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Can I ask a non-Jew to do a forbidden activity on Shabbat?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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It is forbidden on Shabbat or Yom Tov to ask a non-Jew to perform on your behalf an activity a Jew may not do on this day. Furthermore, even if the non-Jew performs such an activity on your behalf without being instructed to do so, it is forbidden to gain benefit from this forbidden labor.

For example, if a non-Jew turns on a light in a dark room for a Jew, it would be forbidden to read a book in that room on Shabbat.

The story is told of a Chassidic Rebbe who once walked into a well-lit room on the Shabbat, and with eyes wide open he started bumping off the walls as if it was pitch dark. His astounded disciples started investigating the matter, and they discovered that indeed the lamps in the room had been kindled by a Gentile on Shabbat. Such forbidden light didn't even "register" with the Tzaddik's holy eyes.

Even if the non-Jew performs such an activity on your behalf without being instructed to do so, it is forbidden to gain benefit from this forbidden labor
There are several exceptions to this rule. The following are three notable ones:1

  1. It is permitted to retain a non-Jew to do a non time-specific task. If the non-Jew happens to do it on Shabbat -- and he is not doing it on the Jew's property -- then that is his business. For example, one can retain a Gentile carpenter to build a bookshelf. If the carpenter is building it in his own workshop, then the Jew need not object if he builds it on Shabbat. After all, he's not building on Shabbat at the Jew's behest -- as far as the Jew is concerned, he can build it on Friday or Sunday.2
  2. A Jew may benefit from an activity which the non-Jew has done for his own sake, or for the sake of other non-Jews. Thus if a non-Jew turns on a light in a room because he needs to find something, a Jew may afterwards gain benefit from this illumination.
  3. It is permitted to ask a non-Jew to perform a forbidden activity on behalf of an ill person.3 Halachah also rules that "all our considered ill with regards to cold." Thus, if a house requires heating in the winter, it is permitted to request of a non-Jew to turn on the heat. This was the job of the original proverbial "Shabbos Goy" ("Shabbat Gentile"); on Shabbat mornings he would make the rounds in the shtetel during the frigid Eastern European winters and add wood to the fires which were dying down after burning the entire night. 

There are other rare instances where it would be permitted to request a non-Jew to do a forbidden activity on Shabbat. In case of doubt, always consult with a practicing rabbi.

Footnotes

  • 1. Askmoses.com offers general Jewish education. We do not issue forth Halachic rulings nor substitute the place of a Rov (Halachic Authority). The following exceptions are merely general information. One should consult with his Rov before requesting a non-Jew to do "work" on Shabbat.
  • 2. Following this logic, it would be forbidden, for example, to drop off clothing at a gentile-owned cleaners on Friday afternoon directly before Shabbat and pick it up immediately after Shabbat. One needs to leave sufficient "weekday time" for the job to be done.
  • 3. This refers to a moderately ill person, whose life is in no danger. If one is seriously ill, there is no need to request a non-Jew to perform the activity. It is a great mitzvah for a Jew to "desecrate" the Shabbat in order to save another life.

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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Tzaddik
(fem. Tzidkanit; pl. Tzaddikim). A saint, or righteous person.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Yom Tov
Jewish Holiday.