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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Melachot

When May I Ask a Non-Jew for Help on Shabbos?

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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. mai taama).

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 contractor"?
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 another story:

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 lights.

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 grass?

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 must avoid.

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?

HINTING

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 the light.

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.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Was the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, the Congregation Darchei Tzedek and also served as a dayan on the Beis Din of Baltimore. Now is a Rabbi in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem. His Shiurim and Q&A can be found on his site: www.rabbikaganoff.com
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