Question: In the home of certain relatives of mine they have the custom to turn on electric lights on Yom Tov, claiming that great Torah scholars and leaders of the generation ruled leniently about this matter. Is this correct?
Answer: It is correct that there were certain great Poskim who ruled leniently regarding turning on electric lights on Yom Tov. Some Poskim, though, ruled leniently on this matter because they did not quite understand the reality of how electricity actually works, for some of them mistakenly thought that turning on the light does not create a new fire, rather it only a “transfer” of fire. They got this idea from some people who presented themselves as “experts” in the field of electricity who claimed that the fire created by the electricity is already present in the electrical wires in the bulb, and by pressing the “On/Off” button (or flicking the switch), only a “transfer of fire” occurs, and there are instances when one can be lenient regarding such things, as we have discussed in previous Halachot. This explanation is surely mistaken, for the electricity stored in the wires is not fire, and this rationale cannot be used to rule leniently.
Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank zt”l, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, also ruled leniently regarding the usage of electricity on Yom Tov, his reasoning being that the only time we find a prohibition to produce a new fire on Yom Tov is only when one does this with his own hands, however, if one does so in an indirect way, igniting a fire on Yom Tov will be permissible. He discussed this matter at length and goes on to explain how pushing the “On/Off” button is not considered an actual igniting with one’s hands, and thus, he rules leniently on the matter regarding using electricity on Yom Tov, although clearly if one would do this on Shabbat, he would be transgressing the Torah prohibition of desecrating the Shabbat.
Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef Shlit”a deals with this matter at length in his Sefer Ma’or Yisrael on Masechet Beitzah (page 33a), and he concludes that there is absolutely no room for leniency regarding usage of electricity on Yom Tov, unless one tells a non-Jew to turn on the electrical devices, in which case there is room to be lenient. He writes similarly in his Sefer Chazon Ovadia-Yom Tov (page 53).
Similarly, Hagaon Harav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher zt”l and other great luminaries from the previous generation have discussed the matter of using electricity on Yom Tov, upon which they ruled that there is no difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov in this matter; just as it is completely forbidden to use electricity on Shabbat, the same applies to Yom Tov, and one may not be lenient regarding electric lights or any other electrical appliance for that matter.
There are those, however, especially in some communities outside of Israel that are customarily lenient regarding usage of electricity on Yom Tov. Maran Harav Shlit”a writes that one need not protest vehemently and tell them that they are transgressing a serious prohibition, as there are several opinions among the Poskim upon which they may rely. Nevertheless, if one comes to inquire whether or not usage of electricity is permitted on Yom Tov, we must respond that there is no place for leniency. This is indeed the prevalent custom among our communities, as we ban the use of electricity and telephones on Yom Tov, just as we would on Shabbat; this is based on the consensus of the great Poskim.
Thus, one may not bake in an electric oven on Yom Tov unless he has set the timer to turn on the oven for a certain period of time during Yom Tov, in which case the use of such an oven will be permissible. The same applies with regards to an electric mixer, as we have explained above.