While enslaved in Egypt, the Jews worked every day, and one of the special days celebrated to commemorate our Exodus is Shabbos. Observing Shabbos includes not only keeping the mitzvos ourselves, but also knowing when I may ask a non-Jew to perform prohibited activity, and when may I benefit from work performed by a gentile on Shabbos.
Each of the following questions describes a situation that people have asked me:
Question #1: A non-Jew turned on the lights for me on Shabbos. May I use this light to read?
Question #2: It is chilly in our house. May I ask a gentile neighbor to turn up the heat?
Question #3: There is problem with our electricity – the lights have gone out, and my son is terrified. May I ask a gentile electrician to repair the power on Shabbos?
Question #4: We left the air conditioning off, and it became very hot on Shabbos. May I ask a non-Jew to turn the air conditioning on?
Question #5: I did not realize that I parked my car in a place where it will be towed away. May I ask a gentile neighbor to move it?
A Jew may not ask a gentile to perform activity that a Jew himself may not do. Chazal prohibited this, because asking a gentile to work on Shabbos diminishes our sensitivity to doing melacha ourselves. Furthermore the gentile functions as my agent, and it is therefore considered as if I did melacha work on Shabbos.
One may not benefit from melacha performed for a Jew by a gentile on Shabbos even if the Jew did not ask him to do the work (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 276:1). Thus if a gentile turned on a light for the Jew’s benefit without being asked, a Jew may not use the light.
This article will discuss when I may directly ask a gentile to do melacha and when I may benefit from what he does.
BENEFITING FROM GENTILE LABOR
In general, if a gentile does melacha work for me on Shabbos, I may not benefit from what he did until enough time has elapsed after Shabbos for the work to have been performed after Shabbos (Gemara Beitzah 24b; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 325:6). Thus if a gentile baked an apple for me on Shabbos, I may not eat it after Shabbos until the time it takes to bake an apple. This way I receive no benefit from the work he performed and I am not tempted to ask him to do melacha for me at a different time (Rashi and Tosafos, Beitzah 24b).
However, if a non-Jew did work specifically for himself or for another non-Jew, I may benefit from his work even on that Shabbos itself (Mishnah Shabbos 122a). Therefore, if he turned on a light to see where he is going or to be able to read, I may read by the light. There is an exception to this lenience that I will explain shortly.
The Gemara tells us the following story: The great Amora Shmuel was visiting a man named Avin in the town of Torin, when a gentile entered the room and kindled a light. Shmuel assumed that the non-Jew had ignited the light for Shmuel’s benefit, which would make it forbidden to use the light. In order to point out the fact that he was not using the light, Shmuel turned his chair around, with his back to the light, so that it was obvious that he was not using it. Shortly thereafter, the gentile returned with a document that he proceeded to read. Shmuel now realized that the gentile had kindled the light for his own benefit and that he (Shmuel) was permitted to read by the light (Gemara Shabbos 122b).
Sometimes I may not benefit from work performed by a gentile even though he performed the work to benefit a gentile. This is in a case where there is concern that my benefiting from the activity might encourage the gentile to do more work than he needs for himself in order to benefit me. For example, if a gentile who knows me heated up a kettle of water because he wants a cup of coffee, I may not drink a cup of hot water from this kettle. The reason is that at some time in the future, he might decide to add extra water to the kettle that he is heating so that I can benefit (Gemara Shabbos 122a).
If a gentile did work that results in removing an impediment that was disturbing a Jew, I need not be concerned about benefiting from the non-Jew’s melacha activity. For example, if he turned off the light so that a Jewish person can sleep, one may go to sleep. This is not considered as receiving benefit from a gentile’s Shabbos activity, since extinguishing the light only removed an obstacle and created nothing positive.
Another instance that is not considered as receiving benefit from melacha activity is when I could already benefit before the gentile performed the melacha, and his melacha only makes it easier to do what I wanted. For example if there is enough light to read, and a gentile turns on additional light, I may continue to read even though it is now easier to read. This is not considered as benefiting from the gentile’s melacha since I could have read even if he did not do the melacha (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 276:4). Similarly, one may eat a meal by the light that he provides, if one could eat even without the additional light. (Note that one may not ask the gentile to turn on the light in any of these instances.)
The poskim dispute whether in the above scenario I may continue reading after the original light burns out. Some contend that once the light has gone out, I may no longer read in the room since I am now benefiting from what the gentile kindled on Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 276:4; Bach; Magen Avraham). Others contend that since I was permitted to read when the light was kindled, I may continue to read even after the original light extinguished (Taz 276:3). Mishnah Berurah concludes that one should follow the first opinion.
I once spent Shabbos in a kosher hotel for a family simcha. I arrived early for davening Shabbos morning, intending to learn beforehand, to discover that the lights were still out in the shul. I assumed that the lights were set to go on by a Shabbos clock and sat down near a window to learn in the interim. Fifteen minutes before davening started, a gentile employee of the hotel arrived and turned on all the shul lights. This involved two prohibitions: 1. Since the gentile was an employee of the Jewish owned hotel, the hotel should not have arranged for him to do melacha on Shabbos. 2. One may not benefit from the work he did. Thus, it is forbidden to read in the shul if you need the light to read.
However, as long as enough light came in through the windows to read, I could continue to read using the artificial light, since I could in any case read near the window. However, I could not read anywhere else in the shul. Furthermore, once it gets dark outdoors and I can no longer read by the natural light, most authorities prohibit reading by the kindled light.
MUST I LEAVE HOME?
According to what we have just explained, it would seem that if a non-Jew turned on the light in a house because he wanted to benefit a Jew, one may not benefit from the light and would have to leave. However, Chazal ruled that one is not required to leave one’s house if one did not want the gentile to turn the light on. Although one may not benefit from a non-Jew’s melacha on Shabbos, one is not required to leave one’s house in order to avoid benefiting from melacha that he did against one’s will (Rama 276:1, quoting Yerushalmi). In all instances like this, one should tell the gentile that you do not want him to do the melacha.
WHEN MAY I ASK A GENTILE TO WORK ON SHABBOS?
Under certain extenuating circumstances, Chazal permitted asking a gentile to do melacha that a Jew may not do himself. I will group these situations under the following categories:
I. Situations when I may ask a gentile to perform work that would be prohibited min haTorah for a Jew.
II. Situations when I may ask a gentile to perform work that is prohibited mid’rabbanan.
I. There are a few situations where I may ask a gentile to perform something that would be a Torah prohibition if I did it myself. I may ask a non-Jew to perform a melacha for someone who is “choleh kol gufo,” literally, his entire body is sick. This means that although the person is in no danger, his illness is more than just a minor annoyance but affects his entire body (Gemara Shabbos 129a; Shulchan Aruch 328:17). For example, I may ask a gentile to drive this person to a doctor, to pick up a prescription, or to turn a light on or off. This leniency applies to someone whose illness affects his entire body, or who is sick enough to be bedridden. Later in the article, I will discuss the halachos that apply to someone who is not well, but who is feeling better than the person just described.
Since children often get sick and are generally weaker than adults are, halacha considers a child as choleh kol gufo (Rama 276:1) when there is a great need (Mishnah Berurah ad loc.). Therefore if it is cold indoors, one may ask a non-Jew to turn on the heat for the sake of a child, and then an adult too may benefit from the heat.
Until what age do I consider a child a choleh kol gufo? Many poskim contend that any child under the age of nine is in this category (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 1:78), although other poskim are less lenient.
Halacha treats a child who is afraid of the dark as a choleh kol gufo (Ketzos HaShulchan 134:18). Therefore if the light went out and a child is afraid, one may ask a gentile to rectify the problem.
We can now answer Question #3 above: “There is problem with our electricity – the lights have gone out, and my son is terrified. May I ask a gentile electrician to repair the power on Shabbos?” Under these circumstances, one may.
When it is very cold, one may ask a gentile to turn on the heat even for adults even if this involves doing a Torah prohibition. This is because everyone is considered sick when it comes to the cold. When it is chilly but not freezing, the poskim dispute whether I may ask a non-Jew to turn on the heat for the sake of adults when there are no children or ill people around (Shulchan Aruch 276:5 and commentaries).
Thus, we can now answer Question #2: “It is chilly in our house. May I ask the gentile next door neighbor to turn up the heat?” The answer is that it depends on how cold it is, and who is affected by the lack of heat.
Another situation where one may ask a gentile to do melacha that is prohibited min haTorah, is if it is necessary to prevent many people from transgressing the Torah. For example, if one discovered that the eruv is down, one may ask a non-Jew to repair it on Shabbos even though he will have to perform activities that would be prohibited min haTorah (Mishnah Berurah 276:25), such as driving his car, tying a knot, or carrying in a reshus harabim min HaTorah.
II. Situations when I may ask a gentile to perform work that is prohibited mid’rabbanan.
Under certain other circumstances, Chazal permitted asking a gentile to do something that would be prohibited mid’rabbanan for a Jew. The poskim usually refer to this lenience as shvus di’shvus. In general, this is permitted in any of the following situations:
(A) If a person is slightly ill.
(B) There is a major need.
(C) In order to fulfill the observing of a mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 307:5).
I will now explain these three situations:
(A) Earlier, I noted that if someone is ill, one may ask a gentile to do something that would involve a Torah prohibition for a Jew — when the person’s illness affects his entire body, or if he is sick enough to go to bed. If the person is less ill, one may ask a gentile to do something that involves only a rabbinic prohibition (for a Jew), but not a Torah prohibition.
Included under this category is if the person is suffering from considerable pain (Gra on Orach Chayim 325:10; Aruch HaShulchan 307:18). Thus, someone who caught his finger in a door may ask a non-Jew to bring ice through an area without an eruv if he has no ice in his house. Similarly if an insect bit him, he may ask a gentile to buy medicine to alleviate the pain.
Based on the above heter, may one ask a gentile to turn on the air conditioner if it gets very hot? Does this qualify as alleviating a great deal of suffering? And is operating the air conditioning considered a Torah violation or a rabbinic violation, for which we may be lenient because of shvus di’shvus?
This question was the subject of a dispute by the last generation’s poskim. Minchas Yitzchok (3:23) permits asking a gentile to turn it on, quoting L’vush who explains that once people are unaccustomed to the cold, halacha considers them to be ill even if it is not that cold — Therefore one may ask a gentile to kindle a fire for them. However, he then quotes sources that contend that being too hot is not the same as being too cold. He concludes that someone who is accustomed to moderate weather suffers when it is very hot and humid and may therefore ask a non-Jew to turn on the air conditioning because it is shvus di’shvus bimakom tzaar (to alleviate suffering). Similarly, his mechutan, the Chelkas Yaakov (3:139) permitted having a non-Jew turn on the air conditioning because of shvus di’shvus bimakom tzaar.
On the other hand, Rav Moshe prohibited asking a gentile to turn on the air conditioner because it is benefiting from work performed by a gentile on Shabbos (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:47:2). Thus, Rav Moshe forbids benefiting even if one did not ask the gentile to turn on the air conditioning, but merely hinted, such as by telling him, “It is really hot here!” hoping that he catches the hint. Evidently, Rav Moshe did not consider this as a makom tzaar that permits one to benefit from a gentile’s activity on Shabbos.
Thus in answer to Question #4, “We left the air conditioning off, and it became very hot on Shabbos. May I ask a non-Jew to turn the air conditioning on?” we see that the poskim dispute whether this is permitted or not.
(B) One may ask a gentile to perform an issur d’rabbanan in case of major need. There are three opinions as to how much financial loss this must entail to be considered a major need.
(1) Some rule that one may ask the gentile even if there is no financial loss as long as there is a great need (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 307:5; Graz 307:12). According to these poskim, if one’s clothes became torn or dirty on Shabbos and he is embarrassed to wear them, he may ask a gentile to bring him clean clothes through an area not enclosed by an eruv.
(2) Other poskim rule more strictly, contending that one may be lenient only if a major financial loss will result (Magen Avraham 307:7). According to these poskim, if one discovered that the plug of one’s well-stocked freezer is disconnected, one may ask a non-Jew to reconnect it on Shabbos.
(3) A third opinion contends that major financial loss is not sufficient reason to permit shvus di’shvus unless there is some physical discomfort as well (Eliyah Rabbah 307:14). We usually follow the second opinion quoted and permit a shvus di’shvus in case of major financial loss. Furthermore, we allow shvus di’shvus even if it is uncertain that a major loss will result, but it is a good possibility (see Shaylas Yaavetz 2:139). As a result, one may ask a gentile to plug in the freezer even if one is uncertain whether the food will go bad.
Note that none of the opinions I quoted permits asking a gentile to violate a Torah law to avoid financial loss. Thus, this would answer Question #5 that I mentioned above: “I did not realize that I parked my car where the city will tow it away. May I ask a gentile neighbor to move it to avoid this major expense?” The answer is that one is not allowed to ask him. However, one may hint to the gentile in an indirect way by saying, “My car is parked in a place where it might get towed,” as I explained in a different article on this subject.
(C) I may ask a gentile to do something that is only an issur d’rabbanan in order to enable me to perform a mitzvah. For example, inviting a guest who is visiting from out of town, or a guest who otherwise would have nowhere to eat, fulfills the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. (Inviting another family over for a Shabbos meal may be a very big chesed for the wife of the guest family, but it does not qualify as the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim [Rama 333:1]). Therefore, if one realizes on Shabbos that one does not have enough chairs for everyone to sit at the table, one may ask a gentile to bring chairs from a neighbor’s house even when there is no eruv. Other poskim are more lenient, permitting asking a gentile to bring any food or beverage that enhances Shabbos (Aruch HaShulchan 307:18).
Some authorities permit asking a gentile to perform a Torah melacha in order to allow the observance of a mitzvah. This is a minority opinion and should not be followed. However, there was an old custom among European Jewry to permit asking a gentile under these circumstances. This custom has halachic sources in the following Rama who rules:
“Some permit telling a gentile to kindle lights for the sake of the Shabbos meal because they contend that in order to fulfill a mitzvah (such as having a nice Shabbos meal) one may ask a gentile to perform even a real melacha that would be forbidden for a Jew to do min haTorah. Following this approach, many are accustomed to be lenient and command a gentile to kindle lights for the purpose of the Shabbos meal, particularly for wedding and bris meals, and no one rebukes them. However, one should be strict in this matter when there is no extenuating need since most of the halachic authorities disagree” (Rama 276:2).
In conclusion, we have discovered that in certain extenuating instances Chazal permitted melacha performed by a gentile, but that one should not extend these heterim to situations not included. When using a non-Jew to do normally forbidden work, one should focus that one’s intent is not, chas v’sholom, to weaken the importance of Shabbos, but rather the kavod Shabbos that will result.