Sunday, March 8, 2015

How to Use a Hot Water Urn on Shabbat and Yom Tov

Hot water urn. Electric kettle. Hot water pot. Coffee urn. Hot water heater (not to be confused with the one for your sinks and showers). Water boiler. Hot water dispenser. Pump pot. Whatever you call it, it gives you hot water.

Before I entered the Jewish community, hot water urns only existed in hotels and conference centers. In fact, I didn't even know what they were called. Now I've got one in my own kitchen, and so do most of the other people I know. 

Do You Need a Hot Water Urn?
No. You don't. 

Some people will try to tell you it's a (almost-mandated) custom to have a hot drink on Shabbat. It comes from the battles with the Karaites and is the source of the custom to eat hot food at Shabbat lunch (for example: cholent). Whether or not you believe there is a "requirement" to eat hot food on Shabbat, there is no such "requirement" for a hot drink. If you don't want or can't work out hot food on Shabbat, a hot drink is a great alternative. You can also "fulfill" the custom at someone else's house. There's nothing that mandates you need the hot items in your own kitchen, so there's nothing to worry about if you're eating out.

You only "need" a hot water urn if you want to drink coffee or tea or another hot beverage on Shabbat. I haven't seen it done personally, but I suppose hot chocolate is fine. Don't see why not. Making a soup with it...probably not, even if it were technically allowed. (And I don't know if it is.)

Many people don't even use the hot water urn, but always keep some water available in case a guest wants tea or coffee. Even if no guests are planned! It's common to offer these drinks after a meal, but not a faux pas if you don't. We just like being fancy. It's much more common in the winter, and much less common in the summer. Common sense, ya know.

How to Use the Hot Water Urn:
We talked about making tea before, but let's go over it again and in a more expanded fashion:

As a fundamental halachic principle, you should know that this water is (should be, if working properly) hot enough to "cook" things according to halacha. It is hotter than the level of yad soledat bo. In other words, it's really hot. It will burn you. And that means it will "cook" anything it comes into contact with that is capable of being cooked, so be careful to not spill it on foods. Which foods are capable of being cooked is a bigger and more difficult discussion that really isn't relevant to most of us, so just try to avoid spilling it on any food to be safe. 

This only applies on Shabbat because "cooking" is allowed on yom tov.

  1. Put hot water from the urn into a cup. This is the kli sheini, the second cup. The hot water urn is the kli rishon, the first cup, the heating element itself. 
  2. Pour that water into another cup. This is the kli shlishi, the third cup. Pouring into yet another cup lowers the temperature so that the water is ruled halachically incapable of "cooking." However, it may still be really hot. Be careful. Everyone eventually does the science experiment to see whether it really does feel cooler in the second teacup, so don't feel shy when you do it.
  3. Most Americans use instant coffee or a tea bag. You can even get instant coffee in tea bags! People differ as to whether the instant coffee or the tea bag should be added to the kli sheini before or after the water. 
  4. Alternatively, if you're British or machmir (stringent), you may use tea essence instead of a tea bag. This is the traditional method. It's essentially concentrated tea that you water down with the water from the urn. Again, people differ whether the tea essence should be placed in the kli sheini before or after the hot water.
  5. Let's talk about tea bags. Allowing the use of a tea bag instead of tea essence is a famous ruling from Rav Moshe Feinstein. 
  6. There's also a potential problem with borer, separating. Removing the tea bag from the cup would be separating bad from good, which isn't allowed. You can always choose good from bad, so you can pour the perfectly-steeped tea into yet another cup if the tea bag bothers you. Most people just leave the bag in (I'm not cultured enough to taste a difference). My understanding is that some people hold you can remove the bag with a spoon, so long as you also remove a little tea with it and don't squeeze the tea bag in the process.
Fun note: instant coffee is easy because it's already cooked. There's debate on whether tea leaves can be cooked, but everyone seems to agree we avoid the dispute and accept the kli sheini solution.

If you're a French press nut, Chaviva has a great discussion about them. I had no idea real coffee could be fine! The more you know. 

Alternatives to a Hot Water Urn:
  • Teapot or kettle on a blech or Shabbos plata. Be careful of the rules for putting it back on the heat. Review them with your rabbi because they can differ significantly from community to community.
  • Use a thermos. If the hot water is from a thermos, there's no need for a kli sheini. The thermos is the second cup from the heat source!
  • Heat a pot of water on a blech or Shabbos plata. Again, this leads to the issue of replacing the pot. It can also be a serious safety risk.

Potential Halachic Issues with the Urn Itself:
Best practice: buy the simplest one you can find. The more bells and whistles, the mo' problems. Thankfully, it'll also be the cheapest!

The heating element. Most hot water urns immediately boil the water once it's turned on, and then it has a separate temperature to keep the water hot. Some use two different heating elements, some use one with a temperature adjustment. Both should be fine. It's a problem if the temperature changes based on the amount of water left in the urn. Then, your actions are changing the heating elements. This is an uncommon problem, but you should be aware of it. Buying the cheap and easy water heater should ensure you don't get this kind of feature.

Timers. This one is a question for your rabbi if you really want to put the heater on a timer. It's easier to just boil the water before Shabbat and leave it on for 25 hours. Like a crockpot, you can use a timer to turn it off after you're done with it. However, there's a huge risk the timer messes up and it turns off early and you're left without. I eventually stopped trying after ruining too many cholents. It might be possible to arrange a timer to turn it off at night and back on in the morning, but I don't see it. Your savings on the electric bill and the earth would be small, so try not to feel bad. One of my favorite finance blogs, The Simple Dollar, even did a sample cost analysis for you!

Dials. If your hot water urn has a dial, don't adjust it on Shabbat. Authorities differ on whether you need to "disable" the switch in some way, such as putting tape over it or covering it. As for yom tov, you should be able to adjust the temperature up (not down), but you should talk to your rabbi because it's a complicated area and it depends on your specific machine. Fancy water heaters with a "Shabbos mode" will disable any switches for you. But why pay extra for that?

Water level indicators. Even a stringent view on the relevant halachot apparently leads to the conclusion that a water level indicator is fine. No less than Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted it, so you have plenty to rely on if you want that feature.

Lights. Are there lights that go off or on in reaction to something you do? For instance, does a light come on when you push for water? That's a problem. If it turns off and on according to the heat of the water, that might indicate there's a halachic problem with the heating element (as discussed above). Most urns have a light that simply indicates that the heater is on. That's fine.

Outlet placement. Be careful that you don't trip a breaker and knock out your power. That would be inconvenient, to say the least. Test the outlet you want to use more than 10 minutes before Shabbat, especially if you live in an old house.

Can you move the urn around? That's an excellent question: is it muktzah? Well, you're already touching it to dispense the water, so my gut feeling is that it can't be muktzeh to touch a different part of the urn. However, your mileage may vary. Why do I even bring this question up? When the water gets low, you may need to tip the urn forward to get water out the spigot. You might also want to slide the urn farther back on the counter so that the spigot doesn't drip on the floor.

Can you drink all the liquid in the urn? Related to the question above, can you drink enough of the water than you need to tip it over? According to the interwebz, some poskim hold that if an urn would be damaged if it were emptied, you aren't allowed to use it at all. That doesn't make sense to me, but I saw several people mention it. On the other hand, I'd think it would be a problem if the urn has a safety shut-off when the urn is empty (which many do). However, I saw that it was permitted to finish the water even if it would turn off, which also surprised me. I'm zero-for-two here. Either way, it seems to be a good idea not to let the urn become empty on Shabbat or yom tov. Cut off your guests before it becomes a problem, either halachically or ruining your nice appliances. 

Should you throw out any water left after Shabbat? There is a halacha that uncovered "standing water" left overnight (only when beside your bed?) is a halachic problem. Bad mojo (for lack of a better word; the same stuff you wash off your hands after sleeping), snakes leaving poison in it... there are a couple of reasons given for it. Ask your rabbi if this is a problem for you and if so, what the parameters are. Many people do throw the water away (try "recycling" it in your garden or to cook or wash with) just because they don't like the taste of "stale" water. It's not a halachic thing.  My initial thought when I saw this argument: the person said you have to throw away the water after Shabbat because the water sat overnight. However, with that logic, you couldn't use the water at all on Shabbat day because it sat overnight on Friday. Obviously, that's not what people do. Also, the water is not uncovered (there is a lid), so it shouldn't fall into this issue in the first place, and I believe it only applies when the glass of water was beside or under your bed. Why would you put it under your bed? Who knows. Personally, my water urn often chugs away through Sunday night before I turn it off. 

Toveling the urn. We're all afraid of toveling electric stuff. It's a common concern. Here is a great and simple breakdown of how to tovel an urn, and even better, they acknowledge that some poskim hold that items that could be damaged by toveling don't need to be toiveled. Ask your rabbi if you're really concerned about toiveling an electrical appliance, but be assured that pretty much all electrical items for sale in the U.S. can be safely toveled thanks to increased safety standards. A very short-term exposure to water is planned for in safety testing, but there is always a risk it could damage the item. It will probably also void the warranty. 

Health and safety. The sides of a hot water urn are very, very hot. It's tricky to place it somewhere that is both convenient and keeps children from being able to touch it. The spout often needs to hang over the edge of the counter, so don't burn your feet... or a child or pet running under you. You can apparently get an insulated cover for the urn, but "completely enclosing" it may be a halachic issue even if you put it on before Shabbat. Talk to your rabbi about the specifics if that interests you. The interwebz say that pump pots are safer around kids, so perhaps just go with the easier answer. (But they also say pump pots aren't as durable.)

#ProTips for Owning an Urn:
  • Use filtered water, Brita or otherwise. This will help prevent some of the buildup on the inside of the urn, and you'll be able to clean it less often. 
  • It cleans easily with water and white vinegar. You can 1) turn it on and boil the vinegar water or 2) let it sit in a stronger solution of vinegar water for a half hour or so. Either works fine. Rinse once or twice and you won't taste vinegar, even if there's a little vinegar smell left. If you hate the smell of vinegar, Google will give you 300 other ways to clean a water urn. 
  • If your spigot dips a little, make sure to place a plate or something underneath. In this case, I would slide the hot water urn off the edge of the counter when you need it rather than putting a plate on the floor. 

Happy drinking! (Is it St. Patrick's Day already??)


  1. shkoiach for your work!
    regarding making tea with a tea pack or tea leaves. since tea leaves are considered as easy to cook (קלי בישול) the halacha requires at least koss shlishi (third cup) (see shmirat shabat kehilchata chpt1/57).
    regarding instant soup (what we call in israel MANA CHAMA), since it was already cooked and later speed dried, there is no bishul after bishul and so therefore you can prepare such a soup on shabbes. just be careful, sometimes there is a little bag with these soups to add after pouring inn the boiled water. mostly these ingredients are not cooked before and adding these to the hot water will cook them.
    but mainly the only problem could be the taste of this kind of "food", it seems in my eyes not shabbesdig.
    but as we say in israel על טעם וריח אין מה להתווכח.

    again shkoiach for your website and this important project.


  2. Nice! Two minor points:

    1. In the "tea bag howto" part 3 you write "... should be added to the kli sheini before or after the water." -> this should be kli shlishi.

    2. About muktze: Muktze only means you are not allowed to move it arbitrarily. Most categories of muktze may be touched. So that you may touch the urn says really almost nothing about the muktze status. Some muktze categories may be moved for a reason, e.g., if you need the space. I am no expert and will not try to decide the question whether an urn is muktze and what category, just wanted to point that out.

    1. The urn is actually muktza (because of the heat element) and according to the halachos of muktza, it can be touched but not moved.

  3. Electric kettle can solve this problem. (Y)