Question. Why isn’t electricity allowed on Shabbat?
Answer. You may benefit from electric appliances but not personally operate them. The problem is whether one may light a fire on Shabbat, which the Torah bans (Ex. 35:3).
The arrival of electricity led to rabbinic discussion as to what is meant by “fire”. Some rabbis argued that turning on electricity did not constitute fire, but this view was not generally accepted. Increasing the electric current was also rejected unless it was done indirectly (Shulchan Aruch, OC 252).
Appliances set before Shabbat may be utilised. The accepted usage is to turn on the electric lights before Shabbat and govern them by clocks and timers. This does not transgress Shabbat since it is human beings, not machines, who are obligated to keep the Sabbath. Appliances which work on batteries, including pacemakers, may be utilised on Shabbat.
Some literalist Karaites prohibited using lights that were lit before Shabbat; they sat in the cold and dark on Shabbat, even in the Russian winter.
WOMEN & DIVORCE
Question. May a woman institute proceedings for a Jewish divorce?
Answer. The technicality of the situation is that the man takes the initiative in both marriage and divorce: the Torah says in relation to marriage, “when a man marries a woman” and in relation to divorce, “he shall write for her a bill of divorce” (Deut. 24:1).
Hence at a marriage it is the groom who places the ring on the bride’s finger and at a divorce it is the husband who instructs the scribe to write and witnesses to sign the document and it is he or his agent who hands it over to the wife.
However, either party may make application to the Beth Din for the divorce proceedings to take place. The grounds of the application are not limited to matrimonial offence; the criterion is marriage breakdown. Hence the halachah specifically empowers a wife to sue for a divorce from her husband if he has a loathsome disease or occupation, or if he refuses to support her, is cruel to her, is licentious or impotent or refuses her conjugal rights.
The Beth Din may decide to attempt a reconciliation between the parties and sometimes this is effective, but in most cases in the Diaspora situation there have already been proceedings for a civil divorce and it is highly unlikely that the marriage can be reinstated.
A husband who refuses to co-operate in a gett will be counselled and every effort will be made to secure his consent, but it must be said that it is not always the man who causes problems; in something like 40% of cases it is the woman who, at least initially, withholds her co-operation.
PURIM CHARACTERS IN THE TORAH
Question. Is it true that the Talmud says that Esther and Haman are mentioned in the Torah? How can this be when the Torah predates the Purim story?
Answer. From the strictly historical point of view, characters from the M’gillah could not have been mentioned, since the Purim story took place centuries after the Torah was written.
But the sages were not joking or just cracking puns (Chullin 139b) when they saw a hint of Esther in the verse, “I will surely hide (‘astir’) My face” (Deut. 31:18).
They were saying that God is always there even if He seems to have hidden His face, and He emerges from “hiding” in order to save His people. Likewise there is a hint of Haman in the verse, “Did you eat from (‘ha-min’) the tree?” (Gen. 5:11), which indicates that the evil instinct goes back to the beginning of history
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com