When May I Ask a Gentile for Help on Shabbos?
Each of the following questions is an actual situation that people have asked me:
Question #1: My car needs repair work and the most convenient time to drop it off at Angelo’s Service Station is Friday afternoon. May I bring Angelo the car then knowing that he is going to repair it on Shabbos?
Question #2: A gala Shabbos sheva brachos is being held at an apartment several flights of stairs below street level, a very common situation in hilly Yerushalayim. The kallah’s elderly grandmother arrived before Shabbos by elevator, intending to return home by using the Shabbos elevator (a subject we will discuss at a different time iy’H). Indeed, the building’s elevator actually has a Shabbos setting, but we discovered on Shabbos that the Shabbos setting is not working. How does Grandma get home?
Question #3: My friend lives in a neighborhood that does not have an eruv. She arranges before Shabbos for a non-Jew to push the baby carriage on Shabbos. May she do this?
Question #4: “If this contract does not arrive at its destination ASAP, I could suffer huge losses. May I mail it as an express mail package on Friday?”
“What should I do if a registered letter arrives on Shabbos?”
Many people are under the mistaken impression that one may ask a non-Jew to do any type of prohibited activity on Shabbos. Unfortunately, this is not true. I have often seen a person ask gentiles to do work on Shabbos that is clearly prohibited. Our Sages prohibited asking a non-Jew to work for us on Shabbos out of concern that this diminishes our sensitivity to doing melacha ourselves (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 6:1). Chazal considered the gentile to be my agent — thus, if he works for me on Shabbos, it is considered that I worked on Shabbos through a hired agent (Rashi, Shabbos 153a s.v. mai taama).
By the way, the halachos of amira linachri, asking a gentile to perform a prohibited activity, are not restricted to the laws of Shabbos, but apply to all mitzvos of the Torah. Thus, one may not have a gentile muzzle his animal while it works (see Gemara Bava Metzia 90a; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 338:6), ask him to graft fruit trees, nor may one ask a non-Jew to do prohibited work on Chol HaMoed (Gemara Moed Katan 12a).
There are many complicated details governing when I may ask a gentile to do something on Shabbos and when I may not. These are some of the factors that one must consider:
A. Is the gentile my employee or is he an “independent contractor”?
B. What type of benefit do I receive from his work?
C. Did I ask the non-Jew directly or indirectly?
D. Is the work I asked him to perform prohibited min haTorah or only midirabbanan?
E. Why do I want him to do this work?
F. Could I do the work myself, albeit in a different way than the gentile will likely do it?
To show how these details affect a practical case, I will analyze the halachic issues involved in each of our cases mentioned above, starting with our first case – leaving the car over Shabbos at a non-Jewish mechanic. The major issue here is that I did not ask the gentile to do the work on Shabbos – I am not permitted to do this. Instead, I brought him the car and allowed him to decide whether to do the work on Shabbos or not. Is he now my agent if he works on Shabbos, which is prohibited, or is it permitted?
In order to explain the issues involved in this shaylah, we need to introduce a few concepts.
AGENT VERSUS CONTRACTOR
There is a halachic difference whether the gentile is working as my agent (or employee) or whether he is an independent contractor who makes his own decisions. If he is my agent, I may not allow him to do prohibited activity on Shabbos. But if he is an independent contractor, then under certain circumstances I am not responsible if he actually does the work on Shabbos.
When is the gentile considered a contractor? If the non-Jew decides on his own when to do the work and I hired him by the job, he is a contractor. In these cases, I may give him work that he might decide to perform on Shabbos, provided that he could do the work on a different day and that he does the work on his own premises. (Under certain circumstances, the last condition may not apply.)
What are examples of contractors? The mailman, a repairman who repairs items on his own premises, the dry cleaner are all contractors. On the other hand, a regular employee whom I ask to do some work on Shabbos is not a contractor unless I pay him extra for this job.
Thus I may drop off my car at the auto mechanic before Shabbos and leave it over Shabbos, provided I allow him time to do the work when it is not Shabbos, either on Friday afternoon or Motzei Shabbos. Even though I know that the non-Jewish mechanic will not be working Saturday night and will actually do the work on Shabbos, I need not be concerned, since he could choose to do the work after Shabbos.
However, this is permitted only when (1) he does the work on his own premises (2) I pay him for the completed job and (3) he decides whether or not he does the work on Shabbos or not. (It should be noted that some poskim prohibit doing this when the mechanic is closed Motzei Shabbos. Since I know that he is closed Motzei Shabbos, they consider it asking him to do the work on Shabbos, which is prohibited.)
In a similar way, I could bring dry cleaning in on Friday afternoon expecting to pick up the cleaned clothes Saturday night, provided enough time exists to clean the clothes before or after Shabbos.
We will now explore our second question:
An elderly woman cannot ascend the several flights of stairs necessary to get to street level. The building has a Shabbos elevator, but we discover on Shabbos that the Shabbos setting is not working. How does Grandma get home? Can we have a non-Jew operate the elevator to get her home?
Before answering this question, I want to share another story with you:
A DARK SIMCHAS TORAH SHABBOS
The following story occurred on a Simchas Torah in Yerushalayim that fell on Shabbos. (Although Simchas Torah outside Eretz Yisroel cannot occur on Shabbos, Shmini Atzeres, which can fall on Shabbos, is observed as Simchas Torah in Eretz Yisroel.) Just as the hakafos were beginning, the power in the shul went out, plunging the entire shul into darkness. The shul’s emergency lights went on, leaving the shul dimly lit — sufficient for people to exit safely and to dance in honor of Simchas Torah, but certainly making it more difficult to observe the usual Simchas Torah celebrations. The Rav of the shul ruled that they could not ask a non-Jew to turn on the lights.
Although if there was any element of danger involved, one could certainly have asked a gentile to turn on the lights, the Rav felt that the situation was not dangerous, and therefore maintained that one may not ask a gentile to turn on the lights.
One of the congregants raised a suggestion that may help illuminate the shul. The same idea may get Grandma home! Before presenting his idea, I need to explain two concepts:
BENEFITING FROM GENTILE ACTIVITY
If a gentile does melacha on Shabbos for his own benefit, a Jew may use the results. For example, if a non-Jew builds a ramp to disembark from a boat on Shabbos, a Jew may now exit the boat via the same ramp since the gentile did no additional work in order to benefit the Jew. Similarly, if a non-Jew kindled a light so that he himself could read, a Jew may now use the light. One may use the light even if the gentile and the Jew know one another (Mishnah Shabbos 122a; Rambam 6:2; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 325:11).
However, if the gentile gathered grass to feed his animals, the Jew cannot let his animals eat the leftover grass if the two people know one another. This is so that the gentile does not come to do melacha for the sake of the Jew in the future (Gemara Shabbos 122a).
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE RAMP AND THE GRASS?
Why are these cases halachically different? Why may the Jew use the light or the ramp, but may not allow his animal to eat the grass? In the first cases, no additional work is necessary for the gentile to provide a ramp or light for the Jew. Once the gentile has built the ramp or kindled the light, any number of people can benefit from them without any additional melacha. However, cutting each blade of grass is a separate melacha activity. Thus, allowing one’s animal to eat this grass might tempt the gentile to cut additional grass for the Jew’s animal, which we must avoid.
So far, we have calculated that if we can figure out how to get the gentile to turn on the light for his own benefit, one may use the light. Thus, we might be able to get lights in the shul for Shabbos, or a gentile to ride the elevator up to the main floor, and hopefully we can get Grandma onto the elevator at the same time. However, how does one get the gentile to turn on the light or the elevator for his own benefit when one may not ask him to do any work on Shabbos?
May I hint to a gentile that I would like him to perform a prohibited activity on Shabbos? The poskim dispute this issue. Some rule that this is prohibited (Tur Orach Chayim 307), whereas others permit it (Bach, Orach Chayim 307 s.v. uma shekasav rabbeinu). Thus according to the second opinion one may ask a gentile on Shabbos, “Why didn’t you accompany Grandma on the elevator last Shabbos?” even though he clearly understands that you are asking him to take the elevator with her today. According to the first opinion, one may not do this, nor may one ask a gentile to clean up something in a dark room, since to do so means that he must turn on the light.
However, the majority of poskim hold a compromise position, contending that although one may not hint to a gentile on Shabbos, one may hint to him on a weekday (Smag). Thus one may tell him on Friday, “Why didn’t you do this last Shabbos,” but one may not tell him this on Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch 307:2; Rama 307:22). According to this last ruling, one could tell the gentile during the week, “Why did you leave Grandma downstairs without taking her up in the elevator,” but one could not mention this to him on Shabbos.
PERMITTED HINTING VERSUS PROHIBITED HINTING
However, the poskim rule that one may tell a non-Jewish mailman on Shabbos, “I cannot read this letter until it is opened.” What is the difference between the two types of hinting?
The difference is that the forbidden type of hinting implies either a command or a rebuke, whereas the permitted type does not (Magen Avraham 307:31). Telling a gentile to clean something up in a dark room on Shabbos is in essence commanding him to perform a prohibited activity — turning on the light. Similarly, when you rebuke him for not doing something last Shabbos, you are basically commanding him to do it the next Shabbos. However, one may make a statement of fact that is neither a command nor a rebuke. Therefore telling the gentile, “I cannot read this letter as long as it is not opened” does not command him to do anything, and for this reason it is permitted.
However, if the gentile then asks me, “Would you like me to open the letter for you?” I may not answer him “yes,” since this is itself a command. (It is as if you said, “Yes, I would like you to open the letter for me.”) I may tell him, “That’s not a bad idea,” or “I have no objections to your opening the letter” which again does not directly command him. I may even say, “I am not permitted to ask you to open it on Shabbos”.
How does this discussion affect our dark Simchas Torah or getting Grandma home?
The congregant suggested the following: One could create a situation whereby turning on the light is beneficial for the gentile, and then hint to him that if he wants to, he could benefit by turning the light on. One may do this because the non-Jew is turning on the light for his own use, and the Jew did not ask him directly to turn on the light. Thus, if you placed a bottle of whiskey or a gift of chocolate in the shul, and then notified the gentile that the bottle or chocolate is waiting for him there, you can show him how to turn on the lights so that he can find his present. This is permitted because the gentile is turning on the lights for his own benefit, and you did not ask him, nor even hint to him that you want him to turn on the lights. You simply notified him that if he wants to put on the lights, he could find himself a very nice present.
The same solution may help Grandma return home. Someone invited a non-Jew to the sheva brachos, and then told him that a present awaited him in the building’s entrance foyer. Does it bother him if Grandma shares the elevator with him while he goes to retrieve his present?
A word of caution: If one uses this approach, one must be careful that the gentile is indeed doing the melacha for his own purposes, such as to get the present as mentioned above. However, one may not ask the non-Jew to accompany you on a tour of the dark shul, and then he turns on the light to see his way. This is prohibited because the gentile is only interested in the light in order to accompany you on the walk, but not because he has any gain himself (see Shulchan Aruch 276:3).
And now on to Question #3: My friend lives in a neighborhood that does not have an eruv. She arranges before Shabbos for a non-Jew to push the baby carriage on Shabbos. Is this permitted? (See Mishnah Berurah 308:154.)
Recently, I was asked the following shaylah: Someone moved to a community where the Rav permits people to have a non-Jew carry the baby on Shabbos by arranging remizah (hinting) from before Shabbos. This means that one would tell a gentile before Shabbos, “I would like to go to shul on Shabbos, but I cannot leave the baby behind.” The non-Jew then responds, “What time would you like me to arrive at the house?” or “What time would you like to leave the house?” again neither party ever stating that you have asked the gentile what to do.
Personally, I have strong reservations about using this suggestion, since eventually one will end up commanding the non-Jew directly, such as, “Do you need me to take the baby’s blanket along?”- If you answer “Yes,” then you have commanded the gentile in violation of the halacha.
At this point, we can begin to discuss the first part of shaylah #4: May I mail express mail on Friday?
At first glance, it would seem that one may not send an express mail package on Friday, since you are asking the gentile to transport and deliver the package on Shabbos. This is dissimilar from the case of bringing the car to the auto mechanic or clothes to the dry cleaner on Friday because in our case you are requesting him to do the job as quickly as possible. Thus, you are insisting that he do the job on Shabbos, which a Jew may not do.
A similar shaylah to our express mail case was asked in Amsterdam hundreds of years ago from Rav Yaakov Emden. The questioner wanted to ship precious stones by asking a non-Jewish employee to deliver them to the post office on Shabbos, reasoning that his gentile agent was carrying items within an eruv on Shabbos and therefore not doing any prohibited activity. Rav Yaakov Emden prohibited this, pointing out that the gentile would have to fill out paperwork at the post office to send off this shipment, and this would be considered having an agent work for me on Shabbos (Shaylas Yaavetz 2:139).
Although based on the above analysis it would seem that one may not send out express mail on Friday, there is a different reason why one may, but only under extenuating circumstances, as I will explain.
I may not ask a gentile on Shabbos to hire other non-Jewish workers (Gemara Shabbos 150a; Shulchan Aruch 307:2). Some poskim contend that although I may not ask a non-Jew to hire workers, which is a prohibited activity, I may ask him to ask another non-Jew to do something that is prohibited on Shabbos. The rationale behind this heter, usually called amira li’amira, is that asking one non-Jew to ask another is permitted because I am only asking a non-Jew to talk, which is not considered an activity (Shu’t Chavos Ya’ir #46, 49, 53). Other poskim contend that just as one may not ask a gentile to hire workers, which is just talk, I cannot ask him to do any other activity (Avodas HaGershuni). Mishnah Berurah (307:24) rules that one may be lenient in a case of major financial loss, thus under very extenuating circumstances one could be lenient.
This dispute is interesting historically because the two Seventeenth Century Torah giants involved in this dispute corresponded with one another. The Chavos Ya’ir permitted asking a non-Jew to ask another non-Jew to work on Shabbos, whereas the Avodas HaGershuni responded to him that this is forbidden. One can actually trace the give-and-take of their halachic debate on the issue, together with their lines of reasoning and proofs, simply by reading the correspondence published in their responsa. It is almost as if we are able to sit in their respective Batei Medrash and listen in to the two of them giving shiur on the subject!
The dispute has many ramifications, one of which is our case of express mail, since you place an order with one person, but a different gentile does the actual traveling and delivering. Thus, we have a case of amira li’amira, which is permitted according to the Chavos Yair. There is also another reason to be lenient: Since one is arranging the Express Mail delivery before Shabbos, the situation is indeed a bit more lenient than the above-mentioned dispute between the Chavos Yair and the Avodas HaGershuni. Indeed, the Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Orach Chayim #60) rules a compromise position between the two, permitting telling the non-Jew before Shabbos to ask the other non-Jew on Shabbos. Biyur Halacha (307:2) disagrees, quoting Rashba. Therefore, one should not rely on this ruling unless the situation is extenuating.
The story behind the Chasam Sofer’s responsum on this issue is worth noting. During the Napoleonic Wars, a battle took place in Pressburg (today known as Bratislava), where the Chasam Sofer was Rav, in which much of the Jewish area of town went up in flames. It was very important to rebuild the neighborhood before winter set in, and there was concern that the non-Jewish contractors would not construct the houses in a timely fashion if they were not allowed to work on the Jewish houses on Shabbos. One of the reasons that the Chasam Sofer ruled that they could allow the gentile contractors to work on Shabbos was that the Jews hired a gentile contractor, who in turn instructed his employees when to work. Thus it was a case of amira li’amira, which the Chasam Sofer permitted if the contractor received his instructions before Shabbos.
If I hired a gentile to make a delivery for me, he may not pick up the item from my house on Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 307:4). Thus, if I contract with a delivery service such as UPS, they must pick up the item before Shabbos.
What should I do if a registered letter arrives on Shabbos?
Now we should be prepared to answer this last question. I may not ask the gentile delivery person to sign for me, even by hinting to him. However, I may tell him, “I cannot sign for this today because it is my Sabbath.” If he asks me, “Would you like me to sign for the delivery?” I may not tell him, “Yes.” However I may answer him, “It is fine with me if you would like to” or “I may not ask someone else to do this on my Sabbath” or “I do not mind receiving the delivery, but I may not sign for it.”
According to the Rambam, the reason that Chazal prohibited one to ask a gentile to do work on Shabbos is so that we do not diminish sensitivity to doing melacha ourselves. One who refrains from having even a non-Jew work shows even deeper testimony to his conviction that Hashem created the world.
Note: For more on this topic, see “When May I Ask a Gentile for Help on Shabbos? Part II.”