Does God Love a Tesla? (Electricity and Shabbat in Jewish Law)

December 17, 2016

Question: I noticed that you, rabbi, drive a Nissan Leaf.  Is it a Shabbat violation to drive an all-electric car like a Tesla or Leaf which lacks a combustion engine?

Driving an all-electric car (all the more so when it is charged using solar panels) follows the laws of shemirat ha-teva  ("protecting the environment" from greenhouse gas emissions and energy exploration) and al taschit ("not wasting natural resources" --e.g. fuel oil, which the Talmud mentions specifically regarding this mitzvah!).  It has the added benefit of decreasing Shabbat violation,.  If one charges their electric car with solar power (as I do), then there are zero carbon emissions both in the production of the energy and in its use:  the car runs on sunlight.  Putting these two together, it is a Divinely intended incentive for switching over to EV!    (And with government rebates and promotions, a Leaf often may be purchased for under $20,000, even closer to $15,000.) 

People sometimes see a divine message to them in something that happens in their day.  Yet the Biblical view (which is foundational in the Prophets) is that divinely intended messages are largely social:  cosmic consequences (like drought, financial collapse, famine, loss in war, bad harvests, etc.) are the result of a common social behavior that goes against Torah, like failing to observe the Sabbatical year for crops or committing forms of idolatry.  God sends messages to have the people follow a different path, one that leads to holiness.  That a car running on sunlight does not violate Shabbat could be a divine invitation to switch over to those, rather than continue using fossil fuels whose overuse threatens our future.

But isn't electricity a violation of Shabbat?   Contrary to popular opinion and the teachings of many Orthodox rabbis, electricity itself is not fire according to Jewish law. (Making fire on Shabbat is definitely a Shabbat violation.)  Using rules of fire that are derived from Maimonides, "fire" must be bright, hot, and consume its fuel.  Electricity within a wire is not hot, not bright, and does not consume the wire.  Sparks are prohibited on Shabbat, and while electricity can be used to make sparks, electricity is not sparks running through wires.  Of course, one cannot use electricity as a means to do something that is otherwise prohibited, like cutting grass or cooking food or making sparks. Some Orthodox rabbis (like Rabbi Donin in his excellent conversion book, "To Be A Jew") place electricity more appropriately in a category of "violating the spirit of Shabbat" and not the laws of Shabbat. Let's spell this out. Even in a clear case of a Shabbat violation like lighting a fire, a Jew is fully permitted to warm himself by a fire that non-Jews built for themselves. But if a non-Jew is watching TV on Shabbat, and a Jew stops and watches with him -so there is no issue of violation of a prohibition-- the Orthodox rabbi might prohibit this because TV watching "is not in the spirit of Shabbat." No laws have been broken: but it's "not in the right spirit."  This, then, is a matter of perspective, not of halakhah.  One person might say that listening to music is not in the spirit of Shabbat; another may say that it is instrumental in creating the spirit of Shabbat.  So when it comes to electric cars, I can say that driving to synagogue in an electric car feels very much in the spirit of Shabbat --perhaps more so that walking along the highway while walking to shul.

There are some other ways people falsely presume electricity is "like fire" and so forbidden on Shabbat.   Some believe that flipping a switch must directly cause the burning of fuel, even at a distance, and therefore cause fire, but they neglect a couple of reasons this is not an issue.  First, flipping a switch does not directly cause fuel to be burned, and direct causality, called pesik reishah in Jewish law, is required for a Shabbat violation --occasional or coincidental consequences are excluded.  Second, there is the issue of allowable secondary benefit:  consider the fact that a municipal power plant operates anyway on Shabbat -like a city bus burning its fuel-- and Jews are allowed to take city buses (that are operated anyway for the non-Jewish population) on Shabbat, as long as the Jew doesn't pay with money or make the bus stop just for them. Similarly, the municipal power plant is burning fuel anyway, and a Jew can draw benefit from that ongoing practice.  Focusing on a different prohibition, some Orthodox rabbis claim that electricity violates the prohibition on "building" on Shabbat, since pressing a switch "builds" a circuit. In reality, the circuit is pre-built, like plumbing in one's home. One does not build a plumbing circuit by turning the faucet.

Even two of the more questionable objections to electricity do not apply to an electric car. If the electric car is plugged in to charge before Shabbat, then even the questionable objection that "(distant) fuel is ignited just for you on Shabbat" to charge the car does not apply, as the process was started before Shabbat, like lighting Shabbat candles. Another potential objection is that the chemical energy of the battery should be considered like the combustion energy of other fuels: one is "burning" the chemical energy of the battery. But this claim fails because the Leaf uses rechargeable batteries, not disposable batteries: there is no "fuel" that "is being used up." In halakhah, the definition of "burning" includes a requirement that there be a fuel that is actually used up and consumed, like wood or oil. Perhaps one could argue that a disposable battery satisfies this criterion, but a rechargeable battery does not. One is simply using the charge of an enduring chemical, not using up the chemicals.  In short, the electricity of a Tesla or Leaf is not a Shabbat violation.

But perhaps there are other Shabbat issues with a car?

Two other Shabbat prohibitions associated with any car are 1) carrying, and 2) traveling beyond the town boundary. Both of these prohibitions are null and void if one travels within an area that contains an eruv, a natural boundary (like a river) or artificial boundary (like a string or telephone wire) that sets out a shared communal area, since by definition, one would be remaining within the communal area and carrying is permitted within an eruv.  (There are cities with a natural eruv, like Manhattan, and with an artificial eruv, like hundreds across the U.S. and Israel.)

If one drives their electric car within an eruv-town, then there is no violation at all on either count.  If one drives within a non-eruv town, and one does not drive so far as to leave the town, then the only problem is carrying, since one might be said to be "carrying" their car seats, their seat belts, etc. As someone who wishes to be lenient about pushing strollers and such on Shabbat, I am willing to be lenient about what constitutes carrying the fixed parts of a car like the Leaf, as long as one does not transport items on purpose to move them from place to place on Shabbat.

So unless one wants to make the blanket catch-all judgment that all uses of electricity on Shabbat are simply not "in the spirit of Shabbat" though they conform to the letter, then I say that using an electric car to travel to and from synagogue within a town on Shabbat seems an excellent reason to purchase and drive an all electric car. And perhaps this is what God is inviting all of us to do: notice this permissible technology and by taking advantage of employing it, we alleviate the greenhouse gases that are bespoiling Creation and undermining our future generations.