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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 7.3:
Why can't Jews use electrical appliances and motor vehicles on Shabbat?

Answer:

Jews that closely follow traditional practice don't do a whole category of activities, known in Hebrew as Melacha, on Shabbat. Melacha is usually badly translated as "work"; but it is better to use the Hebrew word, because the English word carries connotations of hard labor and other concepts that are inappropriate. Technically, there are 39 supercategories of melacha. They are derived from the classes of activities performed during the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert, following the exodus from Egypt.

One of the prohibited forms of melacha is lighting a fire. So Jews that closely follow traditional practice do not light fires on the Sabbath. (In fact it is traditional to light candles just before the Sabbath comes in as the last act of melacha done before the Sabbath descends). Now, when you drive a car, and you put your foot on the ignition, you produce a spark of fire. Thus, such Jews also do not use motor vehicles on the Sabbath, for it violates the prohibition against lighting fire on Shabbat. Electricity is more complicated (there being long arguments about whether it is fire, or whether it is only banned for falling under one of the other heads), but without getting into the detail, suffice to say that it is not used because it too falls within the various prohibitions. However, there are some exceptions, such as lights or VCRs preprogrammed on timers (note that the VCRs, the screen should not go on, as this would entice one to watch the program).

However, different movements have different positions on the issue. Reform Jews, and other Progressive ("progressive" is the term used for Reform Judaism outside the United States) movements tend not be concerned with Melacha at all.

The position of Conservative Judaism is more complicated, as it attempts to reconcile modernity with traditional practice, working within what it views as halachic process. Some in Conservative Judaism hold that electricity is not a form of fire, nor does the use of electricity inherently violate any other Shabbat prohibitions. Thus, it is an acceptable opinion within the Conservative movement for electric lights, telephones and other electrical appliances to be used on Shabbat. Note that other prohibitions, such as the prohibition of cooking, remain. Others in the movement follow the traditional practices seen in Orthodoxy, and restrict the use of electricity in addition to other prohibitions.

In the area of driving on Shabbat, the actual stance of the Conservative movement is stated in "Travel on the Sabbath: A statement unanimously adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards" which was affirmed unanimously on 2/17/60.

This statement indicates that "the Sabbath cannot function as the great day of the Lord unless we consciously "make a fence around it". The most important of the fences we must make to safeguard the Sabbath as an oasis of peace and of holiness is the avoidance of travel." However, Conservative Judaism exempts a specific type of travel from the above limitation: travel to a synagogue for attendance at worship. This exemption was granted based both on the needs of modern conditions, were people live in widely scattered areas, as well as a view that it was an emergency measure which the individual might make when in his conscience he or she knows that no alternative exists, stressing the values that would be lost by travel even in such instance. Note that both opinions limit this exemption to the need of reaching the synagogue for attendance at worship. Still prohibited is travel for other ends, such as travel for social purposes, or travel to the synagogue for purposes other than to worship (for example, in order to attend a Bar Mitzvah ceremony or reception, for the motivation here is not the service of G-d but the honor of man).


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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