Dishwashers on Shabbat

Switching on a dishwashers on Shabbat involves the issur melacha of both ‘havarah’ -creating a fire, and ‘bishul’ – cooking the water.

The first question which raises interesting issues is the use of a time switch which is set before Shabbat that will operate it on Shabbat. what are the halachic issues involved in this? Firstly there is a remarkable ruling of HaGaon Rav Moishe Feinstein ztza’l which is a blanket prohibition of all uses of timeswitches to operate machinery on Shabbat, except lighting and heating. The reasoning behind this is complex, but for those who totally follow his rulings this question of dishwashers or any appliances on automated systems on Shabbat is forbidden. However, many rabbonim do not follow this chumra ruling.

The real halachic issue here requires some understanding of the the way in which the dishwasher functions. In particular it is the effect of opening and closing the door of the dishwasher which creates an halachic problem. The door is designed with a micro-switch in the handle that will ensure the machine only works when the door is shut. This is a safety feature in case someone opens the door mid-cycle that it will instantly shut off the machine and it will only restart when the door is shut. If one sets the dishwasher on a timeswitch and then on Shabbat loads the dishes into the machine while it is off, there is as yet no halachic problem. However, the closing of the door is an action which indirectlycauses the re-starting of the machine when the timeswitch activates it later on. If the door is left open it will never switch on, even when the timeswitch goes on. We therefore view the act of closing the door as an indirect cause of the operating of this machine and the boiling of the water. This in halacha is called ‘gramma’.

A technical solution to this has been applied in some communities in Israel to supply a dishwasher with a ‘shabbat switch’ which de-activates the switch in the handle. One could also get an electrician to disable the switch permenantly. This solves the halachic problem, but is firstly not an easily available solution, nor is it recommended for everyone as it creates a health hazard if one opens the door mid cycle it will continue spraying very hot water.

The general topic of indirect causes – ‘gramma’- is a widely applied principle in the halachic system affecting all sorts of topics from property damages to machine baked matzos, but here in the context of Shabbat the Mishna states that there is no violation of a melacha mideorrayta when the action performed is one of ‘gramma’. The example of the Mishna (Bavli Shabbat 120a) is stopping the spread of a fire on Shabbat where there is no possible danger to anyone, only a monetary loss, and direct extinguishing of fire is forbidden, one may put jugs filled with water at a distance from the flame such that when it spreads to the jugs they will burst and put out the fire. This is the main source which permits ‘gramma’ indirect causation on Shabbat. Following this principle it would appear to be permitted to close the door of the dishwasher and thereby indirectly activate the machine at a later moment when turned on by the timeswitch.

However, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch O.H. 334.22) rules that since this source is dealing with stopping the spread of flames, we only know that ‘gramma’ is permitted in order to prevent monetary loss, and he therefore limmits the leniency to cases of preventing monetary loss, or other forms of extreme circumstances, such as treating  illness or to enable performance of a mitzva. The final ruling that emerges therefore is that simply for purposes of convenience or to minimise effort we do not allow ‘gramma’ and the use of a dishwasher on a timer on Shabbat would be forbidden.

A second practical question is regarding the use of a dishwasher on shabbat by a non-Jewish employee in a Jewish home. In general (with some exceptions of illness, extreme cold etc.)  it is forbidden mi-derabbanan to ask a non-Jew to do any sort of work on shabbat for a Jewish person which the Jewish person himself is not permitted to do. (Shulchan Aruch. O.H. 276) However the non-Jew is of course allowed to do any sort of work he wishes to do for his own benefit. An interesting issue arises in cases, not uncommon, where the a non-Jewish employee is required to do a particular job, in this case wash the dishes after a meal, and in order to make it easier to complete the job he wants to switch on the dishwasher. The Jewish householder is clearly forbidden to instruct that the dishwasher be used, but do we regard this as a case where the ‘work’ of switching it on is being done for the benefit of the non-Jewish employee in which case it is allowed, or is it being done for the benefit of the Jewish householder in which case it will be forbidden. That’s the question.  A similar case would be the employee required on shabbat to sweep the floor and decides to make it easier by using a vacuum cleaner. This is a classic borderline halachic case where we will need an authoritative precendent from within the halachic literature in order to make a ruling.

The relevant precendent is found in a ruling of the Taz, (Rabbi David Halevy  in 17th cent Poland, in his commentary at the end of the O.H. 276) where the non Jewish employee in the Jewish home has the duty to clean the dishes after the meal, but it is Friday night and the kitchen is totally dark. In order to do her work she must light the candles in the kitchen. Is one allowed to ask her to was the dishes in this circumstance? this is a good precedent for our question, do we regard her as lighting the candles for herself in order to do her work in which case it is permitted, or do we regard her as lighting them for the Jewish householder in which case it is forbidden. In fact the Taz rules that this is permitted to ask her to do the dishes even knowing that she will light the candles for herself in order to do so. This would appear to give us a clear result, permitting the use of a dishwasher or the vacuum cleaner a by  non-Jewish emloyee in a Jewish home, in order to make her work easier.

However there is a futher issue to consider in the halacha. Chazal were concerned that we should not have on Shabbat loud noises of machinery which will disturb the peaceful Shabbat atmosphere. This is referred to as ‘avsha millsa’ – an aramaic term.  (Shulchan Aruch O.H.252.5) The example given is the water-driven mill of the ancient world which could be filled with wheat before shabbat and left by itself to grind it into flour during the Shabbat. This was forbidden on account of the noise it generated which would detract from the ambience of a restful Shabbat. Exactly how much noise is required in order for this to be a problem is not clear, but it seems to be the case that it has to be a noise of such level that at least will be heard throughout the house.

Interestingly on this basis there may be a difference nowadays between the case of the dishwasher as opposed to the vacuum cleaner. Certainly in my house and those I have visited, one cannot hear the noise of the dishwasher unless one stands in the kitchen, but the vacuum cleaner can be heard in the whole house. The ruling I have given therefore is as follows: the non-Jewish employee who is obliged to wash the dishes is allowed to use a dishwasher on shabbat to make the work easier for him/her self. But may not be instructed to do so by the Jewish householder. However the use of the vacuum cleaner could only be done with a very quiet model which  I have yet to see!

I was asked the following question:
It is part of the mitzvah of bikkur cholim to daven for the recovery and well being of a sick person and therefore it becomes important to know how to refer in prayer to the individual for whom one is praying. What if the person concerned is a rabbinic dignitary and would normally be addressed with an honorific title, Moreinu, Harav or Hagaon etc. Are any of these titles appropriate to be used when mentioning his name in davening for his refuah shleimah?

To answer this question one has to grasp a fundamental principle of Jewish Thought.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 43a ) speaks about David Hamelech and the way in which he made sure that Uriah was killed in battle. Chazal say that David Hamelech was justified in this form of punishment since Uriah was ‘morred be-malchut’ – ie. he had been in breach of the required respect and deference to the king. His violation is mentioned by the gemara, that in his conversation with the king, Uriah had referred to his senior officer as ‘Adoni Yoav’ (Shmuel II. 11.11)- my master Yoav, and it is disrespectful in conversation to the king to refer to any other form of allegiance other than to the king himself.

This concept is part of a general principle that when the Kevod Shamayim is required, ie the respect due to God, all other forms of Kavod, – respect and honour- become irrelevant and even blasphemous. As we find in Gemara (Berachot 19b) the statement that ‘kol makom sheyeish chillul Hashem ein cholkim Kavod le-Rav’ wherever the issue of respect for God is present, one does not accord respect to other people, even rabbinic authority. There it is mentioned in the context of respecting human dignity which is generally highly protected in the halachic system, but when doing so would involve a direct violation of a Biblical commandment the respect for the Divine Law is paramount.

Theologically this concept plays an important role in understanding our Emunah, and by contrast the way in which mankind entered into the mindset of idolatry. Rambam (chapter 1 hilchot avodah zarah) explains that the way in which ancient mankind deteriorated from believing in God and descended into idolatry was not out of a denial of the existence or power of God. Rather it was because they believed it to be acceptable to worship the sun and other forces of nature,as they were all servants of the One God the Creator, and that through worship of the servant one is vicariously showing allegiance to the King. The question here is, why is that an erroneous way of thinking?

The concept discussed above is the key to this issue. It may be true in the human world that for instance honouring a government official is a way of indirectly honouring the King, but that is only true when one is not IN THE ACTUAL PRESENCE OF THE KING. In contrast the essential perspective of Emunah is to grasp the principle of ‘shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid’ which is the omnipresence of God in all circumstances. Therefore one can see why the worship of natural forces, even as intermediaries to God, is an act of ‘morred bemalchut’ , a denial of one of the essential principles of Emunah.

Clearly it is correct to use honorific titles for individuals such as great scholars when addressing them or referring to them in conversation, but when standing before God in tefillah, it would be a mistake to do so, since it is the Presence of Hashem which uniquely commands our attention and full deference.

Three Steps Forward

The three small steps taken before every Shemona Esrei (Shulchan Aruch. O.C.95.1 Rema) contain some inspiring thoughts designed to put us in a unique state of mind, and direct the way in which we start to engage in prayer itself. Unlike the three steps on finishing a tefilla, those at the start have no source in the Talmud, or Rambam or the author of the Shulchan Aruch. However, in its source in Minhagei Ashkenaz there is a profound idea expressed in this connection.

A simple explanation for these steps would be as follows: The three small steps after completing the tefilla are clearly a respectful way to disengage from standing in the Presence of Hashem, and re-enter the human material world (Bavli Yoma 53b); and the corollary would be that the three steps prior to tefilla express the desire to ‘walk away’ from this-worldly concerns, and enter the Presence of Hashem. Stepping in and out of spiritually different domains.

However, there is a fascinating source which suggests that these steps indicate something about the correct state of mind and soul which is generated by tefilla.

The Torah describes some tefillot in detail, and clearly this is in order to teach us how we are able to engage in the tefilla experience itself. One of the most dramatic and thought provoking prayers is in Bereishit (Ch.18) where Avraham prays to avert the destruction on Sodom.

Even though Sodom represents the antithesis of everything that Avraham stood for, nevertheless Avraham was concerned for the future well being of the world and viewed even Sodom as potentially salvageable. This is the ‘ayin tovah’ which Chazal ask us to learn from Avraham (Pirkei Avot Ch.5). But more radical than this, is the idea that God does not want us to passively and fatalistically accept the events that we see in this world. He wants us to take responsibility for the Tikkun HaOlam and pray for it to be a better and different world.

At the very first moment of this great tefilla of Avraham the Torah uses an interesting word to describe his initial engagement in prayer; ‘vayigash’ (18.23) ‘he stepped forward’. Rashi cites Chazal that this is a key word which is found in three places in the Tanach, each with a different nuanced meaning.

The most famous use of this word is that of Yehudah stepping forward to resolve the impasse with the viceroy of Egypt, who was Joseph in disguise. In Bereishit (44.18) Yehuda steps forward in a last moment attempt to make an offer of appeasement, claim extenuating circumstances, and ask that the viceroy should grant forgiveness and mercy for his brother Benjamin.

Another use of this exact word is found where Yoav, King David’s Chief of Staff, steps forward to engage in battle against Amon (Shmuel II. 10.13).

Finally Rashi quotes the reference to Eliyahu the Prophet (melachim I. 18.36) where this word is used to introduce a moment of an amazing tefilla, standing in the Presence of Hashem in petition and request for help to counter the spread of paganism in Israel and to be able to demonstrate clearly the Hand of God on Mount Carmel.

The Rokeach (Rabbi Elazar Ben Yehuda of Worms 12th cent) suggests that this triple appearance of the word ‘vayigash’ contains an important message that any person who ‘steps forward’ to engage in prayer should be aware of, as they are three dimensions of tefilla itself.

Firstly, like Yehuda, an awareness that our lives are imperfect and misdeeds have been committed; and therefore we are asking for forgiveness and consideration of difficult circumstances, to appease and avert any strict judgement.

Secondly, like Eliyahu, to ask for strength and ability to create a Kiddush Hashem and demonstrate the Presence of God in every aspect of our world.

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, we see Avraham ‘doing battle’ with God, in the sense of ‘asking God to change His mind’! as mentioned above, this is the opposite of fatalism and it’s passive acceptance of God’s will.

This is of course a complicated philosophical concept, but is fundamental to a Torah view of the role of Mankind as active partners with God in the destiny of the world. Without this idea, for instance, when faced with a loved one with an illness or poverty, we would simply have to accept passively that this was the will of God, and could not pray for his or her recovery or success.

I believe that here lies a formula for our tefilla from Rabbi Elazar of 850 years ago. The power and depth of tefilla draws from these ideas which are three components of prayer. Firstly like Yehuda a promise of greater personal dedication in the future as an offer of appeasement for past imperfections. Secondly like Yoav going to ‘battle’ to change the world into a better place in so many ways. Thirdly like Eliyahu HaNavie asking for help to create a Kiddush Hashem and enable us to spread some Light in our world.

The depth and meaning to these three small steps is awesome, and if one is able to have moments of reflection and mindfulness before tefilla, these steps show the way.