On the Issue of a Non-Jew doing Work for a Jew on Shabbat

The observance of the Shabbat is one of the most important mitzvot of the Torah. Shabbat is a special gift that G‑d gave to the Jewish people,1 and one who observes it properly is considered to be a partner with G‑d in creation.2 It is also written that if all the Jewish people in the world would observe even one Shabbat properly, we would immediately be redeemed by Moshiach.3 The mitzvah of observing Shabbat is the only ritualistic mitzvah included in the Ten Commandments,4 and observing the Shabbat is considered the equivalent of observing the entire Torah.5 Experiencing the true pleasure of Shabbat is considered to be one-sixtieth of the experience of the World to Come.6

This article will focus on the issue of having a non-Jew do work for a Jew on Shabbat. Although this is generally forbidden, unfortunately, there are many Shabbat-observant people that do not understand the scope of this prohibition.

Overview

The Rabbis felt that if it would be permitted to have non-Jews perform work for one on Shabbat, people would view Shabbat as unimportantThe basic rule of thumb as far as having a gentile do work for a Jew on Shabbat is that if a Jew may not do it, a non-Jew cannot do it for him. This is true whether or not the Jew specifically asks the non-Jew to do the work or if the non-Jew does it on his own, whether the non-Jew is paid for his efforts or not. There are, however, various exceptions to this rule. Here are some of the variables that may impact the ruling on this matter (the article below will discuss the details):

  • If the non-Jew is being paid by the job, rather than by the hour or day.
  • If the Jew is not directly benefiting from the work.
  • If the non-Jew is (also) directly benefiting from the work.
  • If the work is of only forbidden by Rabbinic law.
  • If it is still in the very first minutes of Shabbat.
  • If it's a situation of great need, great financial loss, illness or mitzvah.

Torah or Rabbinic Origin

Regarding having a non-Jew7 work for one on Shabbat, the Mechilta8 says that the source of the prohibition against this can be found in the verse regarding Passover:9 "No work shall be done for you." This means that the work may not even be done by someone else for the sake of a Jew. Most of the commentaries,10 however, understood this verse as an asmachta—that is, a textual support for a Rabbinic decree, not as an actual Biblical injunction.11

The Rabbis felt that if it would be permitted to have non-Jews perform work for one on Shabbat, people would view Shabbat as unimportant, and they would eventually desecrate the Shabbat themselves.12 Therefore, they decreed that when a non-Jew performs work for a Jew on Shabbat, he becomes his agent for that action and it's considered as if the Jew performed the work himself.13

This prohibition is somewhat more lenient than other Rabbinic prohibitions on Shabbat because transgression would not mean the transgressor is performing an actual physical act.14 On the other hand, this has lead people to be improperly lax with this law, which is why the Rabbis made certain aspects of this law more stringent than other laws.15

The General Principle

One may hire a non-Jew to perform work on Shabbat that Jews are permitted to doGenerally, one may not ask a non-Jew to perform any type of work on Shabbat which is forbidden for a Jew to do. This is true whether that non-Jew is someone who usually works for the Jew or not,16 whether he's doing the work for free or he's being paid, and whether he was told on Shabbat or before Shabbat about performing the work.17 In fact, even if the non-Jew performs work for the Jew on his own accord, in certain cases, if the Jew sees him doing it, he is obligated to protest.18 In many cases, it is even forbidden to benefit from the work until after Shabbat has ended and the amount of time it took to perform that work has elapsed.19

On the other hand, one may hire a non-Jew to perform work on Shabbat that Jews are permitted to do.20 When paying them for this work, some say that one should pay for the Shabbat work together with a payment for some work done during the week.21 Others say that this is not necessary.22

Examples of Prohibited Work

  • One may not allow one's non-Jewish employee to wash or iron clothes, even if the non-Jew is doing it of his own accord (e.g., in order to lighten his workload on Monday).23
  • One may not ask a non-Jew to turn on a light in one's home.24
  • One may not tell one's non-Jewish employee to perform work for one's company on Shabbat even if the work will be done in the employee's home.25
  • If someone forgot to put his cholent on the blech (metal tray used to cover the burners on Shabbat so that food can be kept warm—click here for more information), he may not ask a non-Jew to do this.26

Exceptions

In certain cases it is not forbidden to have a non-Jew perform work for one on Shabbat. Under certain circumstances, it may even be permitted to actually ask a non-Jew to perform some types of work. These exceptions will now be explained:

If the Non-Jew is Being Paid by the Job

  • One may not explicitly tell the non-Jew to perform the work on Shabbat.27
  • One may not allow the non-Jew to perform any work on his (the Jew's) premises. This is because other people may not realize that the non-Jew is being paid by the job.28
    For this reason, one may give clothes to the dry cleaner or the tailor and leave them there over Shabbat, even if the cleaning or tailoring might take place on Shabbat. Similarly, one may send mail on Friday.29 On the other hand, one may not allow a non-Jew to do construction or repair work on his home or other property. If one is building a home, one must make an agreement with the contractor that he will not do any work on Shabbat.30
  • If it's well known that the owner of the item being worked on is Jewish, and the work is being performed in a public manner, then even if the work is being done on the non-Jew's premises, if the owner sees the work being performed on Shabbat, he should protest.31 For example: If someone brought his car to the repair shop, and then happened to pass by on Shabbat and sees that his car is being worked on, he should ask the mechanics to do the repairs after Shabbat.32

If the Non-Jew is Performing the Work for Himself and by His Own Volition

If the non-Jew turned on a light for himself, the Jew may benefit from that light too If the non-Jew is performing work for his own benefit, in certain cases the Jew may benefit from this work, and in others he may not. The principle is this: If it would require the non-Jew to perform additional work in order for the Jew to enjoy any benefit, the Jew may not benefit directly from this work on Shabbat. This is because the Sages feared that the gentile might specifically increase his labor for the sake of the Jew, which would mean that work is now being done for the direct benefit of the Jew, and if the Jew were permitted to benefit from this work, someone might ask the non-Jew directly to perform it.33

If, however, this is work that cannot be added to, then a Jew may enjoy benefit from this work, as there is no reason to decree against it. For example, if a non-Jew boils water to prepare coffee for himself, a Jew may not use any of that hot water, as the Rabbis predicted that the non-Jew might then add more water for the Jew's use.34 If, however, the non-Jew turned on a light for himself, the Jew may benefit from that light too as "the same candle that benefits one can be used to benefit one hundred."35

If the work is something that will only benefit the Jew indirectly, one may not ask the non-Jew to do the work, but one need not stop the non-Jew from doing it, even if it seems that he's doing it for the sake of the Jew.36 An example of this is a non-Jew turning off an unneeded light in a Jew's home. The benefit the Jew will have from this is a reduced electric bill—but he gains no benefit from the actual darkness that the work caused. Therefore, one need not protest if a gentile wishes to turn off one's lights or other electronic appliances.37

In Case of Sickness

If a Jew is ill to the point of being bedridden, even if the illness is not life threatening, it is permissible to ask a non-Jew to do any type of forbidden Shabbat work for the sick person.38 Since extreme cold can cause illness, it's permissible on a severely cold day to ask a non-Jew to do work (for example, turn on a heater) that would prevent illness.39 This is why in pre-war Europe, Jews would have a "Shabbos Goy." He was a gentile that would come to the Jewish houses on Shabbat morning in order to add wood to the heaters so as to keep the houses warm in the freezing winter months. This was permissible for the aforementioned reason.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein40 rules that extreme heat is also considered a health hazard. So in a case where the temperatures are soaring, a non-Jew may be called upon to turn on an air-conditioning unit. Others disagree.

For a Mitzvah or in Case of Great Need

If temperatures are soaring, a non-Jew may be called upon to turn on an air-conditioning unitIn certain situations, it's permissible to ask a non-Jew to perform a type of work that is only forbidden by Rabbinic law. The cases that would render this permissible are as follows:41

1. For the purposes of a mitzvah.

2. For minor illnesses.

3. To prevent a significant financial loss.

4. For another great need.

In any of these cases, one may ask the non-Jew to do this type of work. One must, however, ascertain that the work under consideration is indeed forbidden by Rabbinic decree rather than Biblical law.

At the Beginning of Shabbat

In a situation of great need or for the purposes of a mitzvah, one may ask a non-Jew to perform even Biblically-forbidden work during the first few minutes of Shabbat.42 This is the time between sunset and the emergence of three stars. An example of this is if one did not light the Shabbat candles before sunset, one may ask a non-Jew to light one candle as long as the stars have not yet emerged. In such a case, the Jew may still recite the blessing on the lighting.43

Business

In keeping with the above laws, one may not leave one's business open on Shabbat and have his non-Jewish employees work. If, however, the work is not done on the premises belonging to the Jew, and the workers are paid for the job as opposed to a fixed salary, should the non-Jews choose to do the work on Shabbat, the Jew need not stop them, as mentioned above. A Jewish employer may not, however, instruct them to do this on Shabbat.

If one has a non-Jewish partner in his business, it is permissible for the non-Jew to run the business on Shabbat. This partnership must be set up in a specific way. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article,44 and one should consult a rabbi who is experienced in this area.

Benefiting from Work that Was Performed in a Forbidden Manner

If a non-Jew performed work for a Jew that was not permissible according to the rules set forth above, no Jew may benefit from that work until after Shabbat is over. In addition, once Shabbat has ended, one must wait for the amount of time that it takes to complete this work to elapse before benefiting from it. If the work was only forbidden by Rabbinic law, only the Jew for whom the work was done may not benefit from it. All others may benefit from it even during Shabbat.45