Is it Permissible To Read on Shabbat By An Electric Light Source?

Taken from Daily Halacha by: Rabbi Eli Mansour

We know that Maran writes in Halachot Shabbat that it is forbidden on Shabbat to read by the light of a candle, by the light of a flame. In the olden days they used to have a cup with some oil in it, and they would put a wick in it and that was their light. So Halacha says that it is forbidden to read to the light of a flame, because you might come to flicker it, or you might come to move it, because since the light is not constant, so you might unwittingly tilt the oil in order that it should draw to the wick. And that would be considered putting a fire on Shabbat. So therefore it is forbidden. So the question is, does that apply to today’s light bulbs? Would it be forbidden today to read by a light bulb?

So the Chachamim say clearly that it is not forbidden. And the reason is obvious. Because a light is constant and steady. It doesn’t fluctuate and cause you the need to flicker it. Now one might say that the light bulb might go out and one might then change the bulb, and therefore we should make a Gezara (decree) that you can’t read by a light bulb because if it goes out then you might change it. But we never found such a Gezara. There was no Gezara by the oil that the oil might run out and you might come and add new oil. That was not the Gezara. The Gezara was about flickering and tilting oil that was already there. But to come along and say that you might come and refill the oil, that does not apply. So to read by a light bulb, be it fluorescent or incandescent, is permissible on Shabbat.

So the next question today is what about lights that have dimmers? Which means you are able to adjust the light higher and lower. Chacham Ben Tzion in his Sefer Or Letzion wants to say that it is forbidden to read by a light with a dimmer, unless you are reading Divre Torah only. But otherwise you should not benefit from that type of light because since it is able to change higher and lower, so therefore the Gezara is in tact and applies. It is like flickering or tinkering with the oil to get the flame better. So similarly in our case of the dimmer, you would be flickering with the dimmer switch to lower or raise the brightness.

However, Chacham Ovadia Yoseph in Yechave Da’at and also in his Sefer Yibiee HaOmer Chelek 9, says clearly that reading by dimmer lights is permissible also. And he gives a good logic to it. He says that the Gezara of the oil was that you might come to move and shake the cup with the existing oil that’s in it, but it was not about adding new oil. By raising the dimmer you are putting more electricity through in order to give it the stronger brightness. That would be analogous to adding more oil to the cup, which there was no Gezara on that. The Gezara was on the oil that was there that you might come to play with it, but not that you might come to add oil to it. And adding oil is similar to adding electricity. So therefore Chacham Ovadia wants to say and the Halacha, it is permissible to benefit by the light even of a dimmer switch. However, he does say that it would be proper to put a paper next to that dimmer that says “Shabbat”, just in case one forgets, so at least he will be reminded.

Halacha Lema’ase, it is permissible to do all your needs by all lights including a dimmer switch, however it would be proper by a dimmer switch light to put a little piece of paper that says “Shabbat” as a little reminder in order that you do not come to flicker it or higher it.