Timers on Shabbat

There is a new guy in our Penn State group who has been coming to Friday night services, and also follows the crowd to my place for the Oneg Shabbos party. He is very curious and asks good questions. His latest question did not stump us to find an answer, but he did not agree with our explanations. His question deals with setting timers for lights on Shabbos. He wants to know:

1) Why is it permitted to set a timer? Isn't that just a cop-out to not being able to turn on the lights yourself?

2) If you can set a timer, why can't you program a computer to perform a whole series of Shabbos activities?

What do you think, Rabbi?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The rule is that on Shabbos one cannot perform creative activity. Connecting an electrical circuit is deemed a creative activity.

However, setting lights on a timer on Tuesday, and having them go off on Saturday while I'm somewhere across the country, is obviously not called "performing a creative activity on Shabbos."

The only reason why someone would think that a Shabbos timer is "cheating" is based on a misperception that Shabbos is all about suffering and denial. Actually, God wants us to enjoy life, so he gave us certain guidelines - e.g. "spend one day with your family and don't run off in a million directions." But within those guidelines, we are encouraged to use our creativity.

As every basketball fan knows, it is through structure that a player finds his greatest personal expression. Michael Jordan was great because of what he could do WITHIN the rules. It is those very rules which provide discipline and direction. Without that structure, he would not be half the player that he is.

But nobody claims that Michael Jordan is cheating because he can perform aerial acrobatics that no one else can! Is a slam dunk cheating because basketball was really meant to be a game of shooting?

So the question remains: Why not automate everything on Shabbat, in order to do laundry, check email, etc.?

The answer is that we cannot use a timer for things which are generally not common to use timers for, because then people might see us using it and think we did it on Shabbos. Lights are commonly on timers; laundry machines are not. (There are other halachic issues as well, but for now this should suffice. Needless to say, for all questions of practical law, one should discuss the matter with a rabbi first.)

Continued success with your Shabbos parties!

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