By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Will there be a second wave of COVID-19? How bad will it be? Will shuls have to close again? If it does come, will shuls buy the new high-end temperature reading devices?
Websites today are reporting upon a debate between the two chief Rabbis of Israel regarding taking temperatures of everyone who enters a hospital in Israel to visit the sick. Is it permitted to do so on Shabbos? Is there a difference between the perspective of the hospital and that of someone visiting wishing to perform the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim?
This issue will need to be addressed in our shuls if or when chalilah a second or third wave of COVID develops. There are new devices being marketed that measure a group, not just an individual. We should address the halachic permissibility these before anyone spends the money on such devices.
Also, what is the validity of the Shabbos medical technologies that have emerged and are still bound to emerge? Do all Poskim agree it is permitted?
To understand the background behind the debates, let us first look at three types of terms:
- Direct Action – generally a Biblical prohibition.
- Grama – generally a Rabbinic violation.
- Semi-Grama – also known as not considered a Grama and thus fully permitted.
The term “Grama” means a “causation force” rather than a “direct force.” The laws of Grama on Shabbos are derived from the Talmudic passages of Grama in both damages and in murder. Not that “causation force” is permitted, necessarily. At times, for damages, it is forbidden by Rabbinic decree (for murder it is biblically forbidden). The Shulchan Aruch and Ramah (OC 334:22) rules that a Grama is forbidden on Shabbos except in cases of loss or great need.
The trick then, it would seem, is to create medical devices that would halachically not be considered a grama, a causation force, but rather a semi-Grama. But even then: are there other caveats?
Another factor we must explore is electricity and the electric switch. We must first understand what the halachic status of a general electric switch is. Our system of alternating current (AC) is a river of flowing ions moving back and forth as they pass around an electric circuit. DC is a river of ions flowing in one direction from a battery. In both AC and DC, if the circuit is blocked, the ions stop flowing. When the break in the circuit is removed, the ions continue flowing and eventually turn on the electric light. Indeed, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt”l believed that the electric light switch was a direct force – so much so that he recited havdalah on an electric light switch!
But according to our explanation, a regular electric switch should be considered a Grama – a causation force and not a direct force. Why? Because the switch is only removing the prevention to the flow of electrons. It is not causing the electrons to flow, it is merely removing the impediment to their flow. That should be a Grama, not a direct force!
Halacha, however, views this either as direct force or as a forbidden type of Grama. The primary reason is that the immediacy of the causation force makes it as if it is direct.
Grama Versus Semi-Gerama
What are the halachic factors that would make something that is causative a semi-Grama rather than a Grama?
There are three main approaches in the Poskim:
- Some Poskim hold that if there is a delay in time between the person’s action and the result then it would be considered a semi-Grama.
- Other Poskim hold that if the secondary action will not occur then the causative action is not even considered a Grama. In other words, if it is not definite that the secondary result will happen, it would be considered a semi-Grama, not a Grama.
- Even other Poskim hold that if it is not the normal way in which this causative action is performed it is considered a semi-Grama.
Many of the new devices employ a halachic approach that utilizes a mathematical repetition of a technology that doesn’t work all of the time. But after a series of attempts of the use of the technology, it is a mathematical certainty that the secondary action will happen.
Yet another issue about the mathematical repetition technology is whether it will train people to turn on and off devices on Shabbos where such technology is not in place. Some term this issue the “slippery slope” issue and it can be a real problem. There is a product called “NearBeer” that does not contain significant traces of alcohol. Is it a good idea to give our pre-teens and teens “NearBeer” simply because it contains no alcohol? The results might be devastating.
The Big Secret
There has been a growing debate going on in the medical halachic community in Eretz Yisroel between those who followed Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and those who later followed the changes that Rav Elyashiv zt”l. Rav Shlomo Zalman had permitted the use of “semi-Grama” for medical purposes in order to minimize halachic violations. Rav Elyashiv was of the approach that we look at the aggregate total and the time involved – and in most cases, he forbade it.
There are many people in Eretz Yisroel who want the country to be independent of a need to employ gentiles in a medical setting. This is certainly a laudable ideal, but on the other hand, many Bnei Torah are hampered by a desire to fulfill the opinions of Rav Elyashiv.
Rav Elyashiv did, however, permit anti-terror cameras to operate on Shabbos in the streets of Yerushalayim on the way to the Kosel. The secret is that many hospitals initially relied on rulings from Rav Shlomo Zalman permitting these devices. Of late, however, there are adherents of Rav Elyashiv’s approach, particularly in the more Chareidi circles, that do not approve of the tech devices. Since the Chareidi market is an ever-growing part of Israel’s target market, many hospitals are eliminating the tech alternative and are using gentiles to perform the non-pikuach nefesh acts that are necessary in a hospital.
How Do We Treat Thermometers?
The invention of the first practical thermometer to measure human temperature as an indication of illness is credited to Sir Thomas Clifford Allbuss in 1870. He created a narrow tube to hold the mercury so the temperature could be read later. This is why a thermometer needed to be shaken down each time after use. Its use was only described in halachic literature after 1870.
Generally speaking, “measuring on Shabbos” falls under the rubric of Uvdah d’chol and is prohibited (See Mishna Brurah 306:34). However, measuring a mitzvah is permitted according to the Shulchan Aruch (OC 306:7). Measuring temperature is a medidah shel mitzvah, when warranted, and would be permitted on Shabbos (aside from issues of the electronic method). This is the view of the Mishna Brurah (306:36). It is not Rabbinically forbidden medicine (gzairas smamanim) because it is an action that is ain bo mamash – no physical qualities to it.
That is in general. The most modern thermometers involve an electronic signal with further electricity being generated and recorded.
Rav Rubin’s Ruling
In a written ruling (see footnote #2), Rav Yitzchok Rubin shlita distinguishes between passing through a camera on the street and recording terrorists [inshi delo maali], which is permitted according to many Poskim. With terror cameras, not every individual needs to be recorded, only terrorists. Thus, it is not considered a Psik Raisha. On the other hand, the hospital wants everyone checked and everyone who desires to enter also wants to be checked.
Rav Rubin argues that since the visitor will not be let in unless his temperature is taken, it is considered as if he wants it and the action of setting up the temperature camera is attributed to him. He concludes that one may not visit the sick in Eretz Yisroel as long as temperature screenings are mandatory.
On the other hand, Rav Yitzchok Yoseph disagrees and permits people going into hospitals and visitors to a hospital to measure temperatures. Rav Rubin writes in footnote 7:1 that the concern is a Torah concern.
This author would like to argue that since one is walking through the device, this may not be considered the derech of the malacha per se. There are Poskim that would argue that this is a form of k’le’achar yad since, as of now, this is not the most common manner in which to violate the malacha and at this point – most of the world is not using these devices.
When a large majority of people will be using this regularly, most of these lenient Poskim would argue that it will no longer be considered kel’achar yad. In addition, the malacha involved is a debate, and it may be only a derabanan. That being the case, we have either a case of a double derabanan and it is possible that bemakom choli lo gazru. There is also the possibility of implementing a halachic concept known as a sfek sfaikah to permit the item when it is used for medical purposes. Even though we no longer do sfek sfaikos in our times (See Shach YD 110:63:36), there are exceptions to this (See a list of such Poskim in Yabia Omer Vol. VI p. 322). One such exception is if there is a Torah Mitzvah involved.
Rav Zilbershtein’s shiur for doctors and hospital Rabbonim explained where a modern day sfek sfaikah was invoked by Rav Elyashiv zt”l in a unique case. Of course, each person should ask his own Posaik or Rav as to whether he should follow Rav Yitzchok Yosef’s lenient ruling or the ruling of Rav Rubin. The author just wanted to present both sides of the issue.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.