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Shabbat Parashat Balak| 5770

Ask the Rabbi: Using a Non-Jew to Shut Lights on Shabbat so a Jew Will Not

Question: Often on Shabbat-long programs for non-shomer Shabbat students, the resort does not have timers for the lights, and participants who turned on lights before Shabbat will certainly shut them before going to sleep. Participants are exposed to the concept of keeping Shabbat, and some decided to try to keep Shabbat while they are with us. Many of them believe that if they switch the lights off once, there is no point in keeping the rest of Shabbat. Are there are sources to allow us to either ask or hint to a non-Jew to turn off their bedroom lights to allow these Jewish kids a better chance at observing Shabbat?


Answer: There are a few circumstances in which a non-Jew can do work on a Jew’s behalf on Shabbat. Some involve using hints, as you mention. One possibility is to use a hint in which you mention only the need and do not use any active verb. For example, you could say, “It is too light in many of the rooms for people to fall asleep,” as opposed to, “It would be nice if someone shut the lights before people go to sleep” (based on Rama, Orach Chayim 307:22 and Mishna Berura 307:66). Also, one can use even the latter type of hint before Shabbat so that the non-Jew will do the action on Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, OC 307:2).

Despite the fact that these distinctions are quite accepted, there are certain problems with their application. The Magen Avraham (252:9) says that one is not supposed to allow a non-Jew to do melacha for a Jew with the latter’s property, even when he does so of his own volition. This can be remedied by katzatz, i.e., having the non-Jew receive money by the piece of work done. However, even the leniency of katzatz does not work on a Jew’s property when people are apt to think that the Jew may have paid him according to time, and even if the non-Jew starts doing the work of his own volition on Shabbat, he should be stopped (Shulchan Aruch, OC 244:1). Why, then, does it help to do a special hint to the non-Jew if, when push comes to shove, he is doing the work on the Jew’s property? Acharonim struggle with this issue (see the Sanctity of Shabbos, p. 24), but in general the minhag is to allow this type of non-commercial activity.

Even when it is considered that the Jew did not tell the non-Jew to do the work, it is prohibited to receive positive, direct benefit until after Shabbat from that which a non-Jew did on a Jew’s behalf on Shabbat (Shabbat 122a). However, not everything is considered such benefit, and a classic example the poskim discuss is creating darkness, which is considered just removing light and is permitted.

In addition, there is an over-arching heter for allowing telling (even directly) a non-Jew to shut the lights under the circumstances you describe. Shutting a light is a rabbinic prohibition (Mishna Berura 278:3). Under quite a few circumstances of need, it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to do a rabbinic prohibition, including shutting a light to allow a child to sleep (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 38:26). One of the examples is for a mitzva (Shulchan Aruch, OC 307:5) and here there is a double mitzva. One is the (albeit, small) chance that this act of the non-Jew will be a part of enabling your Jewish participant to embark upon a way of life of Shabbat/Torah observance. The other is the mitzva of afrushei me’isura (preventing one from sinning), even on a one-time basis. Although we do not usually say that one should perform a small sin to save someone else from a big sin (Shabbat 4a), the rules of instructions to non-Jews have a special built-in leniency for such cases.

Therefore, in addition to permissibility through hints, it should be permitted because of your perceived need. This being said, we would caution that your plan, especially if not planned properly, could have negative educational ramifications in addition to positive ones. Since you are in the field of working with this population, we leave such considerations to your discretion.


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Rav Mordechai Eliyahu ztvk”l


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