbat and actual cooking? Are all non-incandescent bulbs acceptable? Can people differentiate between Shabbat-acceptable cooking systems and at the very least questionable ones? If new technology arises that creates Shabbat violations, can a decision to allow electricity be rescinded, especially after people get used to it?

Sooner or later, such questions are going to have to be answered because the situation is increasingly untenable halachically. Tu B’Shevat (celebrated this year on Jan. ”) may provide the perfect opening for rabbis to begin exploring the possibilities with their congregants.