In the October 16th issue of the Beacon, Harvey Wasserman discussed whether the emergence of solar and wind electrical power would change the nature of the prohibition against the use of electricity on Shabbat. I would like to answer that question as well as I can. The reader may judge my response on the basis of the argumentation and the sources cited. All sources cited in part are recommended for further reading in full.
Mr. Wasserman notes that electricity is a fairly recent phenomenon, given the approximately 3,000 years over which Jewish law, halakha, has developed. This is correct. The phenomenon of heating a material to glow white-hot by running an electric current through it was first demonstrated by Humphrey Davy in 1802, but it was not until 1879 that Thomas Edison successfully commercialized a carbon-filament incandescent lightbulb. The advantages posed by the lightbulb over gas lighting spurred the rapid laying of electrical lines across the world. Electricity was now for everyone, not just scientists or inventors.
Rambam (Shabbos 12:1) rules that heating metal to purify it is forbidden and that the prohibition is categorized under the Biblical prohibition to light a fire. Ra’avad disagrees (Shabbos 12:1), categorizing the prohibition as the Biblical prohibition of cooking. In a different context, (Shabbos 9:6) Rambam himself rules that heating metal until it glows is prohibited, and he categorizes that prohibition under the Biblical ban on cooking.
Because an incandescent light consists of a piece of metal that is heated until it glows, it bears direct resemblance to a case known to the Rabbis, that of heating metal, which Rambam and Ra’avad mutually forbid. The position that heating an incandescent filament is equivalent to lighting a fire was taken by Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Achiezer 3:60), one of the greatest Rabbis of the 20th century. However, according to all opinions, it is forbidden. Further analysis of the issue can be found in the article “The Use of Electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov” by Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Chaim Jachter.
It is the incandescent light bulb itself, not the source of its electricity, which is prohibited. Therefore, Mr. Wasserman’s statement that originally “all electricity was generated with coal, oil, and gas” has no bearing on the issue of incandescent lightbulbs. Halakha is famous for its plurality of views; however, not everything is uncertain. The prohibition of incandescent lightbulbs on Shabbat is not one of those issues that is open to significant halakhic debate.
In addition, Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 50:9) prohibited all use of electricity on Shabbat that involves the completion of a circuit – not just one containing an electric light – through the Biblical prohibition of building on Shabbat. Such a ban would apply to all electric devices, whether powered by batteries, solar power, wind power, or coal power. The stature of the Chazon Ish in the development of modern halakha cannot be underestimated, due to his leadership of haredi Judaism during a critical juncture in the history of the Jewish people: the transition from the Holocaust to the modern State of Israel.
Rabbi Broyde’s and Rabbi Jachter’s position, built on the objections of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to the opinon of the Chazon Ish, treats the use of electricity outside of the context of incandescent light as a Rabbinic prohibition, which in case of great need can be violated for some other value. They cite with approval the ruling of Rabbi Shmuel David to permit a telephone call done in an unusual manner on Shabbat to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals.  Even if the Chazon Ish is correct, and the prohibition is Biblical, the “unusual manner” in which the act was performed degrades the prohibition to be merely Rabbinic. Therefore, it is important to note that the conclusion reached still respects the position of the Chazon Ish without completely rejecting it. Their decision reflects not just the respectful tone that characterizes Rabbinic debate between colleagues with different views, but also a tacit acknowledgement that halakha develops out of the consensus of leading scholars, not the blanket acceptance of lone opinions.
The subject of electricity and Shabbat is complex and fascinating. The article by Rabbi Broyde and Rabbi Jachter, along with the many sources quoted within and the many sources they cite as suggested reading, are merely an introduction to the subject. Mr. Wasserman’s article showed the need for me to add to the still-growing literature on the subject, which is recent in Rabbinic literature and demonstrates the continued variety, vitality, and liveliness of halakha.
 Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society, No. XXI – Spring 91 – Pesach 5751. Availible online: http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/english/journal/broyde_1.htm
 I heard from Rav Hershel Shachter that the opinion of Ramban in Torat HaAdam (that one may perform a Biblically prohibited act on Shabbat in an unusual manner for a sick person whose life is not in danger) may be relied upon because it was not known to later halakhic authorities who would have followed an authority as great as Ramban on the issue had they known about his ruling.