A Note Regarding Dayan Simcha Zelig Rieger’s View
of Opening a Refrigerator Door on Shabbat
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
Thank you to Rabbi Yaacov Sasson for his comments on footnote 59 of the article "The Use of Electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov" found in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 21:4-47 (Spring 1991) co-written by Rabbi Jachter and myself. It is always nice to have people commenting on articles written more than 25 years ago.
Before delving into the halacha, it is worth clarifying some preliminary facts – in particular, whether refrigerators even had automatic lights during the first half of the 1930s. Some commenters have suggested that such lights were not yet present, or that they were limited to rare and expensive refrigerators. This is not correct. I reproduce below a wide variety of newspaper ads from the early 1930s that show that a range of refrigerator models by many manufacturers at various price points featured automatic interior lights (see attachments here). These include a Frigidaire priced at $157.50, a GE priced at $99.50, a Majestic model with no price, a Frigidaire priced at $119.50, a Leonard priced at $114.75 and many more. And while some of the publications appear targeted to the upper class, many others are clearly meant for wider audiences – particularly those available on installment plans (“$5 down, 15¢ a day”; “Nothing down! 20¢ a day!”; “$7 Initial Payment – enables you to enjoy any of these refrigerators immediately. Investigate our convenient budget payment plans.”). Thus, even in the early 1930s, interior lights were a readily available feature in the refrigerators that were becoming increasingly common in American households. Claims that “normal” or “typical” refrigerators did not have lights are belied by the many ads taken from diverse periodicals that are reproduced here.
A Summary of the Original Article
The relevant section of the article is about using refrigerators on Shabbat, and states in part:
The opening of a refrigerator door on Shabbat has been the topic of vigorous debate in past decades. Opening the refrigerator door allows warm air to enter, thus causing a drop in temperature which causes the motor to go on sooner. If one accepts that turning the motor on during Shabbat is prohibited, then it would appear that opening the refrigerator door on Shabbat when the motor is not already56 running is prohibited. Indeed, many prominent rabbinic decisors have adopted this position.57 However, many authorities58 assert that one is permitted to open a refrigerator even when the motor is off.59
The footnotes to the above-quoted text observe:
56. Opening the door when the motor is already running is permissible because all that is done then is causing the motor to stay on for a longer period of time; see also section V.
57. See Har Zvi 1:151; Mishnat Rabbi Aharon, 1:4; Minchat Yitzchak 3:24; and Chelkat Yaakov, 1:54. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer 1:21 and Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Edut Leyisrael p. 152, recommend that one be stringent in this regard, although they both accept that it is permissible to open a refrigerator even when the motor is off.
58. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's argument can be found in his Minchat Shlomo pp. 77-91. Others who are lenient include Rabbi Waldenberg,Tzitz Eliezer 8:12 and 12:92, Rabbi Uziel, Piskei Uziel no. 15. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein reports that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik subscribes to the lenient position in this regard.
59. Almost all authorities accept that it is forbidden to open a refrigerator when the light inside will go on. Notwithstanding one's lack of intent to turn on the light when opening the refrigerator, this action is forbidden, since the light will inevitably go on (pesik resha).
However, Rabbi S.Z. Rieger (the Dayan of Brisk) rules leniently in this regard (Hapardes 1934, volume three). His lenient ruling is based on two assumptions. First, he states that when the forbidden act has no benefit to the one who performs it, and it is only incidental (psik resha d'lo nicha leh), no prohibition exists. Rabbi Rieger assumes that the lenient ruling of the Aruch (see Aruch defining the word "sever") is accepted. Second, Rabbi Rieger states that the light in the refrigerator provides no benefit to the one opening the door.
His first assumption is disputed by most authorities (see Yabia Omer 1:21,5; Minchat Shlomo p. 87). The consensus appears not to accept theAruch's ruling as normative. The second assertion appears to be entirely incorrect. The light serves as a convenience to locate items in the refrigerator and cannot be described as having no benefit to one who opens the door.
Most authorities, however, maintain that it is acceptable to ask a Gentile to open the door of the refrigerator even if the light will go on: see Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:68; and Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah pp. 100-101.So too, it would appear to these authors that one could allow a fellow Jew to open the door when he does not know the light will go on, as that is only in the category of mitasek (unknowing) and thus permitted; see e.g.,Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurim Lezeicher Avi Mori, p.30 n. 58; but see Teshuvot R. Akiva Eiger #9.
(bold emphasis added)
Rabbi Sasson’s Criticism
Rabbi Sasson is commenting on the words in the second paragraph of footnote 59 (the bold sentences above). He proposes that the article is wrong in its understanding of the view of Dayan Simcha Zelig Rieger who did not, he claims, permit the turning on of the light in the refrigerator, but only the motor. Rabbi Sasson states:
Lo hayu dvarim me-olam. Rav Simcha Zelig did not permit opening a refrigerator when the light inside will go on. Rav Simcha Zelig wrote (Hapardes 1934, num. 3, page 6) that it is permitted to open the refrigerator since the intention is to remove an item, "v’aino mechavein lehadlik et ha-elektri." The authors misinterpreted this statement to be a reference to an electric light in the refrigerator.
And his argument is:
However, it is clear from a simple reading of the articles to which Rav Simcha Zelig was responding that the topic under discussion at the time was triggering the motor by opening the door and allowing warm air to enter; lights and light bulbs are not mentioned at all. In the first of those articles (Hapardes 1931, num. 2, page 3), the language of "hadlaka" is used in reference to the refrigerator motor, and Rav Simcha Zelig’s language of "lehadlik et ha-elektri" appears to parallel the language used there.
As an additional proof, he notes:
In the second of those articles (Hapardes 1931, num. 3 page 6), the act of triggering the motor is referred to as "havara" and "havara b'zerem ha-chashmali", and Rav Simcha Zelig used a similar nomenclature, "lehadlik et ha-elektri" to refer to triggering the motor.
Based on this Rabbi Sasson concludes:
Rav Simcha Zelig's position was that it is permitted to open a refrigerator when the motor will then go on, as triggering the motor is classified as a psik resha d'lo ichpat lei, which is equivalent to lo nicha lei. Rav Simcha Zelig never addressed opening a refrigerator when the light will go on.
A Review of the Teshuva and a Defense of the Second Paragraph of Footnote Fifty Nine
The relevant paragraph of the teshuva by Dayan Rieger reads simply:
ובדבר התבת קרח מלאכותי נראה כיון דכשפותח את דלת התיבה הוא כדי לקבל משם איזו דבר ואינו מכיון להדליק את העלעקטרי הוי פסיק רישיה דלא איכפת ליה אפילו להדליק אם הוא באופן שהוא פסיק רישיה.
And in the matter of the artificial [electric] icebox it appears that since when one opens the door of the box to get something from there and does not intend to ignite (light) the electricity it is a psik resha that he does not care about, even to light in way that is a psik resha.
The rest of the teshuva by Dayan Rieger presents his view of the halacha in cases in which there is a psik resha d’lo ichpat lei, which is that this is a dispute between Tosaphot and the Aruch. Furthermore, Rav Chaim M’brisk maintains that the Rambam is in agreement with the Aruch, and the custom is like the Aruch; therefore, it is completely proper to rely on the Aruch in cases in which there is a psik resha d’lo nicha lei.
A careful reader of the first sentence, and indeed of the entire teshuva, can sense that there is some ambiguity here about the electrical object referred to, since Dayan Rieger does not specify the source or consequence of igniting the electricity. I am inclined to reinforce the original explanation that it was the light based on the following three observations.
First, the many articles in Hapardes do not necessarily use as interchangeable the terms zerem chashmali or chut chashmali or chut elektriki with the term hidlik et haelektrik – which seems to have a different connotation. Particularly in the Yiddish spoken culture of that time, the term “electric” seems to have meant “lights” and not electricity or motor. Rabbi Sasson’s claim that the phrase "havara b'zerem ha-chashmali" and Rav Simcha Zelig phrase "lehadlik et ha-elektri" are identical is, I think, not indubitably correct. Elektriki, according to my colleague at Emory, Professor Nick Block, more likely means the light than anything else in 1930s Yiddish. This is particularly true in my opinion, when added to the word “le’hadlik,” a word of ignition.
Second, and much more importantly, the halachic analysis presented by Dayan Rieger addresses a direct action, while everyone else who discusses the motor speaks about an indirect action. This is very important to grasp. The light in the refrigerator immediately turns on when the door is opened, as the opening of the door also opens the switch that controls the incandescent light. Not so the motor, which is controlled by a thermostat; opening the door usually leads to an increase of air temperature inside the refrigerator, which eventually directs the motor to go on.
As the editor of Hapardes notes (in volume 5), there are persuasive grounds to permit the opening of the refrigerator door based on two distinct principles of enormous halachic importance that are deeply grounded in factual reality: davar she’eno mitkaven and grama; it is based on this that many poskim to this day permit a refrigerator door to be opened, as our article from 25 years ago notes.
Simply put, many times when the refrigerator is opened, the motor does not go on at all, since for the motor to go on immediately, the refrigerator must be at just a certain temperature such that the warm air immediately causes the thermostat to turn the motor on. Sometimes the motor is already on, sometimes the motor is not hastened, and sometimes there is a very long time delay. This reality gives rise to important halachic grounds discussed in our article and quoted by many poskim, including many before and after the great Dayan Rieger.
But Dayan Rieger makes no mention of this: he does not discuss grama, or davar she’eno mitkaven or any of these other factors that apply to indirect action. Instead, he assumes that when the refrigerator door is opened, the electrical object under discussion is always ignited, and it does so immediately and directly, thus causing a melacha. This is the formulation of pesik resha, which inexorably causes melacha each and every time -- in contrast to grama, davar she’eno mitkaven or any other principles of indirect or delayed or uncertain causation.
Dayan Rieger is not speaking about acts caused indirectly, uncertainly or after a delay – he is speaking about an action that directly and immediately occurs and is fully and directly caused by my opening the door. As he writes in his first paragraph:
ובדבר התבת קרח מלאכותי נראה כיון דכשפותח את דלת התיבה הוא כדי לקבל משם איזו דבר ואינו מכיון להדליק את העלעקטרי הוי פסיק רישיה דלא איכפת ליה אפילו להדליק אם הוא באופן שהוא פסיק רישיה.
No intermediary (like a thermostat) and no indirect or delayed causation is present in the case Dayan Rieger is discussing – the prohibited action is caused by the door opening. The act of opening the door turns on the elektri according to Dayan Rieger. His halachic insight is that even when such causation is direct, it is of no value to the opener of the door, who just wants to take some food out; it is a psik resha of no benefit. Factually, this is not an accurate description of the motor at all, which frequently does not turn on immediately, but it does correctly describe the mechanism of the refrigerator light. Dayan Rieger implicitly concedes that if one were to open the door with the intent to turn on the light (or motor), that would be assur min ha-torah, since he sees no indirect causation in the process, something that most poskim think is not at all true for the motor.
Professor Sara Reguer noted by email to me that “my grandfather conferred with scientists and specialists in electricity before giving his response,” and given this fact it is extremely unlikely that he missed such a basic point that anyone who repeatedly opened and closed a refrigerator would have observed. This was simply not true about refrigerator motors as the original question notes explicitly in Hapardes Volume 2. This technological assumption about the refrigerator is true about the light, which always turns on when the door is opened, but not about the motor.
I would also note two additional factors for consideration. First, the other substantive halachic logic employed by Dayan Rieger which analogizes elektriki to sparks seems to me to be a closer analogy to a light than to a motor which is hardly fire at all; sparks, like incandescent lights, are fire according to halacha. Secondly, there has been a regular subset of poskim (as shown by Rabbi Abadi’s most recent teshuva, Ohr Yitzchak 2:166) who adopt the exact analysis and view of Dayan Rieger and view the light as lo ichpat since one does not want it and a light is on already. If Dayan Rieger is speaking about the motor, he has gotten the facts terribly wrong as well as provided a halachic chiddush that is totally unneeded, whereas if he is speaking about the light, he has adopted a halachic view that has some company, and gotten the facts correct. Furthermore, his halachic analysis is needed to reach the desired result.
Given these factors – the linguistic ambiguity, the presence of logic that is discussing a psik resha and not a grama or a davar she’eno mitkaven, the analogy to sparks and the parallel teshuva by Rabbi Abadi reaching the same conclusion and employing the same logic for lights – I am still inclined to think (as the original article notes) that this teshuva is speaking about the light and not the motor.
On the other hand, there is a good and natural impulse to read halachic literature conservatively and to press for interpretations that align gedolim with one other and not leave outliers with halachic novelty. Furthermore, I do recognize that many halachic authorities who have cited Dayan Rieger’s teshuva have quoted it in the context of the motor and not the light,, as Rabbi Sasson claims is the proper reading. But, I think these citations are less than dispositive for the following important reason: Those who quote Dayan Rieger’s view as something to consider about the motor note that his analysis is halachically wrong (see for example, both Yabia Omer OC 1:21 [paragraphs 7-11 are explicitly directly at explaining why Dayan Riegler’s halachic explanation for motors is wrong] and Minchat Shlomo 1:10 [section 7 calls this logic אולם לענ"ד צ"ע הרבה] who both note deep problems with Dayan Reigler’s analysis as applied to the motor). Poskim generally spend less time and ink explicating the views of authorities whom they believe to have reached inapt or incorrect conclusions of fact or law compared with those whom they cite in whole or in part to bolster their own analysis. Simply put, the precedential value of how one posek cites another when they centrally disagree is not as great.
Thus, when given two choices of how to understand what an eminent posek wrote, I prefer an approach that is both halachically plausible and factually correct rather than one what is halachically unneeded and factually wrong.
In sum, while there is some ambiguity in Dayan Rieger’s teshuva, the recent (ca. 1930) introduction of lights in refrigerators, the fact that Dayan Rieger makes no mention of grama, davar she’eno mitkaven or any of the other classical grounds for discussing the motor, and from the fact that he uses the Yiddish word for light, all incline me to think that he is speaking about the light, although I understand the ambiguity. Let me add, lehalacha, as the original article notes, that I think such a view is not halachically normative in that we do not follow the view of the Aruch as a general matter.
Having said all that, in hindsight I would have worded footnote 59 a bit differently to reflect more of the nuance that is present in this post (and may in fact do so if the article is ever republished).
Allow me to note my general agreement with Rabbi Sasson’s conclusion when he writes:
I would add two endnotes - when surveying Halachot with significant practical implications, such as in the realm of Hilchot Shabbat, it is an author's responsibility to ensure that all sources are cited accurately, lest a reader rely on an incorrect citation with the result of Chillul Shabbat. Secondly, when confronted with a Halachic position of a Gadol B'Yisrael that seems to be entirely erroneous, the possibility that the Gadol's position is being misunderstood must be explored.
This is true even when the citation is in a footnote and even when it is noted as not normative. More generally, readers of blog posts about nuanced textual disputes should, whenever they can, go back to the original sources and check for themselves. (The editors of the Seforim Blog should be commended for helping their contributors include images of such texts for the benefit of the readership.)
Let me also add a final endnote of my own: While vigorous debate has always been a fundamental part of Torah study within the confines of the beit midrash, and while online forums have brought intelligent Torah conversations to a much wider group of participants (and observers), the tone and tenor of these conversations often take on the harsh, acerbic voice of the internet at large. I generally find that the sharper the rhetorical tone, the less value the substance has. Orthodox Judaism today would benefit greatly from deep, substantive conversations on a whole host of halachic and hashkafic matters that are conducted in a respectful manner. We certainly could use more light and less heat.
 Located here .
 In 2015 dollars, these range from about $1400 to $2200; see CPI Inflation Calculator here. They are not inexpensive, but seem to be attainable for middle-class consumers.
 See attached advertisements here.
 Indeed, the number of household refrigerators increased dramatically during the Depression years, as increased longevity and reduced spoilage helped stretch family food budgets.
 Nor are these refrigerators more expensive than any other as the ads show. The reason for this is obvious, upon reflection. The compressor was the expensive, high-tech component at that time, whereas the spring switch light connected to the door had been invented many years earlier and was very low cost.
 The final section addresses ice making and it is not under discussion in this article.
 For more on this, see the concluding chapter of my ‘Innovation in Jewish Law: A Case Study of Chiddush in Havineinu” (Urim Publiscations 2010).
 Added to this is the voice of Dayan Reiger’s granddaughter, Professor Sara Reuger, who tells me that she is certain that this teshuva is referring to the thermostat or motor and not the light. However, I was not persuaded by her recollection since she had no direct conversation with her grandfather about this and is only recalling conversations with her own father and (as explained above) this view places Dayan Reiger’s teshuva in a weak halachic light analytically (as well as other reasons).
 For another example of this, see Hapardes volume 11:2 at page 8-10.
 Another possibility was suggested to me by Professor Miriam Udel of Emory who noted that the Hebrew term “התבת קרח מלאכותי” corresponds well to the Yiddish term ayz-kastn which is really a very early refrigerator (ice chest). Ice chests were pre-modern refrigerators that had no electricity at all, but were cooled by ice; see here and here By 1925 companies were selling add-on kits to these ice chests that contained an external motor which cooled a coil insert. See the article in the Washington Post, August 9, 1925 entitled “Modern Electric Plant Displaces Need For Ice Man: Its Refrigeration” at page F7. See also Display Ad 18 -- No Title Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Jun 14, 1925 (attached) which notes simply “If you have a good refrigerator in your home, you can convert it into a Frigidaire easily and inexpensively. The Frigidaire “frost coil” is placed in the ice compartment; the simple mechanism is the basement or other convenient location. Small copper tubes connect the frost coil and compressor and a connection is made to your electric wiring.” This converted ice box, to the best of my knowledge, had no mechanism related to the door being open at all. (The interior ice compartment would have remained closed.) Dayan Reiger could not have been speaking about this, as he is addressing a door mechanism and not a hot-air-entering-the-refrigerator problem.