Which tasks - that we may not do on Shabbat - may we request a gentile to perform on our behalf?

One of the perks of being a rabbi in a religious neighbourhood is that very often, during our Friday night meal, there is a knock at the door; someone has come to consult on a problem in Jewish law. Some examples: We forgot to turn on the hotplate; the freezer was accidentally turned off; a gas fire went out; the oven was left on high temperature, and we're worried for the safety of the toddlers. May we ask a non-Jew to rectify the situation for us?

Not that I'm complaining, G‑d forbid. Actually, I feel privileged to be able to assist fellow Jews to keep Torah and mitzvot properly. But it is certainly of value that people have the relevant rules at their fingertips. A more knowledgeable questioner will elicit a more thorough response.

Why We May Not Ask Non-Jews to Break Shabbat

Shabbat is unique to the Jewish people. Yet under normal circumstances, whatever we're not permitted to do on Shabbat, our Sages forbade us to request a gentile to do on our behalf.

Some earlier commentators explain that this was enacted in order to protect the Shabbat: Were it permissible to have gentiles work for us freely on Shabbat, we would be able to have entire industries and commerce running on Shabbat, doing business as usual!

Some commentators add that a gentile acting on our behalf is likened to a messenger, a “shliach. In many areas of Jewish law, the act of a shliach is attributed to his dispatcher; when a gentile does “melachah”, a forbidden action, on Shabbat on behalf of a Jew, the Sages considered it as if the Jew did the forbidden act himself.

But there are exceptional circumstances where we are permitted to enlist the services of a gentile on Shabbat. We will quote several rules, followed by some practical applications.

Rule 1: For the Sake of a Mitzvah

Telling a gentile to do an action for you on Shabbat, “amirah lenochri,” is permitted when the following two conditions are in place: a) The act in question would be allowed by Torah law and is only forbidden by rabbinic decree, and b) its performance is now needed the sake of a mitzvah. This rule is known as shevut dishvut letzorech mitzvah.

An important caveat: This concession is allowed if you're stuck; you're not permitted to rely on this initially, “lechatchilah.”


A: Kindling a Fire on Yom Tov

Striking a match on Yom Tov is forbidden, miderabanan (on Shabbat it is forbidden by Torah law). In order to perform the mitzvah of lighting candles on the second night of Yom Tov, you need to have a flame that was already alight. In homes that do not have a gas flame burning, a long-lasting candle is lit on Erev Yom Tov, from which they will light the candles for the second night of Yom Tov.

What if your candle was extinguished before you managed to use it for the above purpose? Well, you may ask a gentile to strike a match in order to enable you to do the mitzvah of lighting the Yom Tov candles.

But you may not rely on this solution lechatchilah. Even if you have a gentile live-in maid, you must take steps before Yom Tov to not have to call upon the melachah-services of a gentile, even if the issue is merely miderabanan, and even if it will be done to enable the performance of a mitzvah.

B. Carrying a Child on Shabbat

Carrying a human being into the street on Shabbat is forbidden. When the “passenger” is somewhat mobile, then his being carried is forbidden miderabanan, The same rule applies to wheeling that person in a wheelchair. For a mitzvah need, e.g. coming to pray in shul, one may employ the services of a gentile to wheel someone from home to synagogue and back.

Conversely, a “passenger” who is not at all mobile, e.g. a young baby, may not be wheeled by a gentile into a public domain, “reshut harabbim,” even when it is for a mitzvah need.

(Are our streets really reshut harabbim? That's a separate discussion. True, many Poskim often state: "We don't have a reshut harabbim", primarily because of the lack of 600,000 daily pedestrians. But bear in mind that nowadays' cities have huge populations; numbers that were unheard of in cities of yesteryear).

C. Preparing for the Next Day of Yom Tov

One may not do preparations on Shabbat or Yom Tov for the following evening or thereafter. This includes efforts that involve no melachah. A similar rule applies to preparing from Day One of Yom Tov for Day Two. So, on Shemini Atzeret afternoon, we may not prepare for the Kiddush on the night of Simchat Torah; nor may one set tables on the first day of Pesach for the second Seder, that same evening.

Let me share with you a telephone conversation I had:

Q: We're having a big crowd coming for the second Seder. Many of them are not yet frum, and if we tell them to wait another 25 minutes after nightfall until the tables will be set, it's likely that they will leave.

I ask: How about setting up the second Seder before Yom Tov in a different room than the space used on the first day?

Answer: That would be fabulous, but we don't have a different room.

A. Clearly, there's a Mitzvah need here - to have those tables all dressed fancy in good time. You're not allowed to do this yourself, but you may have a gentile set up the room during the afternoon. (This concession does not include requesting the gentile to heat up food).

Rule 2: To Avoid Financial Loss

One may request a gentile to do a melachah for us in order to avert a substantial loss. The rationale: In the face of great monetary loss, a person is prone to act rashly; our Sages determined that it is better that the Jew salvages his wealth through the acts of a gentile rather than doing the forbidden act himself.


A. You're in the street on Shabbat and you realize that your wallet (full of money) is in your pocket. You may ask a gentile to carry the wallet to a safe place, from where you will fetch it after Shabbat.

B. A son came from overseas to visit his father, and the father allowed the son to drive his car. Being unfamiliar with the local bylaws, the son parked the car on Friday afternoon in a spot where - if left over Shabbat - it will be clamped or towed away. Both clamping and towing may involve substantial loss. This justifies seeking a gentile to park the car in a safe spot.

Perhaps curiously, in case of a fire, the original halachah swings to a much stricter stance. Because of the much more imminent threat, our Sages were concerned that the owner would panic and extinguish the fire in a forbidden way. They therefore restricted the amount one may salvage. Additionally, they did not permit employing a gentile fire-fighter; they merely allowed to announce: "Whoever distinguishes this fire will not lose," thereby implying that the gentile volunteers would be rewarded for their efforts.

(It is vital to add here that contemporarily, we rule much more leniently regarding a breakout of fire on Shabbat. Because we live amongst gentiles, often the case is that an unchecked fire will cause damage to them as well as to us. Sitting back and allowing the damage to spread may have repercussions, resulting in enmity, which in itself carries a danger. Therefore we are permitted to put out such a fire.1 Obviously, when a fire can be contained in a permissible manner, one should do so - see commentaries to the above source).

Rule 3: For the Bedridden

It is permitted to request that a gentile to do a melachah for the benefit of one who is bedridden. The needs of a small child are permitted under the same rule.


A. One who is hospitalized due to illness may request the gentile staff to heat up their meal or to make them a hot drink.

B. During very cold weather, it is permitted to ask a gentile to stoke up the fireplace on Shabbat day. If people were left to freeze, they would catch colds, making them ill, which would then justify employing the services of a gentile on Shabbat. Therefore it is also permitted to pre-empt the problem by having a gentile light the fire in the fireplace.

C. Asking a gentile to switch on the air-conditioning would be permitted when the heat is so oppressive that it may cause illness. It is on this basis that in some shuls they will ask the janitor to adjust the temperature on Shabbat, for fear that someone might faint. It is certainly preferable that appropriate measures are taken before Shabbat so as not to resort to this.

Rule 4: Pesik Reisha

One may request a gentile to perform a pesik reisha melachah. This means a situation that your primary need is A, but you may not do it yourself because inevitably B will occur, and B is a forbidden melachah. You may request the gentile to do A, despite the fact that B will happen. The rationale is that your bidding is to do A; the consequential happening of B is beyond your instruction.


A. The light inside the fridge wasn't turned off before Shabbat, so I can't open the fridge because that will cause the light to go on (a melachah). I may, however, ask the gentile to open the fridge.

B. We don't use the hot water tap on Shabbat. This is because the boiler senses when water is drawn, and normally, when we release hot water from the system, there will be an inflow of fresh cold water to the boiler or to the hot water tank. For us, that is forbidden, because we would be indirectly heating cold water on Shabbat. (This is true even if the boiler was switched off before Shabbat, so long as the water in the tank is still very hot). But we may request a gentile to draw water from the hot tap, and we may ignore his consequential heating of cold water.

(How about asking a gentile to fill up an entire mikvah with hot water? In this case, the “consequential” heating of water is actually what you are interested in! I suspect that this is not included in the said leniency of Psik Reisha).

Rule 5: When the Transgression Benefits the Non-Jew

If I employ a gentile to perform a permitted task, but the worker decides to an additional forbidden act, so they should be to fulfill my request in a better manner.


A. I ask a housekeeper to tidy up a room. She switches on the light so that she should be able to see better.

B. I give my car to a gentile mechanic to have it serviced. The vehicle was in his garage on Friday morning, and it was possible for him to complete his work for me well before Shabbat. He decided, however, to push off the task until Shabbat. I’m paying him for the job (in halachah, he is referred to as a kablan), not per hour (this kind of worker is known as a sachir). This is permitted because his choice to work on Shabbat had nothing to do with me.

This application is not acceptable when the work will be done on a site known to belong to a Jew. Hence, a gentile contractor may not do work on site on Shabbat for a Jewish client. This is because Jewish passersby may get the impression that the Jewish owner employed these gentile craftsmen to work for him on Shabbat.

Rule 6: When the Gentile Had Only Himself in Mind

When a gentile performed a melachah for his own benefit, we are permitted to benefit thereof. This applies only where there is no concern that the gentile will add to his melachah for the benefit of his Jewish acquaintance.

Example: When the electric lights are off and it’s a Friday, it is common practice to call in a gentile and offer him/her a drink in the dark room. Someone then muses aloud how the room is dark, and the visitor offers to switch the light on. The host magnanimously allows the light to be switched on so that the visitor enjoys his/her drink in a comfortable environment. (When our visitor leaves, we tell him that he/she shouldn’t switch the light off).

Rule 7: When There Are Divergent Opinions

In the case of an issue that is subject to differing halachic opinions, one may ask a non-Jew to perform an act that some halachic authorities allow. While for ourselves we embrace the stricter view, but as far as instructing a gentile to act for us, we may rely on the more lenient opinion.

Example: Some poskim forbid opening a can on Shabbat, either because one is demolishing a vessel, (“keli) or because one is enhancing a vessel by making a neat opening. You may, however, certainly ask a gentile to open the can for you.

Rule 8: When No Instruction Is Given

The Jew may declare his predicament, and the gentile addresses the problem without being told to do so. This is permitted only when the Jew will not directly benefit from the actual melachah.


A. The sukkah is covered with a layer of snow. We say aloud, in the presence of the gentile: “We need to eat in the sukkah, but we cannot do so as long as it is covered in snow”. A gentile may then bring a ladder and shovel, clearing away the snow.

B. A light was left on in a bedroom, and the occupants cannot fall asleep with the light on. Some poskim rely on this rule to hint to a gentile to turn off the light. This is because there is no direct benefit from the act of turning off the light, but merely from the absence of light that was caused thereby.

Rule 9: During Twilight

Bein hashmashot means “twilight.” This is the time between the sun having set and the appearance/emerging of three stars. We are forbidden to do melachah during this time on Friday afternoon due to it possibly being Shabbat. We may, however, instruct a gentile to do melachah on our behalf during this period.

Rule 10: When the Gentile Is Repairing His Own Mistake

The gentile may do melachah in order to repair something for which they are responsible. Since they are acting to undo their own errors, we may benefit from their latter act.


A. I had turned on the lights in the living room before Shabbat. The gentile saw that the room was not in use, so he turned the lights off. I then reprimanded him, saying: “Why did you turn those lights off? We need to use that room later on this evening!” Feeling bad, he went back and turned the light back on.

We may benefit from his melachah since he did so to cover his own back.

B. Before the onset of Shabbat, I placed several trays of chicken in the oven to roast. The gentile maid opened the oven to help herself to a piece of chicken. I’m OK with that, but she then failed to close the oven properly. In turn, the oven fan stopped circulating the heat, and in turn, the rest of the chicken will get ruined. So I tell her that because of her mistake, our guests won’t have proper dinner this evening. Not wanting to be responsible for the loss, she now closes the oven properly.

(In this instance we have another avenue for leniency since the melachah of concern will be brought about indirectly, pesik reisha, as discussed above in Rule 4).

Having said this, contemporary poskim take exception to the practice in Jewish-owned hotels, where the gentile staff turn the lights off at night and them back on in the morning. This, they assert, is not permitted, because they’re not doing so for themselves, but for the Jewish proprietor. Instead, the hotelier should clearly instruct them to leave the lights on until Shabbat is over, much as we are wont to do in our very own homes.

The above is for general information. Specific queries should be presented to a qualified rabbi.