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Refrigerator and Oven

By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator

Q. Am I allowed to open the refrigerator or oven on Shabbos or Yom Tov

A. The Gemara teaches that to violate Shabbos one must have intention to perform the act they are doing (meleches machsheves).  There are several variations of how this can lead to leniency, and the one which interests us is called “aino miskaven”, which means that the person simply has no intent for the melacha to be accomplished.  In the case of a refrigerator or oven, a person who opens the door is trying to get some food out and has no intent to turn on the refrigerator’s compressor motor or the oven’s flame, and he is considered an aino miskaven on those melachos.

However, there is a case where the person appears to be aino miskaven, but the halacha doesn’t view it that way.  That is where it is certain that the melacha will happen (referred to as a psik reishah).  For example, a person drags a heavy bench across the dirt and has no interest in making furrows in the ground, but it will surely happen.  In such cases, the fact that the melacha will surely happen reflects back on the person and says that he wanted that to happen.  There is no way for him to accomplish his goal (e.g., dragging the bench) without having the melacha (creating a furrow), so his intent to achieve the goal is considered intent to violate the melacha.

Our case – opening the refrigerator or oven door – is an example of a question which Poskim discuss regarding what if we are unsure whether there is a psik reishah?  Imagine that the temperature inside the refrigerator or oven is right near the cutoff point of when the motor or flame will go on.  If the door opens and ambient air enters, it is a psik reishah that the motor or flame will turn on.  On the other hand, the interior temperature might be so far from the cutoff point that the ambient temperature will not cause the motor or flame to go on.  This means we have a safek/doubt if opening the door is a psik reishah to turn on the motor or flame.  What is the halacha in that case?

Mishnah Berurah says that this question – safek psik reishah – remains unresolved, and, therefore, when the potential melacha is an issur d’oraisah, one should be machmir, and when it will not be more than a d’rabannan, one can be lenient.  Therefore, in the case of the oven, it is an issur d’oraisah to turn on the fire on Shabbos, and, therefore, most say that if there is a safek psik reishah that the fire will go on, one should not open the oven door.  Rather, they should wait till the fire is already on and then open the door, since at that point any cold air entering the oven will not turn on the flame (and will just keep it on for longer).  In contrast, causing the flame to go on when it is Yom Tov is just an issur d’rabannan (of molid), and, therefore, safek psik reishah is permitted, and one may open the door regardless of whether the flame is on.  Turning on the compressor motor of the refrigerator is treated as an issur d’rabannan, both on Shabbos and Yom Tov; accordingly, one may open the door, even if the motor is not running.

This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, November 10, 2023.