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When May I Ask a Non-Jew to Assist Me on Shabbos?

Photo by chopstix00 from FreeImages

While enslaved in Egypt, the Jews worked every day of the
week, 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
I may benefit from work performed by a non-Jew 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
non-Jewish neighbor to turn up the heat?

Question #3: There is a problem with our electricity — the
lights have gone out, and my son is terrified. May I ask a non-Jewish
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 non-Jewish neighbor to move it?

In general, a Jew may not ask a non-Jew to perform activity
that a Jew himself may not do. Chazal prohibited this because asking a
non-Jew to work on Shabbos diminishes our sensitivity to doing melacha
ourselves. Furthermore, the non-Jew 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 non-Jew on Shabbos, even if the Jew did not ask
him to do the work (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 276:1). Thus, if
a non-Jew 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
benefit from what a non-Jew does a melacha and when may I ask him to do melacha.

BENEFITING FROM NON-JEWISH LABOR

In general, if a non-Jew 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 (Beitzah 24b;
Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 325:6). Thus if a non-Jew 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 on Shabbos 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 use
the light to read. 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 non-Jew
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 non-Jew returned with
a document that he proceeded to read. Shmuel now realized that the non-Jew had
kindled the light for himself and that he (Shmuel) was permitted to read by the
light (Shabbos 122b).

Sometimes I may not benefit from work
performed by a non-Jew even though he performed
the work to benefit a non-Jew. This is in a case
where there is concern that my benefiting from the activity might encourage the
non-Jew to do more work than he needs for himself
in order to benefit me. For example, if a non-Jew
who knows me heated up a kettle of water because he wants a cup of coffee, I
may not use the hot water. 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 (Shabbos 122a).

REMOVING IMPEDIMENTS

If a non-Jew 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 in
that room. This is not considered as receiving benefit from a non-Jew’s Shabbos
activity, since extinguishing the light only removed an obstacle and created
nothing positive.

PARTIAL BENEFIT

Another instance that is not considered as receiving benefit
from melacha activity is when I could already benefit before the non-Jew
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 non-Jew
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 non-Jew’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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew 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, Orach Chayim 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, only 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 non-Jewish employee of the hotel arrived and turned on all the shul
lights. This involved two prohibitions: 1. Since the non-Jew 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 would get dark outdoors, and I could no longer read by the
natural light, most authorities would 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 turns on the light in a house because he wants to benefit a Jew,
one may not benefit from the light — and would have to leave the house.
However, Chazal ruled that one is not required to leave one’s house if
one did not want the non-Jew to turn on the light. 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
done against one’s will (Rama 276:1, quoting Yerushalmi). In all
instances like this, one should tell the non-Jew that you do not want him to do
the melacha.

WHEN MAY I ASK A NON-JEW TO WORK ON SHABBOS?

Under certain extenuating circumstances, Chazal permitted
asking a non-Jew 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 non-Jew to perform work that
would be prohibited min haTorah for a Jew.

II. Situations when I may ask a non-Jew to perform work that
is prohibited miderabbanan.

I. There are a few situations where I may ask a non-Jew 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 it affects his
entire body (Shabbos 129a; Shulchan Aruch 328:17). For example, I
may ask a non-Jew 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.

CHILDREN

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 may also 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 non-Jew to rectify the
problem.

We can now answer Question #3 above: “There is a problem
with our electricity — the lights have gone out, and my son is terrified. May
I ask a non-Jewish electrician to repair the power on Shabbos?” Under
these circumstances, one may do so.

COLD ADULTS

When it is very cold, one may ask a non-Jew 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 a non-Jewish 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.

WIDESPREAD TRANSGRESSION

Another situation where one may ask a non-Jew to do melacha
that is prohibited min haTorah, is when 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 non-Jew to perform work that
is prohibited miderabbanan.

SHVUS DE’SHVUS

Under certain other circumstances, Chazal permitted
asking a non-Jew to do something that would be prohibited miderabbanan
for a Jew. The poskim usually refer to this lenience as shvus
de’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 enable a Jew to fulfill a mitzvah (Shulchan
Aruch Orach Chayim
307:5).

I will now explain these three situations:

(A) Earlier, I noted that if someone is ill to the extent
that the illness affects his entire body, or if he is sick enough to go to bed,
one may ask a non-Jew to do something that would involve a Torah prohibition
for a Jew. If the person is less ill, one may ask a non-Jew to do something
that involves only a rabbinic prohibition, but not a Torah prohibition.

Included under this category is if the person is suffering
from considerable pain (Gra, 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 non-Jew to buy
medicine to alleviate the pain.

Based on the above heter, may one ask a non-Jew 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 de’shvus?

This question was the subject of a dispute by the last
generation’s poskim. Minchas Yitzchok (3:23) permits asking a
non-Jew to turn on the air conditioning, quoting Levush 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 non-Jew 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
de’shvus
bimkom 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 non-Jew to
turn on the air conditioner because it is benefiting from work performed by a
non-Jew on Shabbos (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:47:2). Rav
Moshe forbids benefiting even if one did not ask the non-Jew 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 benefiting from a non-Jew’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 non-Jew to perform an issur derabbanan 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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew 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 de’shvus unless there is some
physical discomfort as well (Elyah 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 de’shvus even if it is
uncertain that a major loss will result, but it is a good possibility (see She’eilas
Yaavetz
2:139). As a result, one may ask a non-Jew to plug in the freezer
even if one is uncertain whether the food will go bad.

Note that the opinions I quoted above permit asking a
non-Jew only to perform a melacha derabbanan to avoid financial loss,
but none of them permit asking him to violate a Torah law. Thus, this would
answer Question #5 that I mentioned above: “I did not realize that I parked my
car in a place where the city will tow it away. May I ask a non-Jewish neighbor
to move it?” The answer is that one is not allowed to ask him. However, one may
hint to the non-Jew in an indirect way by saying, “My car is parked in a place
where it might get towed,” as I explained in a previous article on this
subject.

(C) I may ask a non-Jew to do something that is only an issur
derabbanan
in order to enable me to perform a mitzvah. For example, having 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 a
neighborhood 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 all the guests to sit at the table, he
may ask a non-Jew to bring chairs from a neighbor’s house even when there is no
eruv. Other poskim are more lenient, permitting asking a non-Jew
to bring any food or beverage that enhances Shabbos (Aruch Hashulchan
307:18).

Some authorities permit asking a non-Jew 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 non-Jew under these circumstances. This custom has halachic
sources in the following Rama:

“Some permit telling a non-Jew 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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew 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
non-Jew, but that one should not extend these heterim to other
situations. When using a non-Jew to do normally forbidden work, one should
focus that one’s intent is not, chas vesholom, to weaken the importance
of Shabbos, but, rather, to enhance kavod Shabbos.