R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky and the Kosher Switch


YU’s Thinkers of the Past: A Series

A series of articles exploring the ideas and opinions of rabbis of YU’s past, especially as they pertain to the issue of the month. We have seen Dean Revel’s response to the dean of a college with crosses on their diplomas. We have seen Rabbi Shkop’s short tenure at YU and his idea of community and holiness. This issue will discuss the ideas of R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky and his philosophy of the Sabbath.


The past few weeks have seen a renewed interest and debate over the halakhic and socio-religious merits of the “Kosher Switch”. The device purports to be a light switch that allows a person to actively turn his/her lights on or off during the Sabbath day in a completely permitted manner. It makes brilliant use of several leniencies in halakha, by introducing delays, randomness, and indirect causes to the process. In an attempt to raise funds for its manufacture, and to raise awareness in the Jewish community toward the product (which has actually been out publicly since 2011), the creators of the Kosher Switch began a Indiegogo campaign recently. The campaign has been fairly successful in the Orthodox Jewish community, managing to raise a hefty $57,000 in the last few weeks, with more than 20 days left and already 15% more than their original goal.[i]

However, rabbinic opposition has been swift and harsh. While it is true that several rabbis (including our own Rabbi Ben Haim) have supported the product, several top American rabbis such as R. Shmuel Kaminetzky, R. Dovid Feinstein and R. Yisroel Belsky have signed a document strongly disagreeing with its purported halakhic viability. Their collective letter declares that contrary to the claims of the makers of the Kosher Switch (my translation), “it is built upon heterim that are not reliable.”[ii] R. Belsky went as far as to call it in his own letter, a “Rube Goldberg contraption comprising an entire melocho [Shabbat violation]… If the Sanhedrin were empowered, that act would be punishable by mitat bet din [the death penalty].”[iii]

But what is more interesting is that these missives also include declarations as to the spirit of the Sabbath and how the implications of the Kosher Switch run counter to it. In the letter signed by R. Kaminetzky, R. Feinstein, and others, it states that (my translation) “it is clear that it is a denigration of the Sabbath, and by this standpoint alone it cannot be permitted.”[iv] In R. Belsky’s own letter, he declares the Kosher Switch “an agonizing distortion of Torah values… It portrays the holy and wonderful Shabbos as a nuisance and a problem to be solved… The limitations of Shabbos are what characterizes (sic) it and what endows (sic) it with its sweetness and majesty.”[v]

To this writer, the “spirit of Shabbos” is a particularly nebulous concept that ends up becoming “how the Sabbath has been until now”, and that any change from this somehow becomes “not in the spirit of the Sabbath”. Sabbath clocks, which turn lights on and off in a home according to a schedule set before the Sabbath, was also once a controversial issue. Now, it is so common that to not use it would raise eyebrows. Similarly, the permissibility of the “Sabbath mode” on ovens was hotly debated, with Rav Heineman, a major rabbi in Baltimore, having supported it. And the entire tractate of Eruvin is dedicated to creating semi-privatizing fences to allow for carrying on the Sabbath. R. Belsky doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the Kosher Switch and these leniencies, which don’t take away the “sweetness and majesty” of the Sabbath. It appears that under this definition of the “spirit of the Sabbath”, if/when the Kosher Switch becomes normalized in the Jewish community, it will be difficult to claim any violation of the spirit of the Sabbath.

It is thus necessary to examine what the goals and philosophy of the Sabbath is, in order to determine its spirit. A disclaimer is first in order: I will not be commenting on the halakhic implications of changing times, but only if the Sabbath spirit can accord with such a device. There are many articles being written about the halakhic advantages and disadvantages of the Kosher Switch, and it is not my place to make any declaration as to their merit. That said, regarding the Sabbath spirit, I am drawn toward an idea I once saw in the writings of the late R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky. R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky was a beloved rabbi at Yeshiva University for 28 years. He learned as a student from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whom he considered his rebbe muvhak. He was also the rabbi of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, and later, the rabbi of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. He taught many students who became accomplished teachers and leaders in their own right. R. Avishai David, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Torat Shraga in Israel, considers R. Kanotopsky his closest rabbi, his rebbe muvhak. Former OU president and current OU chairman Stephen J. Savitsky remembers R. Kanotopsky as having a great influence on him as his high school rebbe and synagogue rabbi during his formative years.[vi] R. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, was his student in Yeshiva University High School in Brooklyn. The list goes on.

His passion for the land of Israel manifested in bringing his family to Israel in a time when it was rare for an established rabbi to do so. After making aliyah in 1970, he became the head of the Institute for Advanced Talmud Study at Bar-Ilan University, while also teaching at Hebrew University and Michlala College for Women in Jerusalem. Tragedy struck his family when R. Kanotopsky passed away at the age of 50 in 1973.

R. Kanotopsky was well-known for his sermons, as well as his examination into the psychological background of the characters and commandments of the Torah. Though he kept meticulous notes of all he spoke about, he published very little in his own lifetime, save for a book on Jewish values in 1956 entitled “Rays of Jewish Splendor”, and several articles in various Jewish journals. After his passing, his wife, children, and close students compiled a book of some of his choicest essays on the Torah, calling it “Night of Watching”. It was republished under the name “The Depths of Simplicity” in 1994. In 2007, some of his holiday sermons were put together by David Zomick, another close student of R. Kanotopsky, at the request of the Kanotopsky family, which turned into a book called, “Rejoice in Your Festivals.”[vii]

It was a dusty, ear-marked and marked-up “Night of Watching”, which I discovered in a secondhand bookstore in Jerusalem in 2010, that impelled me to learn more about this great rabbi, so integral to Yeshiva University’s history, yet somewhat forgotten. His general methodology of reading Tanakh is quite fascinating. Every essay in the book discusses an engaging and far-reaching philosophical concept.He then he proceeds to show in an extremely meticulous manner how the concepts discussed can be found embedded in classical sources of Judaism. His unique approach highlighting the psychology of characters and the uniquely Jewish philosophies that emerge is particularly resonant today. How did Jethro fulfill his fatherly role toward Moses? How can the laws of impurity and a newborn be looked at as a rehabilitative structure necessary for a puerperal mother? What was Joseph’s plan when he confronted his brothers in Egypt? The text itself is mined for these gems of insight into characters and laws in a creative, yet solidly founded way.

His very first essay in the book discusses the concept of the Sabbath and is a great example of how he approached the text. His analysis is framed through a debate between Maimonides and Nahmanides.[viii] He notes that while the Decalogue in Exodus 20:11 relates the command of the Sabbath to the theme of creation, the second version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:15 connects it to the drama of the Exodus from Egypt. According to Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 2:31), this indicates that the Sabbath is meant to commemorate both themes - creation as a truth, and exodus from Egypt as an impression of true freedom. Nahmanides, however, posits (Deuteronomy 5:12) that Sabbath is only meant to commemorate creation, and the exodus from Egypt is remembered as evidence of the Creator of nature by the very fact that the Jews were redeemed by means of a disruption of nature’s laws.

Meanwhile, there is a similar debate between Maimonides and Nahmanides regarding the symbolism of the festival of Sukkot. According to Maimonides (Guide 3:31), Sukkot is a festival celebrating agriculture - represented by the ritual sitting in huts outside with vegetation for shade, and by the gathering of various plants, at the end of an agricultural season. But for Nahmanides (Leviticus 23:36, 40), Sukkot is a festival celebrating creation - the agricultural symbols are only in terms of the theme of creation. The seven main days of Sukkot are parallel to the seven days of creation, and the eight represents Israel together with the Sabbath. The various species of fruit and vegetation are meant to atone for the sin of Adam and the forbidden fruit.

On this point, R. Kanotopsky asks, how can it be that Nahmanides attributes the same symbolism - that of creation - to two different festivals, Sukkot and Passover? According to Nahmanides, apparently the Exodus is merely just proof for creation, and Sukkot celebrates creation itself. Why, then, are both necessary? His answer is that there are really two implications in creation ex nihilo - one is the creation itself, and the other is the initiation of a process that sets into motion the world’s events and will eventually culminate in the redeemed world of the Messiah in the future. Nahmanides sees Sukkot as purely reflecting the creation of the world, while Passover is the perpetual revelation of the forces of nature - two aspects of creation.

If so, what is the Sabbath meant to commemorate? The Sabbath reflects a combination of these two themes of the divine drama of creation. R. Kanotopsky proposes that both are manifest in the two characters interacting with the Sabbath - God, and the Jewish people. God is the Creator. But the Jews, in keeping the Sabbath, are invited to take part in this initiated process. What remains unclear is exactly how, within this consideration, is the Sabbath considered a continuation of the process of creation? Jews are specifically enjoined to refrain from creative acts on that day, not to continue them.

Perhaps the answer can be seen in a sermon written by R. Kanotopsky in the 1954 RCA Sermon Manual.[ix] In his essay on the portion of Va-etchanan, which records the second version of the Decalogue, he examines an interesting midrash that pertains to the Sabbath. In Genesis Rabbah 11:8, the rabbis portray the Sabbath as complaining to God. Whereas every other day of the week has a mate/partner, Sunday with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, and so on, the Sabbath stands alone, as the odd day out. God’s response is that the Sabbath’s partner is the nation of Israel. What is this meant to indicate?

R. Kanotopsky favors the interpretation of R. Isaac Arama, the medieval author of Akedat Yitzchak. As explained by R. Kanotopsky, R. Arama submits that the Torah abhors a lack of creativity. All of nature, even the days of the week, need to have a “partner”, a creative mate that can produce good for the world. Seemingly, the six days of the week have all the creative power, yet the Sabbath seems to lack it. Where is its creative partner? “Israel, through its observance of the Sabbath, makes the day productive in a very real sense,” writes R. Kanotopsky. How? R. Kanotopsky points to the ability on the Sabbath to devote one’s time to Torah learning and a spiritually-charged home atmosphere. But he also adds, “The prohibitions of Shabbos are also creative, in a positive sense. When one recognizes these prohibitions as Divine directives and learns to limit and regulate his own activities in consonance with these directives, he is in an affirmative sense engaged in a fruit-bearing activity.”[x]

But R. Kanotopsky goes further than finding the creativity of the Sabbath in its prohibitive nature; it is also to be found through the creative process in which “inventive and originative impulses can be realized” in the Jewish people. For R. Kanotopsky, Sabbath is not only a day commemorating creation, but the initiation of a process the Jewish people are meant to take part of.

With this idea of the Sabbath in mind, one can view the Kosher Switch in two senses. In one sense, it is brilliant in its creative use of the directives of the Sabbath to allow the observance of the Sabbath that much easier to maintain. But in another sense, it adds nothing itself toward the “inventive and originative impulses” that the Sabbath is meant to engender. I believe the existing Sabbath leniencies are indeed successful in this regard.

Let’s examine the eruv as a case point. Perhaps the earliest example of a Sabbath “leniency” is the eruv, that allows carrying on the Sabbath within the rabbinical prohibitions of carrying objects from private to public spaces and vice versa. Today, a typical eruv is comprised of near-invisible string tied to poles at strategically spaced intervals around a certain area of a town to allow carrying within it on the Sabbath. The eruv is mocked by both Jews and non-Jews for its supposed legal fiction, in what appears to be a device that “tricks God.”

Yet it is precisely within this leniency where we find the spirit of the Sabbath. Common problems without an eruv like being stuck in prayer without one’s tallit or siddur, or a person being in pain because he was forced to walk to shul without his cane, this is against the creative spirit of the Sabbath. Not being able to bring one’s children to the park or shul, not being able to carry the house key and therefore worrying about one’s unlocked door all of the Sabbath, these again detract from the Sabbath spirit. The eruv really adds to the ability of the Sabbath to provide productive prosperity, and the Talmudic rabbis saw that, and found ways within the law to accommodate its spirit. Similarly, the satisfaction and joy in warm food and family, through “Shabbos mode” ovens, contribute to quality creative contentment.

I cannot know what R. Kanotopsky would say about the Kosher Switch, but his philosophy of the Sabbath makes it difficult for me to see the action of turning on and off lights on the Sabbath as within this viewpoint. The Kosher Switch is marketed as a positive development to the entire Sabbath experience, for all people, when it can only ever relieve a negative one in specific cases. Perhaps in cases of necessity, of pain and disturbance, I would submit, can this device be useful in terms of the spirit of the Sabbath. Only when something is disturbing the marriage of Jewish people to the Sabbath day, as R. Kanotopsky would phrase it, can the switch be kosher in terms of the Sabbath spirit. But however creative in halakha the switch may be, it must accord with the productivity found in its restful nature.

R. Kanatopsky recognized that the Torah must be shown to be relevant with the times and new situations. In his essay on Niztavim for the 1954 RCA Manual, R. Kanotopsky calls upon teachers and rabbis to look to the Torah for lessons within the context of modern life.[xi] Quoting Deuteronomy 30:11’s “It is not too distant from you,” he writes, “This is intended to silence the argument that Torah itself has been left behind in the scientific and technological progress of our times. Torah surely has a living, vital message for us, far superior to the message of physics or the message of psychology.” But while we live in ever-changing times, the Torah’s lessons are timeless. Seeking to improve the Sabbath must be done carefully, with great thought as to the philosophy of the Sabbath and what its goals are in the present day. The way to do so is to follow R. Kanotopsky’s example in studying Torah and Tanakh - search for its “living, vital message” in the creative and productive capacity that has been granted to us, and taking part in the created world’s ongoing procession toward the redemption.


Aryeh Sklar is a student at Bernard Revel School for Jewish Studies, studying Jewish Philosophy

[i] As recorded on their IndieGoGo fundraising page, viewed here https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/kosherswitch-control-electricity-on-shabbat

[ii] Rabbi Yair Hoffman, “The Kosher Switch Part II Follow Up,” The Yeshiva World News, 23 April 2015, available at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/303891/the-kosher-switch-part-ii-follow-up.html

[iii] Rabbi Yair Hoffman, “HaRav Yisroel Belsky Writes Letter Slamming ‘Kosher’,” The Yeshiva World News, 23 April 2015, available at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/303911/harav-yisroel-belsky-writes-letter-slamming-kosher-switch.html

[iv] Rabbi Yair Hoffman, “The Kosher Switch Part II Follow Up,” The Yeshiva World News, 23 April 2015, available at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/303891/the-kosher-switch-part-ii-follow-up.html

[v] Rabbi Yair Hoffman, “HaRav Yisroel Belsky Writes Letter Slamming ‘Kosher’,” The Yeshiva World News, 23 April 2015, available at: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/303911/harav-yisroel-belsky-writes-letter-slamming-kosher-switch.html

[vi] Stephen J. Savitsky, “Review: Rejoice in Your Festivals: Penetrating Insights into Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot,” Jewish Action, 13 September 2008, available at https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/09/2008/rejoice_in_your_festivals_penetrating_insights_into_pesach_shavuot_and_sukk/

[vii] Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, Rejoice in Your Festivals: Penetrating Insights Into Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, Urim Pub., 2007

[viii] Harold B. Kanotopsky, Night of Watching: Essays on the Torah, 1977, 17-18

[ix] RCA Sermon Manual, 1954, p.184 available at http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=12874&st=Kanotopsky&pgnum=184

[x] Although not explicitly mentioned by R. Kanotopsky, it seems to me that he is referencing here to a concept discussed in an expanded way by R. Soloveitchik regarding the kabbalistic notion of tzimztum. Tzimtzum, literally “constriction”, refers generally to the creation of the world as God having “constricted” Himself to allow it to exist. To the Rav, this had implications for how Jews, in their imitation of the divine are meant to live as well. My grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Zev Bomzer, who studied under the Rav as well for many years, quoted the Rav regarding this in a sermon I have in my possession. “Tzimtzum symbolizes self-control, discipline, the ability to restrain oneself… Present any mitzvah and it is possible to point out the aspect of tzimtzum it represents. Tefillin, Shabbat, Kashrut - these are limiting ourselves from certain natural tendencies, in thought, action, even diet… The goal of Torah and mitzvot is to emulate G-d and withdraw ourselves, our intellect and our desires, natural drives (sex, food, power), thereby sublimating them to the service of God.”

[xi] RCA Sermon Manual, 1954, p.200 available at http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=12874&pgnum=200