Our house is heated by a wood burning stove. Our winters are cold. To keep warm, we must load the stove several times a day. It is very economical and ecologically sound. However, we are faced with a dilemma on Shabbat—feed the fire or be cold, sometimes very cold.

Can we ask a non-Jew to load the oven?


Though ordinarily it is not permitted to ask a non-Jew to violate the Shabbat for us, there are a few exceptions to this rule. One of them is an instance where a person is ill. If the illness is life-threatening, then there's no need to ask a non-Jew to do the job, it is then the responsibility and privilege for a Jew to violate the laws of Shabbat in order to tend to the needs of the ill person. If, however, the illness is not life-threatening, then one may ask a non-Jew to perform the task we are forbidden to do.

Our Sages tell us that "all are considered ill with regards to the cold." This means that on a truly cold day, a lack of heat puts everyone, even those robustly healthy, in danger of falling ill. As such, it is permitted to avail oneself of a non-Jew's services in order to heat a home on a cold winter day. (If it is only mildly cold, it is only permissible to ask a non-Jew to put on the heat if there are children present who are suffering discomfort due to the low temperature.)

Thus if someone's electric, gas or oil heater needs to be kindled on a winter Shabbat – whether because it went out, or because it suddenly became very cold, or the like – it is perfectly permissible to recruit a non-Jew to turn on the thermostat.

Now, while your situation – a wood burning oven – may be an anomaly in today's day and age, it was the norm before the twentieth century. As such, it is discussed in the Code of Jewish Law—which rules that one may ask a non-Jew to load the wood.1

However, in today's day and age, when conventional heating systems – that can be set in advance to operate throughout Shabbat – are readily available, it is incumbent upon an individual, if at all possible, to obtain such a system, so as not to put himself in the position where he will have no choice but to avail himself of a non-Jew's services.

I hope this has helped!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov