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A Gentile’s Work on Shabbos – Part II


Everyone heard of the Shabbos goy who was, and still is, a fixture in some communities. When are we permitted to utilize his services? When can he be used to service the ill? And how do we define ‘ill’ for this purpose? Is a young child also considered ill? What about someone who not necessarily ill, but is suffering – is he considered ill? Can one tell one gentile to tell another to do work for a Jew? Can a gentile be asked to do something that if he’d do it the slower way would not have been a desecration of Shabbos, but he’ll surely take the quick route and desecrate the Shabbos? Can one use a gentile to prevent a large monetary loss? Of this, and more, in the coming article.

Parasha Source

In this week’s parasha we read about the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, one of which is “Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it” (Shemos 20:8). Last week we provided an overview of the prohibitions involved in telling a gentile to do work for a Jew on Shabbos. This week we will outline when and how one is permitted to use his services.

Prohibition Summary

Last week’s article listed the various prohibitions involved in telling a non-Jew to do forbidden work on Shabbos:

  1. A Jew may not benefit from forbidden work done for him on Shabbos. Therefore, telling a gentile to do work on Shabbos, either before or on Shabbos, is forbidden. If we wouldn’t have been able to do something without the gentile’s action, it is even necessary to protest his action. However, one may benefit from an action which only removed something which prevented a Jew from benefiting from what he had or something that would have been possible to enjoy slightly even without the gentile’s action. Therefore, before Shabbos one can hint to a gentile to do something on Shabbos. However, on Shabbos, one may only hint to a gentile by describing the problem but not ask to perform a forbidden action.
  2. The prohibition of maris ha’ayin: a gentile who works for himself but does so in a way that appears to be for a Jew. This kind of work is also forbidden.
  3. The prohibition to speak of forbidden actions on Shabbos. This includes asking a gentile to do work on Shabbos, or hint in a comanding tone or gesture, even if only referring to actions to be done after Shabbos.


Allowance for Use

There are certain cases in which Chazal permitted using a gentile to do forbidden work on Shabbos. In some, we are permitted to demand the gentile do so explicitly, and in others – only to hint of the need.

 The Ill

Chazal permitted asking a gentile to do work when the action is done for an ill person, even if he is not in a life-threatening situation. This permit includes telling a gentile to perform a Torah-prohibited action (Shabbos 129A; Shulchan Aruch OC 328:17).

It is important to note that where the action is permitted, speaking of it is also permitted. In this case, the conversation is not considered “weekday speech” because the mitzva of bikur cholim – visiting the ill, includes tending to all of the sick person’s needs. The Gemara (Shabbos 150a) derives this from a pasuk: “Honor it (Shabbos) by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words” (Yeshaya 58:13). The prohibition only includes activities that are yours – your business, your actions. Therefore, speaking about a mitzva, is not prohibited.

Defining Ill

The sick are halachically divided into four categories.

  1. A person suffering from a life-threatening condition.
  2. A person suffering from a non-life-threatening condition.
  3. One of his limbs is in danger.
  4. Slightly ill or in pain.

A patient suffering from a life-threatening illness is every sick person whose disease can pose danger to his life, even if the threat is slight. In this case even a Jew is permitted to desecrate Shabbos to help, and certainly a gentile.

A person suffering from a non-life-threatening disease is one who lies in bed due to his illness or weakness. One who feels his illness or injury all over his body or is fully occupied in it also falls in this category, although he may not need to lie in bed.

A danger to one of his limbs is one who, may lose function of a limb.

Slight illness is pain that is limited to a certain area in the body. While there is pain, it does not incapacitate the ill in any way.

Telling a gentile to do work for one who answers the requirements of the first three categories is permitted.

One who answers the requirement of the fourth category, though, does not have this general license. However, there are times when it can be permitted – specifically where refraining from the action will result in severe suffering. The detail of this case will appear below.

Young Children

A young child’s needs are equal to the needs of an ill person. This includes all his basic necessities – food, clothing, and shelter. Where these are inaccessible without forbidden work, we are permitted to tell a gentile to make them available. Thus, a gentile may be asked to cook for a young child who needs food (Rama, OC 328:17). However, in this case the food will become muktze for the rest of the family. Therefore, in this case it is preferable for the gentile to also feed the child (Mishna Brura, footnote 58). However, if the child will only eat from his mother, she (or whoever he agrees to eat from) should feed him, albeit preferably with a shinuy (change).

In this scenario, the Mishna Brura (ibid) quotes the Chayei Adam, that when a gentile cooks for an ill person or child, the Jew must be careful not to place the pot on the cooking surface even if the gentile will be the one lighting the fire — filling the pot is a rabbinically forbidden activity, even if the actual fire will be lit by a gentile.

Slight illness – Extensive Suffering

One who is slightly ill, while not feeling sick all over or lying in bed, is permitted to ask a gentile to do actions that are rabbinically forbidden. However, asking him to perform Torah-prohibited actions remains forbidden. Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso (38:14) notes that defining this illness is quite difficult. Therefore, a rabbi must be consulted in this sort of case. The following details are presented here to afford our readers the ability to make an educated decision.

Shmira Shabos Kehilchaso lists several examples:

One who is slightly congested can ask a gentile to administer nose drops, when the prohibition is the rabbinic prohibition of taking medication on Shabbos.

When necessary, one may administer an enema, but a gentile may not warm the water for it.

One who is suffering from an external bruise or abrasion which causes him pain can ask a gentile to place ointment on it (without rubbing it in) and then to cover it with gauze, although the gauze can cause the cream to be rubbed in. A serious cut or abrasion that can become infected may be treated normally by a non-Jew.

Therefore, a sprain that isn’t too painful can be treated by a gentile with ice or wet compresses because treating it is a rabbinic prohibition. One must, however, be careful not to tell the gentile to squeeze out the extra water. If the gentile did so himself, no prohibition was transgressed. In this case, it is preferrable to use a clean cloth (to circumvent the prohibition of washing). In addition, telling a gentile to place liquid ointment or oil is also permitted.

If, however, the sprain causes a lot of pain (for which one is laid-up in bed, or his entire body is wracked with pain) one is permitted to tell a gentile to treat it appropriately.

Note: a mild toothache is not even considered a mild illness.

Mitzva Necessities

In Yeshayahu we learn: “Honor it (Shabbos) by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words” (Yeshayahu 58:13). The Gemara deduces (Shabbos 150a) from this pasuk that speaking about mundane forbidden activities is forbidden, but speaking about forbidden mitzva actions is permitted. Therefore, we must clarify what we are permitted to tell a gentile to do in order for us to perform a mitzva.

The Shulchan Aruch (307:5, Mishna Brura 307:23-24) rules that where the action is only rabbinically forbidden, telling the gentile to do so is permitted.

There are cases where even Torah-prohibited actions are permitted. For example, one who wishes to buy a house in Eretz Yisroel from a gentile, and the opportunity arises on Shabbos – if the gentile will not sign later on, Chazal permitted (Gitin 8b, Shulchan Aruch 307:11)  telling a gentile to sign for the Jew and record the transaction.

On the other hand, while performing a bris is permitted on Shabbos, preparing the necessary tools which could have been done on Friday is forbidden. Where the action is Torah prohibited telling a gentile to do so is forbidden even if the result will be postponing the bris to Sunday.

Therefore, concludes the Mishna Brura (307:21), we cannot compare one mitzva to the next because there are cases in which Chazal permitted telling a gentile to perform Torah prohibited actions, and others in which they didn’t. Since there is no overriding principle in this case, only rabbinic prohibitions can be done by a gentile for a mitzva.

Loss Prevention

Chazal permitted telling a gentile to help prevent a significant monetary loss. Due to Chazal’s intimate understanding of human nature – people panic over loss of possessions and may purposely transgress rabbinic or even Torah prohibitions for that end — in certain cases Chazal permitted telling a gentile to take certain action to prevent a loss. In other cases, however, Chazal were more stringent in the matter, forbidding asking a gentile to do anything directly, out of concern that in his panic to save his possessions, one will himself desecrate the Shabbos.

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 307:5) rules that in dire need, one is permitted to tell a gentile to perform rabbinically prohibited actions. The Mishna Brura (footnote 25) quotes the Magen Avraham that this permit is a general allowance, permitting telling a gentile to do work in order to prevent any large loss.

In addition, the Shulchan Aruch rules (OC 307:19; Mishna Brura footnote 68) that a gentile may be called without specifying his job, leaving it up to his own understanding. Here, where no explicit directives are provided, the gentile can even perform a Torah-prohibited action.

The Shulchan Aruch also rules (OC 307:19; Mishna Brura footnote 71) that in a case of sudden danger, one is even permitted to promise financial compensation for the work – by announcing “Anyone who extinguishes the fire or saves items will not lose out.” The Mishna Brura stipulates, though, that the direct conditional cannot be used – “If you extinguish the fire or save my belongings,” because although extinguishing a fire is a rabbinic prohibition, one must be careful with his word choice in order to retain awareness of Hilchos Shabbos – so one will not come to desecrate it himself.

It is important here to note that this is only relevant where the fire presents no threat to human life. Where a life may be endangered as a result of the fire or smoke, the flames must be extinguished as soon as possible, even by a Jew.

Passing on the Message

What should one do when faced with the danger of a major loss, and the gentile he called in does not understand his hints?

The Mishna Brura (307:24) mentions a halachic dispute among Achronim what the halachic status is of one who tells a gentile to ask another gentile to perform a Torah prohibited action. The Avodas Hagershoni (quoted in the Chavos Yair 53) prohibits it, but the Chavos Yair (ibid) permits it, stating that only telling another gentile to hire workers is forbidden. The Mishna Brura rules that in order to prevent a significant loss one is permitted to ask a gentile to ask another gentile to do the job. Therefore, if one can tell a gentile to tell another gentile to do something, it is permitted to send explicit orders.

Animal Suffering

Where animals may suffer extensively, Chazal permit telling a gentile to perform Torah prohibited actions. Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 305:20) that one is permitted to tell a gentile farmhand to go milk the cow. The Mishna Brura (footnote 73) writes that preferably, one should tell the gentile to milk the cow into a food, because in this case milking is only rabbinically prohibited.

We should note that a Jew may not drink this milk until after Shabbos, even though the milking was done by a gentile.

Permissible Possibility

There is no prohibition involved in telling a gentile to perform a certain action in a permissible way if he goes ahead and does it in a forbidden way. The prohibited action was done by the gentile for his own ease, and therefore, no transgression took place.


Chazal permitted directing a gentile to perform forbidden actions on Shabbos when the actions benefit the ill with a life-threatening condition; one whose limb is in danger; for a young child’s needs; and to prevent significant suffering from an animal.

For mitzva purposes; pain irrelated to illness; or to prevent a large loss, Chazal permitted telling a gentile to perform only rabbinically prohibited actions. For a significant loss one is also permitted to call a gentile and allow him to infer the necessary steps. If necessary, one is also allowed to instruct a gentile to tell another gentile to do something.

Where the threat of loss is sudden, such as in case of a fire, Chazal instituted extra precaution to maintain the sanctity of Shabbos. To that end, they required using a general proclamation to announce the request, such as: “Anyone who extinguishes the flames or saves possessions will not lose out.”

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