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Shabbat Parashat Miketz| 5765
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Question: My three-year-old son mischievously turned off and back on the dining room lights on Shabbat. Were we allowed to continue eating in the room?
Answer: Your question raises standard Shabbat questions, which we will address briefly, along with a rarely discussed question about melacha (forbidden work) done by a child on Shabbat. We will not discuss the contentious question of when, if ever, it is permitted to have a child do something on Shabbat that is forbidden for an adult (see Orach Chayim 343).
The prohibition of receiving benefit from melacha done on Shabbat arises in the Talmud in two contexts. One is as a k’nas (injunction) on a Jew who violates Shabbat, so that he will not benefit or will even lose from desecrating it (see Ketubot 34a and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 318:1). The second is not to benefit from melacha done by a non-Jew on Shabbat on behalf of a Jew, even though the non-Jew did nothing wrong. Rashi (Beitza 24b) says that it is an intrinsic (rabbinic) problem of benefiting from the melacha of a non-Jew on Shabbat. Tosafot (ad loc.) explains it as a concern that if a Jew gets used to benefiting in such a way, he may come to ask the non-Jew to do the work for him in a forbidden manner. What about a child’s melacha?
No injunction is appropriate regarding a child, who is halachically no worse (and is likely better) than one who violates Shabbat accidentally, even if he has reached the age of chinuch (serious education). (We will leave that issue alone, as a three-year-old, even one who “knows” about Shabbat, is beneath the age of chinuch.) The question is only whether the prohibition on benefit, lest one come to ask the child to do melacha, applies. What do the sources say?
The gemara (Yevamot 114a), in discussing whether one has to prevent a minor from doing what is an aveira for an adult, brings the following story. Someone lost keys in the public domain on Shabbat and was, thus, forbidden to retrieve them. Rabbi Pedat suggested that small children be taken to the area to play, so that they might find and retrieve the keys. Tosafot (Shabbat 122a) asks that, whether or not one can let a child take the keys or has to stop them, it should have been forbidden to benefit from the keys, as in a case that a non-Jew had retrieved them. Tosafot answers that it was permitted because the children brought the keys without having the needs of others in mind. (When non-Jews do melacha for themselves, Jews may benefit from it). The Magen Avraham (325:22) infers from here that if a child does melacha for someone else, it is forbidden to benefit from it. The Pri Megadim (ad loc.) explains that it is because of a fear that the adults will not think it is a big deal to ask the minor to do the melacha, which is forbidden (see Yevamot, ibid.). One leniency that can be implied from Tosafot is that if the child brings more than he needs, then we do not have to fear that the extra amount is considered for others, as we do by a non-Jew (see Magen Avraham. ibid. and commentaries).
Let’s go back to your case. If your son turned the lights off and on in one act of mischief, then it was all done for his own purposes, and there is no problem of receiving benefit. But perhaps he shut them and, after regretting the situation that everyone was sitting in the dark, decided later to put them back on to improve the situation for his family. In that case, there should be a problem, because we look at the turning on as causing benefit for others, even if he hoped it would save him from punishment. However, without reviewing all the laws of benefit from melacha on Shabbat, let us recall one rule. Any use of a room that one could have had, even with difficulty, without the melacha is not considered forbidden benefit (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 30:58). Most homes have enough light that, even if the dining room lights go off, it is possible to eat the meal. Thus, the only question was probably about reading, and it depends on the circumstances.
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