I Asked a Hasidic Rabbi Why He Uses Electricity on Shabbat

On the line with Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf, who explains why the use of hot plates and refrigerators on the holy Sabbath is kosher

Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf.
Kobi Gideon / Baubau

Hello to Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf. Nir Gontarz here, a journalist with Haaretz. How are you, sir?

Thank God.

Great. I am of course calling you in connection with your being secretary of the Committee to Save Shabbat.

Secretary of the Rabbinical Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat.

Yes. The honorable rabbi is identified with the Gur Hasidic sect, like former Health Minister [Yaakov] Litzman. Yes?

Indeed.

What exactly happened last weekend, from your perspective? What does this whole crisis stem from now?

The crisis began with the ruling by the Supreme Court, by three female justices who decided unanimously that they could enact laws that go against the laws of the Torah, and that stores can be open on Shabbat by law. Something that did not exist in the State of Israel for 70 years. This is where matters began to snowball, to the point where Shabbat was trampled, publicly, in full view by Israel Railways, which continues to carry out its work on Shabbat, even though this is totally unrelated to pikuah nefesh [the halakhic concept that allows for the violation of Jewish laws for the preservation of human life].

Yes, apropos pikuah nefesh: I’m certain that the honorable rabbi has a refrigerator and a Shabbat electric burner in his house. And probably Litzman does, too.

Yes.

Then the rabbi, when he uses the electric burner and the refrigerator, is consuming electrical current on Shabbat, and at the other end of the electric line – in Hadera, let’s say – a Jew is working on Shabbat so that the rabbi will have tasty food. That is not pikuah nefesh.

I am ready to engage in a philosophical discussion on every subject. Every issue has an answer. There’s even an answer regarding Egged [the national bus company], which operates in Haifa on Shabbat. We will not offer one question as an excuse for another.

For the ultra-Orthodox, including the Haredim of the Gur sect, it’s convenient to have hot water on Shabbat, and hot food. So, suddenly you don’t care so much about the Jew who is working on Shabbat for you.

There are Haredim who do not use electricity [supplied by the Electric Corporation] – they use generators.

At least they’re fair, but they are a small minority. Does the rabbi use the electricity of the Electric Corporation?

Allow me, allow me, one minute. The whole subject of electricity, that people work there on Shabbat, wasn’t “born” yesterday. It was born 70 years ago, and dozens of courts have discussed the issue by now. There must be electricity in the State of Israel. Electric power is a matter of pikuah nefesh.

Electric power on Shabbat for your excellency’s burner is pikuah nefesh?

A minute, a minute, a minute, a minute, a minute, a minute. If there will be no electric power for the public, in the public space, many disasters could occur.

True.

The electricity has to work and the system has to function, because we have hospitals and there are people and infants who cannot live without electricity. Electricity is a thing that is necessary. The moment it is necessary, there is no choice but to activate it.

But you don’t have to activate it for your comfort.

A minute! Let me finish. You are a journalist – you let the other person speak. This is not the Knesset. In the Knesset, they don’t let people speak. That is why our rabbis ruled, that is why our rabbis ruled that electricity – whoever wishes can connect to electricity, which operates for pikuah nefesh, because no one is making it especially for you

That’s a bit funny, all that hairsplitting. I think it’s hypocrisy. I will explain why.

Nu?

You are justifying the production of electric power on Shabbat for reasons of pikuah nefesh. That’s logical. And then you allow yourselves to take it for your own comfort and hot food, on the grounds that it is being produced for pikuah nefesh in any case. That is absurd. When it’s for your comfort, there’s always “our rabbis” and the halakha that will help you be clever. It’s simply convenient for you. When hot, tasty food on Shabbat and hot water for the shower are pitted against Jewish engineers and electricians who work on Shabbat – that’s suddenly not so important. The important things is that there be hot water on Shabbat.

Then I am informing you that at the Electric Corporation, too, many, many Jews don’t work there anymore.

Still, Jews do work so that Litzman and you will have it nice and comfortable on Shabbat.

Most of those who work there are not Jews.

I understood that most of the workers in Israel Railways on Shabbat are also not Jews.

Today the system there is operated via automation.

Human beings, Jews, still operate the automation. If you were honest people, and Shabbat were so precious to you, you would say: We will not take electricity that is produced by a Jew and is designated for pikuah nefesh, on Shabbat. You would forgo the refrigerator and return to the icebox and eat cold food, but you would not touch electricity that was produced by a Jew on Shabbat.

No, no, no, no, no, no. You are absolutely making of the Jews what we do not want to make of them. What the Lord gave is – he gave these things to the Jews, and to Haredi Jews, too, and not if it exists, to come and say, “Don’t use.”

But it entails desecrating Shabbat.

There is no desecration of Shabbat in it; it works in any case.

You said it is permissible because it’s pikuah nefesh. But you take from it for the good life.

There is no desecration of Shabbat in it, because the electric systems work both if you use and also if you don’t use.

Yes. I understood the cleverness. Do you know that on weekends there are taxis that take young drunk people so that they will not drive. That’s also pikuah nefesh, that taxi. So will you get into that taxi on Shabbat? After all, it will travel in any event.

That is not “in any event,” that is not “in any event”!!

But it is pikuah nefesh.

Let’s agree between us that what pikuah nefesh is, you are not the one to decide! There is halakha, there is Torah. It is written there what pikuah nefesh is. Come to my home for Shabbat.

Oh, there’s the offer that is always made. Why don’t you come to my home for Shabbat?

If you tell me that I can absolutely eat kosher there maybe yes.

If you tell me that I can behave regularly at your place, then also, maybe yes.

Like you are used to – yes. But you will see what Shabbat is.

You come to me and see what Shabbat is.

You are a Jew! You are a Jew! And you cannot deny that. You are from a Jewish family!

As the son of a Jewish family, I say to you that a Jew who truly cares about the sanctity of Shabbat to the very end, if he is fair, will not take electric power that is intended for pikuah nefesh, on Shabbat.

You’re not the one who decides!!

You’re right about that. You’re the ones who decide.

You’re just talking into the space of the bathroom! What does “you say” mean? Who are you – can you [decide] this?! You have to be a rabbi!!

To say that it’s hypocrisy, I don’t have to be a rabbi.

Ay, yai, yai, yai, yai. Boy, do you have to be a rabbi!

We’ll end here. Thank you very much.

All the best.