Rabbi Yitzchak Neriya
Former Rosh Kollel in Montreal
The Gemara (BT Shabbat 12b) prohibits reading and learning on Shabbat by candlelight, lest one “tilt” the lamp. This refers to the fact that in those days, people used oil lamps. Chazal were concerned that if someone was reading and the lamp was not burning brightly, he would perhaps tilt the lamp in order to move the oil closer to the wick. In other words, the person would try to make the flame brighter.
The Gemara (ibid) continues with a story:
“R’ Yishmael ben Elisha said, ‘I will read [by candlelight] and will not tilt [the lamp].’ One time, he read and wanted to tilt [the lamp]. He said, ‘How great are the Sages’ words, for they said: “One may not read by candlelight.”’
“R’ Natan says, ‘[R’ Yishmael] read [by candlelight] and tilted [the lamp], and he wrote in his notebook: “I, Yishmael ben Elisha, read [by candlelight] and tilted the lamp on Shabbat. When the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt, I will bring a fat [korban] chatat.”’”
How does Chazal’s issur (prohibition) apply today, when we use electric lights? Specifically, may one read next to an electric light which has a dimmer switch?
In Yaskil Avdi (Part II, final kuntrus – Orach Chayim 4), Rav Ovadia Hadayah writes:
“Since the matter is not clear to us, it is certain that it is appropriate to be stringent. This is true if he did not make a sign for himself, so that he will not forget that today is Shabbat, as is the case that we raised above – where we discussed that he adds another tallow candle in honor of Shabbat, which will serve as a reminder that he should not tilt [the lamp]. And even more so with respect to those new lamps [which have a pull-string that changes the light’s brightness – Y.N.] about which His Honor wrote in the margins of his letter that certainly, one should be stringent.”
In contrast, other poskim list several reasons in favor of leniency:
We do not make new decrees on our own, and electricity was obviously not included in the original prohibition.
The issue raised in the Gemara does not apply to electricity, because one cannot change an electric current, which is constant.
Lighting an additional light bulb cannot be compared to adding more oil. It is closer to lighting a new flame, which is not the subject of the prohibition.
After a lengthy discussion, the Gaon Rav Ovadia Yosef rules (Yabia Omer I – Orach Chayim 16):
“The rule, according to the halacha and in practice, is that it is permissible to learn by electric light, even with lamps whose light can be increased by adding additional bulbs, by pressing a button, and one should not be stringent in this regard and thereby causebitul Torah (negation of Torah learning), chas vishalom.”
Rav Ovadia later adds (Yabia Omer VII – Orach Chayim 37):
“And one must further clarify that it is permissible to learn on leil Shabbat, even by the light of an electric lamp which has various degrees of lighting and where a button can be pressed which changes and increases the intensity of the light. And there is no need to prohibit this, out of concern that one will add lighting on leil Shabbat by pressing a button, because in any event, this does not resemble Chazal’s decree, which was made out of concern that one tilt [the lamp]. Because, Chazal did not decree out of concern that one may add oil to the lamp in order to increase the light, and increasing the intensity of an electric light resembles adding oil to a lamp. And in any event, we may not make a new decree that Chazal did not make, and even more so, where it is logical to say that for an electric light – which is clear and especially bright and is also constant – there is no need to make a similar decree to the decree concerning an oil lamp, which is extinguished and goes out a long while after it was lit.”
Nevertheless, there are those who prefer to be stringent when it comes to a light with a dimmer switch. If so, they should place a note with the words “Shabbat kodesh” near the switch, as a reminder, lest someone accidentally increase the light’s brightness.