The Appearance of Sin and Avsha Milta

"Make a fence around the Torah" [Avot 1:2]. The sages made many decrees in order to keep people far removed from sin. Most of the decrees stem from the fact that the forbidden action appears very much like a Torah prohibition. (For example, the sages forbid eating chicken meat with milk because of how similar this is to eating meat with milk.) On the other hand, some activities do not seem very similar to Torah prohibitions but are prohibited by rabbinical decree because somebody who observes the activity might mistakenly think that the person is violating a Torah prohibition, which could lead the observer to think that another Torah prohibition is permitted. (For example, it is forbidden to hang laundry to dry on Shabbat because an observer might conclude that washing the laundry is also permitted.) In order to prevent mistakes, the sages expanded this type of decree and prohibited actions performed in secret. This type of a decree is described as avoiding "the appearance of sin."

Most rabbis agree that in modern times nobody has the authority to decide on new decrees of this type. Only what was decreed in the past is prohibited, but what was not included in an existing decree is permitted (except for certain extremely rare cases). For example, the sages prohibited putting food that is already cooked on an open flame on Shabbat, fearing that an observer will not know that the food was cooked beforehand. However, placing the food on a flame before the beginning of Shabbat is not forbidden, even if the pot will remain on the flame during Shabbat. And on Shabbat itself, food may be placed on a covered flame under certain conditions.

Is an automatic action scheduled by a Shabbat timer forbidden on Shabbat because of the fear that it will give the appearance of sin? At first glance, there would not seem to be any reason to prohibit this, since the sages did not decree that it is forbidden! However, there is an additional factor of preventing disrespect for Shabbat in public. In the Talmud, the sages disagreed whether wheat can be put into a mill before Shabbat to be ground into flour, because the mill will make so much noise ("avsha milta"). In practice, the Ashkenazi rabbis decided to forbid this kind of action, but they permitted it if any observer knows that no human intervention was involved (an example is a cuckoo clock which makes a sound at regular intervals). Is a Shabbat timer, which is used to set schedules of electrical equipment, included in this category?

It is accepted practice to allow use of a Shabbat timer to turn lights on and off, although there have been some rabbis who objected to this. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein tried to differentiate between turning lights on and other types of labor (because in the past Gentiles turned lights on), but today timers are even used to control such equipment as air conditioners, irrigations systems, and more. Evidently technology has progressed to such an extent that this type of action no longer shows disrespect for Shabbat.

The opinion of The Zomet Institute is not to refrain from automatic operation of electrical devices in case of need, while at the same time doing everything possible to publicize that the activity is being done in a permitted way. This is the way that the electric wheelchair is operated (with the approval of the late Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach). The Zomet Institute gave clear instructions that the wheelchair must have a large sign declaring that it is being operated under control of a special Shabbat mechanism. A similar approach is taken with respect to operating a dishwasher on Shabbat, in that it should be set to go on late a night. And special loudspeaker systems have been equipped with large signs that clarify that they are suitable for use on Shabbat.


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