Re: Why does my fridge have a “Sabbath Mode?”

From the Geek Guide to Kosher Machines

So I got this letter from a reader: “I just got a new refrigerator, and it comes with a “Sabbath mode”–if Jews aren’t supposed to use electricity on Saturday, why don’t they just turn off the fridge? Isn’t this cheating?”

I may not be the most appropriate expert for this question, being not a Jewish lawyer, but it’s just too funny not to answer–but please consult with a real rabbi before making any important halakhic decisions about your fridge.

First, as you probably already know, there are basically 3 varieties of Jews: Atheist Jews, moderately religious Jews, and Orthodox Jews. About 2% of Americans are Jewish, of them, 10% are Orthodox–and as far as I know, only the Orthodox care about following all of the little Jewish laws and whether or not their fridges are sabbath compliant.

Noam Chomsky may be Jewish, but he probably doesn’t care what his fridge does unless it can prove the existence of universal grammar.

The Orthodox Jews are the ones who tend to dress most identifiably Jewish, with black hats, curly sidelocks, black suits, and beards. For this reason, I think people sometimes confuse them with the Amish.

Orthodox Jewish family
Orthodox Jewish family
Amish family
Amish family

Yes, they both wear beards, but there’s an obvious difference: the Amish live in PA and Jews live in NY.

From Time, "This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg's Closet is Ridiculous"-- I remember when Time was a respectable magazine and not just clickbait trash.
From Time, “This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg’s Closet is Ridiculous” (ugh clickbait titles)

(I do wonder if there is a connection between the Orthodox Jewish tendency toward identical clothes has something to do with Zuckerberg’s preference for only wearing gray shirts–but please note that many Orthodox Jews do not, in my experience, dress in the stereotypical way. Most I have met, while they dress modestly, are pretty much indistinguishable from everyone else.)

That business you’ve heard about Jews not using electricity is wrong. The Amish are the ones who don’t use electricity. Jews use electricity, even on Saturday.

However, some Jews (mostly Orthodox) try to refrain from turning electrical things on or off on Saturday. It’s just fine for an electrical thing to be on and stay on all day. It’s fine for an electrical thing to be off and stay off all day. It’s the flipping light switches on and off that’s a problem.

6df93d0c2319e0324710f55dcfcc5446But isn’t this cheating? Aren’t they supposed to not use electricity?

No. There is nothing in the Bible about not using electricity–not even in the Apocrypha. Nothing in the Talmud, either. I guarantee it.

The Bible does say, in the 10 Commandments, to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In the Genesis account, God created the world for 6 days and then rested on the 7th, so traditional Jewish law proclaimed the Sabbath (aka Shabbat, aka Saturday,) a day of rest, when people went to synagogue or studied the Torah and didn’t do any work. “Work” is defined here in terms relevant to people in Biblical times, not today: agricultural activities like planting, plowing, reaping, and threshing; cooking: kneading dough and baking; clothes production: shearing, carding wool, spinning, weaving; animal-products: trapping, slaughtering, skinning, preserving; “creative” activities: writing, erasing, building, demolishing, kindling a fire or putting it out; and carrying around heavy stuff.

Yes, the law goes into A LOT more detail than this, like “Is it okay to trap a fly that’s buzzing around in your cupboard?” “What about a poisonous scorpion that’s in my shoe?” “What about a snail?” (IIRC, maybe, yes, and yes, respectively,) but this is the big picture.

Note that while there is a prohibition against lighting a fire (and against putting it out,) as this is considered a “creative” act and often involved carrying around large bundles of heavy wood, there is no prohibition against sitting near a fire and staying warm. Traditional Russian Jews would have gotten awfully cold in the winter if there had been. Instead they just built up a big fire on Friday afternoon and hoped it lasted until Saturday evening. There was never a requirement that they had to put out the fire and sit around and be cold.

The same holds for candles.

When electricity was first introduced, some folks decided that lightbulbs were an awful lot like candles and electricity like fire, especially electric sparks. So some Jews decided that turning lights on and off was analogous to lighting (or dousing) a fire, and thus shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

220px-refrigerator_sabbath_modeMost Jews who are concerned about the fridge light just take the easy route and unscrew it a little on Friday afternoon, but some people are now buying refrigerators with built-in display panels that let you program the ice maker or something. And these panels let you set the fridge to “Sabbath mode,” where the light and fan won’t turn on when you open the door.

(“Sabbath mode” is also available on ovens and other appliances.)

Note that, just as it is fine to leave the fire going overnight from Friday to Saturday so long as you don’t mess with it, it’s also fine to leave on an electric appliance. In fact, if the lights happen to be left on when the Sabbath starts, you’re not supposed to turn them off–you have to just leave them, even if you’re trying to sleep and they’re really annoying. Likewise, you are not required to turn off your refrigerator.

(Hey, don’t tell me I’m getting all Talmudic when the question was literally about Jewish law.)

I think you put the stylus in the holes and somehow it dials
I think you put the stylus in the holes and it dials.

Now, some people object that it seems like Jews are “cheating” by finding creative ways to circumvent the law instead of just obeying it. As someone who would never even bother about fridge lights, I don’t see how it’s “cheating” to turn it off by computer instead of unscrewing it. But perhaps more questionable is the old practice of hiring a non-Jew to show up on Saturday morning and make sure the fire is nice and warm or waiting for a neighbor to push the elevator buttons so you don’t have to walk up a bunch of stairs to your apartment. Or this telephone:

But the whole notion that Orthodox Jews aren’t being strict enough because they’ve developed funny work-arounds strikes me as trying to interpret Judaism as though it were a branch of Protestantism. Personally, I think they’re already over-thinking things and really don’t need to be encouraged to be stricter.

My impression of Judaism–and I could be wrong, because I’m mostly going off material on the internet–is that their attitude toward “the law” is quite different from the Christian attitude.

Christian theology teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s “original sin,” all humans are inherently sinful and destined for Hell–except that through Jesus’ sacrifice, they have been redeemed and can go to Heaven. (There are some variations on this throughout the many branches of Christianity, but this is pretty basic.)

Judaism–as far as I can tell–lacks this teaching entirely. Yes, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from the Garden of Eden, but this does not translate into “original sin” inherited by all humans. Humans are not inherently sinful and are not destined for Hell–in fact, Judaism doesn’t really have the concepts of “sin,” “Hell,” or “Heaven.” There is kind of a vague, nebulous belief that there might be an afterlife and something similar to Purgatory for sinners. The have a belief that the “messiah” (or “moshiach”) is going to come someday, but I don’t think they think of him the same way that Christians do.

In short: Christianity teaches that breaking God’s law is sinning and sinning => Hell. Jews don’t believe in sin or Hell, and so do not believe that turning on the lights on Saturday => Hell. Following the law is supposed to make you happy because God made the laws in order to show you the way to a nice life, (hence why it would be really stupid for God to require you to put out your fire and spend Saturday shivering,) but it’s not required.

Again, this is my impression; I am not an expert.

So why even debate matters like whether one is permitted to trap a fly on Saturday? To be honest, I think they enjoy the debate. The same for all of these silly work-arounds: I think they just do it because they find it amusing to think about their laws this way.

(That said, I get the impression that some of the stricter Hasidic sects take a much more hardline view and can be real kill-joys.)

How exactly a sect originally founded on the idea that unlearned peasant piety and mystical connection to God is superior to the Talmudic study of wealthy Jews became so devoted to strict halakhic observance remains a mystery for another day.


5 thoughts on “Re: Why does my fridge have a “Sabbath Mode?”

  1. I got a big laugh out of the picture of the Jewish guys with signs. One says “I didn’t get a stick with my sign and now my arm hurts”. Much merriment.


  2. This is a really good summary for a gentile. Secular Jews (90% of American Jews, but only 50% of American Jews under the age of 18), are not really raised with any significant Jewish learning, but orthodox Jews spend their whole lives studying Torah Talmud.

    Sabbath observance for orthodox Jews is mostly about refraining from any creative acts, such as creating a circuit. Apparently, the decision to prohibit turning lights on and off, and the rabbinic position on electricity in general were incredibly complicated (it seems pretty straightforward to me, which might be why I’ll never be a great rabbi).

    Chassidim are an offshoot of Judaism and are most easily interpreted through a reactionary prism, in my estimation. They were formed, and excommunicated, around the time of the enlightenment. There has since been a rapprochement, with what that suggests. If you see a man dressed like a 17th century Polish peasant in the greater NY area, you’re probably looking at a Chassid (which means pious).


    • Thanks!

      There’s a whole Wikipedia page that I discovered after writing this that has an amusing Feynman anecdote:

      “Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis in a seminary who asked him “is electricity fire?”. He replied, “no”, but asked why they wanted to know, and was shocked that they weren’t interested in science at all, but just wanted to interpret the Talmud. Feynman said that electricity was not a chemical process, as fire is, and pointed out that there is electricity in atoms and thus every phenomenon that occurs in the world. Feynman proposed a simple way to eliminate the spark: ‘”If that’s what’s bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever—anywhere.’ But for some reason, they didn’t like that idea either”. “


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