When May I Ask a Non-Jew for Help on Shabbos?
Each of the following questions is an actual situation about
which I was asked:
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 I hope to discuss at a different time iy’H).
Indeed, the building’s elevator actually has a Shabbos setting, but we
discover on Shabbos that the Shabbos setting is not working. How
does Bubby 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?”
Question #5: “If a registered letter arrives on Shabbos,
may I ask the letter carrier to sign for me?”
Many people are under the mistaken impression that one may
ask a non-Jew to do any prohibited activity on Shabbos. This is not
accurate. I know of many instances in which someone asked a non-Jew to do work
in situations in which making such a request is 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). Also, Chazal considered the non-Jew 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.
By the way, the halachos of amira lenochri, asking a
non-Jew to perform a prohibited activity, are not restricted to the laws of Shabbos,
but apply to all mitzvos of the Torah. Thus, it is prohibited to have a non-Jew muzzle your animal while it works (see Bava Metzia 90a; Shulchan Aruch Choshen
Mishpat 338:6), ask him to graft fruit trees, nor ask a non-Jew to do
prohibited work on Chol Hamoed (Moed Katan 12a).
There are many complicated details governing when I may ask
a non-Jew to do something on Shabbos and when I may not. These are some
of the factors that one must consider:
A. Is the non-Jew my employee or is he an “independent
B. What type of benefit do I receive from his work?
C. Did I ask the non-Jew directly or indirectly?
D. If a Jew were to perform the work, would it be prohibited
min haTorah or only miderabbanan?
E. Why do I want him to do this work?
F. Could I do the work myself, albeit in a different way
from how the non-Jew is likely to 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 important detail here is that I did not ask the
non-Jew to do the work on Shabbos – it is prohibited to do so. Instead,
I brought him the car and allowed him to decide whether to do the work on Shabbos.
Is he now my agent if he works on Shabbos?
AGENT VERSUS CONTRACTOR
There is a halachic difference whether the non-Jew 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. However, if he is an independent
contractor, under certain circumstances, I am not responsible if he actually
does the work on Shabbos.
When is the non-Jew 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 is waived.)
What are examples of contractors? The mailman, the repairman
who repairs items on his own premises, and the dry cleaner are all contractors.
On the other hand, a regular employee whom I ask to do 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 Motza’ei 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, dropping off my car before Shabbos is
permitted only when:
(1) He does the work on his own premises.
(2) He is paid a fee for the completed job.
(3) He decides whether or not he does the work on Shabbos.
(It should be noted that some poskim prohibit doing this when the
mechanic is closed Motza’ei Shabbos. Since I know that he is closed Motza’ei
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 Bubby get home? Can we have a non-Jew operate the elevator to
get her home?
Before answering this question, I want to share 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 in Eretz Yisroel as Simchas
Torah.) 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
If any element of danger had been involved, one could
certainly have asked a non-Jew to turn on the lights. But the rav felt
that the situation was not dangerous, and therefore maintained that one may not
ask a non-Jew to turn on the lights.
One of the congregants suggested a way to illuminate the shul.
The same idea could get Bubby home! Before presenting his idea, I need to
explain two concepts:
BENEFITING FROM A NON-JEW’S ACTION
If a non-Jew 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 non-Jew did no additional work in order to benefit the
Jew. Similarly, if a non-Jew kindled a light so that he can read, a Jew may now
use the light. One may use the light even if the non-Jew and the Jew know one
another (Mishnah Shabbos 122a; Rambam 6:2; Shulchan Aruch
Orach Chayim 325:11).
However, if the non-Jew 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 non-Jew will not in the future come to do melacha
for the sake of the Jew (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
In the first cases, no additional work is necessary for the
non-Jew to provide a ramp or light for the Jew. Once the non-Jew 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 non-Jew to cut additional grass for the Jew’s animal, which we
So far, we have calculated that if we can figure out how to
get the non-Jew to turn on the light for his own benefit, one may use the
light. Thus, we might be able to turn lights on in the shul for Shabbos,
or have a non-Jew ride the elevator up to the main floor and hopefully have
Bubby in the elevator at the same time. However, how does one get the non-Jew
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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew on Shabbos, “Why
didn’t you accompany Bubby 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
non-Jew to clean up something in a dark room, since to do so he must turn on
However, the majority of poskim accept an
intermediate position, contending that, although one may not hint to a non-Jew
on Shabbos, one may hint to him on a weekday (Smag). Thus one may
ask him on Friday, “Why didn’t you do this last Shabbos? but one may not
ask him this on Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 307:2; Rema
Orach Chayim 307:22). According to this last ruling, one could tell the
non-Jew during the week, “Why did you leave Bubby 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 agree that one may tell a
non-Jewish mailman on Shabbos, “I cannot read this letter until it is
open.” 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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew, “I cannot read this letter unless it is open” does not
command him to do anything, and for this reason it is permitted.
However, if the non-Jew then asks me, “Would you like me to
open the letter for you?” I may not answer “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 does not directly ask him. I may even say, “I am not
permitted to ask you to open it on my Sabbath.”
How does this discussion affect our dark Simchas Torah
or getting Bubby home?
The congregant suggested the following: One could create a
situation whereby turning on the light is beneficial for the non-Jew, 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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew 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 Bubby return home. Someone may
invite a non-Jew to the sheva brachos, and then told him that a present
awaits him in the building’s entrance foyer. Does it bother him if Bubby 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 non-Jew 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 non-Jew is
interested in the light only in order to accompany you on the walk, not because
he gains anything (see Shulchan Aruch 276:3).
We will continue this topic next week…
As I mentioned above, the Rambam explains the reason that Chazal prohibited asking a non-Jew to do work on Shabbos is so that we do not diminish sensitivity to doing melacha ourselves. Refraining from having even a non-Jew work for me on Shabbos shows even deeper testimony to my conviction that Hashem created the world.