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Dec 16 2008

‘Certified Sabbath Mode’

In our family we tend not to throw away stuff that can still be used but recently had to reluctantly conclude that our electric stove, which came with our house when we bought it twenty years ago and looked pretty old even then, needed to go to that Great Range in the sky. The filaments in both ovens had burned out and two of the four stove top burners had also stopped working, turning this huge apparatus into little more than a hotplate.

When shopping for a replacement we noticed that the phrase ‘Certified Sabbath Mode’ was often advertised as a selling point. The fact sheet did not say what this meant but I was intrigued and immediately went to Google where I found a very long and detailed explanation (with footnotes and citations) provided by Rabbi Avrohom Mushell.

There were several technical terms in Hebrew that I did not understand but as far as I could gather the basic problem faced by highly observant Jews is how to obtain hot food on a Jewish holiday (‘Yom Tov‘) because originating a flame is considered to fall under the list of prohibitions on such days and that rules out lighting a stove.

As Rabbi Mushell explains:

Turning on an electric stovetop to warm food will initiate the flow of electricity to the burner. The halachic authorities have determined that electricity used as heat or light is considered fire. Therefore by turning on the burner one is creating a new fire. … Turning the dial on your electric stovetop may also initiate a light or icon on a control panel which would otherwise be off. This may be a transgression of kosev, writing, as well as molid. Even when the electric burner was left on from before Yom Tov, if one wishes to adjust the temperature of the burner there is also reason for concern. This is because, as a rule, one does not know if there is electric current running to the element at the time they wish to make the adjustment. Even when there is an indicator light showing that a burner is on, this may not be an indication that electricity is flowing to the burner at that moment. Rather it is indicating that the element is set to maintain the desired setting which it will maintain by going on and off at pre-determined intervals. As a result when one adjusts the temperature upward on Yom Tov they may be initiating the flow of electricity at a time that it was otherwise not flowing. As mentioned earlier, this would be prohibited because of molid.

So what to do?

To circumvent this prohibition, an electrician can install an indicator light which is attached to the actual flow of electricity to the burner. This will indicate when there is current flowing to the burner. When there is electricity flowing, one may raise the temperature in order to enhance cooking.

But that is not all, as the Rabbi warns us. Turning the stove off is also risky:

Lowering the heat setting on an electric stovetop on Yom Tov is also not without its halachic perils. We know that extinguishing a burning log is the melacha of kibui. Lowering the heat setting of a stove on Yom Tov may be associated with the melacha of kibui. Therefore, this can only be done when it is for the benefit of the food, so that it will remain warm but not burn. One may not turn the burner off completely. However, if there is an indicator light showing when power is flowing to the burner, one must be careful to lower the burner only when the indicator light is off. Once the indicator light is off, one may also turn the burner off completely.

But stoves with the Certified Sabbath Mode feature have taken care of this problem in an ingenious way that avoids having to keep track of whether a current is actually flowing or not at the time when one adjusts the controls.

Sabbath mode ovens are designed to bypass many of the practical and halachic problems posed by the modern oven…. Some Sabbath Mode ovens are designed to work with a random delay. This feature allows one to raise the temperature on Yom Tov at any time, regardless of when power is flowing to the oven. This is because when one adjusts the dial or keypad, it is not directly causing the temperature to change. These “instructions” are being left for the computer to read at random intervals. The computer will then follow the “instruction” to raise the temperature. Therefore, this action is only causing a grama, an indirect action, which in turn will cause the temperature to be raised.

A cynic might say that priests have conveniently found a way to allow people to have their creature comforts while pretending to adhere to religious commandments. Whatever, it is clear that the simple, timeless, universal, and harmless act of cooking food has, thanks to priests, come to be believed by some religious people to be riddled with dangers that only those same priests can protect them from. The Rabbi even has an FAQ section to deal with such subtleties as: Can I set the timed bake feature on Yom Tov? May one turn off their stove or oven to conserve energy on Yom Tov? Can I open and close a standard oven door at any time on Yom Tov? Must I wait until I see the glow plug glowing to open the door to my gas oven on Yom Tov?

To me, this is a compelling demonstration of the power of all organized religions to get people to worry about the most trivial things, to spend enormous time and effort to try to interpret and follow arbitrary rules written down by unknown people millennia ago and collected together in books like the Bible and Koran.

And it furthers a self-serving goal for all religious institutions. Once their priests have got people worrying about whether this or that minor action is going to make their god angry and imperil their souls, those people are less likely to ask themselves really dangerous questions such as: Why would I worship a god who cares so much about such petty issues? And even if I do believe in a god, why would I think that priests and other religious authorities know any better than I do about what god wants?

POST SCRIPT: Penn and Teller explain why the Bible should not be taken at all seriously

11 comments

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  1. 1
    kaangeya

    Mano,

    I am a Hindu from Southern India and belong to a once allegedly “orthodox” community, and am of course raised a lacto vegetarian. There are a few kitchen rules that I have known my mother to follow to this day. She will not store cooked food (as in boiled/boiled+fried) in the fridge. She has always kept two gas stove tops on separate platforms in the kitchen – one is for simple heating and frying and the other is for boiling. And she will not touch the fridge or the plain heating range after touching the boiling range or the vessels on it, without a quick touch of water on her hands. Things have changed greatly. Much to my surprise though when I visited my in-laws for the first time – they are Hindus from Eastern India and not at all vegetarian! – I found that my mother-in-law followed some kitchen routine as my mother – she had a separate fridge for the items used for Puja, and she would finish cooking the vegetarian dishes before starting on the day’s meat and fish. Things have changed and even my mother has. But I am not sure if there was anything religious about this, and certainly no priestly authority, if any, was our source of expertise.

  2. 2
    Mano

    Kaangeya,

    The origins of such practices are often based on concerns that were relevant long ago, when we did not have refrigeration or easy access to running water and soap, and so preventing cross-contamination and food spoilage was a big problem.

    But over time these health-based practices got hardened into superstitions, often aided by priests who made them into religious commandments and even added to the rules. So now people strictly follow rules without questioning why they should.

    My point is that religion gives authority to outmoded practices and often uses them as a means of controlling people.

  3. 3
    Uri

    reminds me of the late israel shahak’s book “jewish hisory, jewish religion: the weight of three thousand years,” where he describes the elegant techniques used by modern religious jews to adhere to the letter of religious law while skirting its purposes.

  4. 4
    Cindy

    I don’t think this is a good example of religion holding power over people simply because it sounds like a lot of fun to a certain kind of person. For example, I’m a bit compulsive, I love detailed organization and planning, and I treat systems of complicated arbitrary rules as fun puzzles. The idea of instrumenting my house in such a way as to be following all the sabbath rules but still enjoying the things I like sounds like great fun, even though I’m an atheist.

    From the jewish people I’ve known, it seems like there’s a lot of freedom to follow the law to various extents, from no rules at all, to rule extremism. From the quoted text, it sounds like this is a hobby to rule-loving people. In fact, it seems designed such that you can always be more devout, unlike Christianity in which the born agains claim to be perfect. I would suspect that rule extremism has simply attracted people who find it enjoyable and the rest have long since gravitated towards a less “devout” version of the religion.

    Since I’ve stopped being religious, I’ve found many other outlets for my rule-loving behavior. :)

  5. 5
    Jeff Hess

    Shalom Mano,

    First, please add a question based on this discussion to our Socrates Cafe box. I think that once generalized to all rituals, it will make for a lively evening.

    We all have rituals. Many imposed from within — do you put on your socks and then your shoes or do you put on a sock and a shoe and then the other sock and the other shoe? — and some imposed from without: do you leave the lights on or off when blowing out birthday candles?

    My observation is that ritual is either a matter of comfort, a minor way of imposing control in a world where control may be mostly absent; or a matter of security: that’s the way my parents did something and it makes me feel connected and secure to do it that way too.

    A basic principle of Judaism is that we are to live by the commandments. The rabbis (not priests, there is a difference) interpreted that to mean that we are not to die by the commandments.

    An example: it’s Shabbat when driving is forbidden. Your mother falls gravely ill and may very well die in a short time. The prohibition to not drive is trumped by the very real human need see and comfort a parent; of course you get in the car and get to your mother’s bedside.

    Shabbat is meant to be a time of peace and joy, not a time of deprivations. In a much less dramatic way, the rabbis have found a way to use technology and not tramp on the letter of the law to make that most important of Jewish holidays more pleasant by giving a thumbs-up to a range with a few added enhancements.

    We all deal with our personal mishagoss (nuttiness) in our own ways.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  6. 6
    Mano

    Erin and Jeff,

    I am sure some people just need rule-driven lives to satisfy them or follow them out of habit but for most people I suspect that if there was not the implicit threat of religious sanction behind them, people would never take them up and would abandon them.

    Of course there are exemptions to the rules. Religions have to have them, otherwise they will lose market share. So Christians have forgiveness. Jews have loopholes, and so on. The idea is to have a kind of sliding scale of rules so as to make people feel virtuous at the level of commitment they choose.

    Make them too rigid and harsh and you drive people away.

  7. 7
    Jeff Hess

    Shalom Mano,

    Some people can handle the regimen of exercise followed by the likes of Lance Armstrong, other do well to take a walk once a week. We choose our own limits.

    One of the odd symbiotic relationships in Judaism is that of Orthodox and Reform Jews. If Reform Judaism depended solely on the children its members contributed to the congregation, the movement would have died out years ago.

    But because of a constant influx of disaffected Orthodox Jews who, as you suggest, have found the rules too rigid and harsh, the Reform movement continues and thrives.

    Now here’s the odd part. Despite the loss of young adults to less rigid forms of Judaism, Orthodoxy also continues, in part, because of an influx of Reform Jews who yearn for the perceived security of the more rigid Orthodox lifestyle.

    I suspect that something similar may be going on in the range of Amish-like groups as well.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  8. 8
    Michael

    Mano,

    I think you have a huge mis-understanding in terms of how Judaism functions. There are no Rabbis to exert control over, its more like the congregation exerting control over the Rabbis.

    Let me ask you a quick question, i assume you are married, and you love your wife, do you? If she asked you to go to the store and buy her red-roses, would she be satisfied if you brought home yellow daisies? Or if her car needed an oil change and you replaced the muffler? or much more importantly, if she needed a kidney transplant and you got her a lung?

    In Judaism, we observe the religious law not out of some misguided need for rules, or because we have authority dictating control over us, but because we have a tremendous amount of love for god, and we want to do everything we can for god, especially considering everything that god has done for us.

    If at any point in time, you have a question in terms of observance, you can certainly ask your Rabbi, or better yet, go open the book and look things up. If you are not satisfied with the answer you find in that book, because of the way Judaism is structured, you would have come across a list of 50 or so sources on which the answer was based and you are more than welcome at that point to go to each one of those sources, and look things up there, and so on…

    Nothing in Judaism is based on “Belief”, it is based on “Knowledge”. I strongly urge you to go to an orthodox synagogue on sabbath and observe what is going on, there are lay-man, sitting around, LEARNING the law, not the rabbi digesting things, individuals, seeking answers for themselves.

    You should be asking then, why go to a rabbi? Lets come back to your wife, if you wanted to buy a new tv, or a bed, or a car, would you just go to the store and buy it? or would you shop-around, talk to some friends, and maybe involve the opinion of your wife? This is exactly the same situation, you go to a rabbi to ask specific questions and discuss things in more detail because a rabbi happens to be an individual that has chosen to dedicate his life to learning, while you as a lay-man only spend some of your time learning, and it is a religious law that obligates a Jew to learn, EVERY DAY!

    Now, you should be standing here, screaming at the top of your lungs, saying “how do you know that any of this is true???”. Simple! Because my Rabbi told me. More complex? Because his Rabbi told him. This creates an unbroken chain, of 3,500 years from here, where this message is being posted, to Mt. Sinai where the Torah was given in front of ~3,000,000 people.

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/proof-torah-true/

    And since you bothered watching the ten minute version of Pen & Teller, maybe you’ll bother listening to this lecture:

    http://audio.simpletoremember.com/misc/Rational_Approach_Divine_Origin_Torah-B.mp3

  9. 9
    Mano

    Michael,

    Thanks for the comment. The idea that there is a true and unbroken chain of rabbinical thought going all the way back to 3,500 years and the Moses story just doesn’t hold up. There is little or no independent evidence at all that the events in the Bible that occurred before around 650 BC, which includes Moses, the exodus, ever occurred.

    The Old Testament is mostly fiction. I wrote about this extensively in the series The Bible as History. The last part can be read here which has links to the earlier parts.

    What interests me is that some people take seriously and worship a god who is so petty that he cares about whether you turn on a stove or make a phone call on certain days in certain ways.

  10. 10
    EJ

    Interesting. I know I won’t change many minds, but you’ve confused “religion” and God. Religion is man-made stuff, so it is inherently flawed, and most likely it is those flaws that have put most of you off over the years. Nevertheless, God Himself still loves you and desires you to get to know Him. Doing that will be hard for most of you because of what you have suffered in the past from “religion.” My daughter-in-law was the same. She was extremely bitter over something shocking and horrible that happened to her in a small Southern church. Years later, though, she gave God a chance, and she began to learn about Him (yes, from the Bible, among other sources). Finally one day she said to us, “It wasn’t God that did that to me, was it?” There is a God, and He loves us because He created us. The only rules He gives are those that protect us and enhance our lives. Everything else is man made legalism. Ignore religion and give God a chance.

  11. 11
    Kenneth Leong

    I am a catholic Christian from Malaysia. Thanks for this post. I look forward for the day when all religions can live together in peace and harmony. I pray for that day.

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