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Israeli MKs Grapple with Life’s Great Mystery: Can Electricity Be Kosher?

How to avoid using power that comes from stations that work on Shabbat? Invent a new kind of strictly kosher grid, some haredi lawmakers say.

Sophie Aroesty
August 07, 2017

And God said, “Let there be light, but let it be powered by compressed natural gas, and also operated by non-Jews on Shabbat.” Or something like that.

At least, that’s what the United Torah Judaism, a haredi party in the Israeli Knesset, is saying. They argue that because Jews work at power stations and natural gas operations in Israel on Saturdays, things like Shabbat timers or using previously activated electricity are still technically violations of the holiday. To combat such transgressions, the Committee for Energy on Shabbat, headed by Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Moshe Gafni, and Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, MK Uri Maklev, created a proposal to make electricity kosher.

Their solution? Privatize electricity, building small power stations in haredi neighborhoods that would be cut off from using resources that have Jews work on observant days. While normal weekdays would draw from the national power grid, on Shabbat and other holidays, the power stations would switch from using standard natural gas to compressed natural gas.

“In the eyes of observant consumers, this constitutes a desecration of Shabbat that denies their ability to use electricity on the Shabbat and Jewish holidays, or alternatively compels them to compromise their consciences and religious beliefs,” the committee’s proposal reads.

Some question whether the issue of Jews working during holidays at power plants really is a violation, when their work is necessary for things like running hospitals. The loophole comes from pikuach nefesh, a law that necessitates disregarding certain rules in order to save lives.

But the ultimate question, as always, isn’t about the Torah but about money. The Israeli news site Ynet reports that the compressed natural gas would cost two to three times more than the standard sort currently on offer. The pipelines for the private power plants would also need to be funded by taxpayers. The committee asked for these private plants to be built in Elad, Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, and Modiin Illit.

But the Chairman of the Knesset Committee for Public Inquiries, MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, thinks that the proposal has the ability to save money. He told the Jewish Press that privatizing electricity would eliminate the “unnecessary” need for Israel’s national electric company to pay employees triple and quadruple “Saturday wages.” That alone, Eichler said, should incentivize Israelis to support the proposal.And then there’s a matter of usage: MK Maklev, who also heads the Committee for Energy on Shabbat, said in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that the proposal could also be cost-effective because the Israel Electric Corporation incurs a 15 percent loss through providing electricity to haredi neighborhoods that only use it a fraction of the time. Israel—truly a light unto the nations.

Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.