A law proposed by the Infrastructures Ministry would place Israel's electricity under “rabbinical supervision,” at least on Shabbat. Under the law, the Chief Rabbinate would set up a supervisory panel to advise the Israel Electric Company and smaller private utilities on how to manage the electrical system on Shabbat.
Of course, electricity is not discussed directly in the Torah or Talmud, as it is a recent invention – but rabbis of the past several generations are all in agreement that using electricity on the Sabbath is a violation of halachic prohibition of “lighting a fire on the Sabbath.” Thus, observant Jews do not turn on lights and appliances on the Sabbath, with most relying on timers to turn on and off lights and air conditioners. The timers are set and plugged into the wall in advance, thus automating the power process – thus allowing observant Jews to benefit from the use of power without a direct violation of the holy day. This approach is accepted by all observant Jewish rabbinical leaders.
While observant Jews in general meticulously observe the prohibition of direct use of electricity on the Sabbath, few question where that power comes from – and in the case of Israel, the answer is generally the Israel Electric Company. For security purposes, the vast majority of IEC workers – especially the ones in production – are Israeli Jews, with workers in production usually undergoing a security check.
The Chief Rabbinate has in the past ruled that Jews are permitted to run the electrical system in Israel on Shabbat, because the power provided is needed “for the saving of a life” (pikuach nefesh), a situation that allows certain violations of the Sabbath. Electricity, for example, is provided to hospitals and the defense systems that protect the country, and others are permitted to benefit from this electricity, since it is produced in a permitted manner.
However, that point of view is not accepted by some in the Hareidi community. In many apartment buildings in Bnei Brak, for example, residents have set up their own generators, which they use on Shabbat. Members of these groups say that they would rather do without the IEC's power on Shabbat, because of the violations of the Sabbath entailed in producing it, even if the Chief Rabbinate supplies a “heter” (permit) for violation of halacha.
The IEC has for years sought to find ways to bring these groups back into “the fold,” in order to do away with the private generators, which it says are dangerous. As a result, after consultations with IEC officials, Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau has drawn up a bill that would essentially put the Rabbinate in charge of electricity production on Shabbat. The Rabbinate, according to the bill, would devise ways to produce “mehadrin” electricity – without the need for direct violation of the Sabbath by Jews – that would be acceptable to all circles.
In a statement, the Ministry said that the IEC had consulted with Hareidi community leaders and with a well-known halachic technology institute (an example of which would be the Tzomet Institute for Technology and Jewish Law, although the Ministry did not specify which group the IEC consulted with). The organization worked out a system for electrical production on Shabbat that was acceptable to the Hareidi leaders, the Ministry said, and in fact it has already been instituted in several substations. The Ministry would provide legal authorization for a more widespread implementation of the plan.
The secular media has been having a field day with this story, with comments such as “Israel is now worse than Iran,” and “here comes the Halachic state.” In response, the Ministry said Thursday that the new program would likely require an increase in the Rabbinate's budget, since new “supervisors” would have to be trained, but that much of the cost of the project “is related to automation costs of the electrical system, a common development in advanced countries around the world.”