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A Gentile’s Work On Shabbos – Part III


This week’s article will focus on practical scenarios involving telling a gentile to do work on Shabbos.

How is it possible for two people to do the same thing and one would be punishable as a Shabbos transgressor, and yet the other would be rewarded for doing a mitzva?

When may a gentile be called to do work for a postpartum woman? How long does this license last? Is calling a gentile to turn on the lights in a public dining room or shul permitted? Can an air conditioner be left on the cold setting with plans to call a gentile to turn it off when it becomes uncomfortable? A theater acter was left with horrifying makeup just as Shabbos began. Can he ask a gentile stagehand to remove it with spreadable makeup remover? Can a community lacking two hadasim for the first day of Succos ask a gentile to cut the missing branch off a bush? Is there any specific time when asking a gentile to do something is generally permitted? Of this, and more, in the coming article.

Shabbos In The Parasha

For the third consecutive week Shabbos is discussed in this week’s parasha: “Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest…” (Shemos 23:12). This week’s article concludes the series of three articles concerning asking a gentile to perform forbidden work on Shabbos. The first in this series focused on the prohibitions involved in telling a gentile to do forbidden work. The second outlined the situations when use of a gentile’s services is permitted. This week we will cover the issue from another angle, with practical questions and answers taken from real scenarios.

Reason Requirement

As we saw in the previous articles, knowing the reason for the prohibition is crucial in determining how to rule in a given situation since sometimes Chazal were strict and forbade use of a gentile, while in others – his services may be utilized.

This week’s article will offer insight in some common scenarios and the proper way of dealing with them.


If, for example, a post-partum woman is present in an area suffering a power cut, a gentile may be asked to fix the outage and turn the electricity back on for her.

The details of a post-partum woman are as follows:

  • The first three days after childbirth a woman is seen as having a life-threatening condition. Any action that she seems to need may be performed for her even if it involves forbidden work on Shabbos, and if a gentile is unavailable, the action may be done by a Jew.

Although a woman might say she is strong and feels well, we are concerned her sense of safety may be off-kilter or lost. Therefore, only if she says she doesn’t need something, and a doctor or midwife agree, do we refrain from desecrating the Shabbos for her.

  • 4-7 days after childbirth a woman is considered a regular choel shyesh bo sakana –a person ill with a life-threatening condition. Anything she or a doctor says she needs may be done for her. Only if she says she does not need something and no doctor maintains otherwise – or if a doctor says she doesn’t need something and she does not disagree, should Shabbos not be desecrated to fulfill that need.
  • From 8-30 days postpartum, a woman is considered sick with no danger to her life. No actions that involve desecration of Shabbos may be done for her unless a doctor says she needs it, or unless she has another underlying condition.

This division refers only to desecrating Shabbos by a Jew. However, in all these cases a gentile may be asked to perform an otherwise forbidden action that is necessary.

Therefore, if there is a power failure in an area that includes a woman 30 days postpartum, calling a gentile to fix the electricity that the woman needs is permitted.

Public Dining Room

Whenever forbidden work is needed on Shabbos, the first thing we must investigate is if there are any ill people or small children for whom the action is necessary.

A rabbi was recently presented with a case of a yeshiva dining room that lost power on Friday night. The dining room was useless unless power was restored and the only other possibility was for every boy to take his food from the kitchen and eat in his dormitory room.

The rosh yeshiva presenting the case suggested taking the latter course of action because he did not want to rely on any leniencies.

The rabbi asked how many boys learned in the yeshiva. The secretary said there were 160 students. “And presumably, there is at least one diabetic student in the yeshiva, am I correct?” the rabbi continued. The yeshiva’s first-aid officer ascertained that there were, indeed, three diabetic boys in the yeshiva who required insulin regularly, and another on a diabetes honeymoon (the phase that some people with type 1 diabetes experience shortly after being diagnosed. During this time, a person with diabetes seems to get better and may only need minimal amounts of insulin. Some people even experience normal or near-normal blood sugar levels without taking insulin. It can last anywhere from 1 month to 13 years. The length of the honeymoon is different for each person and depends on how balanced his diet is.)

Since the diabetic students are used to eating in the yeshiva dining room and know how to maintain their diet in that setting, eating in another place (such as the dorm room), where some of the dishes may be cold or otherwise inedible, will presumably upset the diabetics’ insulin balance. The secretary agreed that while the boys already know how to eat a balanced diet in the dining room, changing their mealtime setting was a sure-fire recipe for setting them off-kilter.

“Therefore,” answered the rabbi, “since diabetes is considered a life-threatening disease, and telling a gentile to perform necessary work for a diabetic is permitted, you are permitted to tell a gentile to turn on the lights in the dining room for those diabetic students.”

Although the other boys were not permitted to benefit from the gentile’s action, they nevertheless were not required to “leave their house” which is, in their case, the yeshiva dining room. Therefore, they, too, could eat their meal in the yeshiva dining room as usual.

“While eating in the dining room is permitted, reading there is forbidden,” the rabbi added. “You cannot sing zemiros from a bencher or recite Bircas Hamazon from a siddur in the dining room because that is use you could not have gotten without the gentile’s action.”

Listen To The Weather Report!

Rav Moshe Feinstein )Orach Chaim 3, 42) was once presented with a question regarding an air conditioner that was left on, under the assumption that it would be very hot. In the end, the weather changed and grew very cold. Could a gentile be called in to turn off the unit since people might get sick from sitting in the freezing cold air?

Rav Moshe answered in the affirmative, basing his ruling on the halacha (Rama OC 276:5) “Regarding the cold, everyone is considered ill” – since even healthy people can become ill from low temperatures. Therefore, a gentile may be asked to turn off the unit.

Although they could have gone out of the house, the Torah does not require one to relocate. Therefore, a gentile could be asked to turn off the unit.

If the weather forecast is unknown, however, one may not leave it on and rely on the possibility of having a gentile shut it if it turns out to be too cold.

Air Conditioner in Shul

If the air conditioner was left on in shul and the weather turns cold, the Igros Moshe permits asking a gentile to shut it since a shul is a place for davening, which is a public mitzva. If the unit were to remain on, many people would have to go home and miss tefilla b’tzibur and krias haTorah so as not to get sick. To allow for performing a public mitzva some permit telling a gentile to perform even a Torah prohibited activity. Therefore, together with the opinions that see turning off electricity as a rabbinically prohibited, asking a gentile to turn off the a/c in this situation is permitted.

Makeup Removal

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC II, responsa 79) was presented a question about a youngster training to be an actor who didn’t have time to remove all the garish makeup he had on before Shabbos. Would he be forced to remain with it for the entire Shabbos?

The Igros Moshe starts out reprimanding the man for his choice of profession – theatrics involves leitznus and foul speech, and causes one to regard severe prohibitions of murder and adultery in a casual manner. No Kiddush Hashem is to be had from such a profession, he continues. However, since this couldn’t be explained to the youngster in question, we must encourage his meticulousness in Hilchos Shabbos, and pray he will understand the problems involved in such a profession and abandon it on his own.

As to the actual question, Rabbi Feinstein writes that if it is a Torah prohibition, it is difficult to permit asking a gentile to remove the makeup, even if it is for a great need. However, if only a rabbinic prohibition is involved in removal, or even if it is doubtful if it is a Torah prohibition, one may be lenient and ask a gentile to do it.

Cutting a Hadas Branch on Succos

In Igros Moshe (OC IV 124) Rav Moshe Feinstein describes a situation that arose when he served as rabbi in Lyuban, Russia. The community didn’t have a full set of arba minim on the first day of Succos — they were missing two branches of kosher hadasim.

On the first day of Succos they heard that a gentile had a myrtle bush in a planter which, while not kosher according to all halachic opinions, some authorities saw as kosher. Combined with the single kosher branch they had, if they could procure those branches the community would be able to fulfill the mitzva of arba minim properly.

Could the gentile be asked to cut the branches so the community could have, according to certain opinions, three kosher hadasim?

Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that he ruled it was permissible because cutting something that grows in a planter is a rabbinic prohibition. Therefore, since he was only asking a gentile to do a rabbinically forbidden action it was permitted for a mitzva.

After the holiday, he presented the case to his father, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. His father disagreed because according to the majority of the poskim the community could make do with one single branch, and furthermore the additional branches were not seen as kosher according to all opinions. Therefore, since it is unclear if cutting the branches was indeed for a mitzva, his father forbade telling a gentile to do something which is forbidden, even if the prohibition is rabbinic. However, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein disagrees with this opinion and writes, that in his opinion his ruling was correct because performing a mitzva with additional hiddur is reason enough to permit asking a gentile to do forbidden work on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Bein Hashemashos

Bein hashemashos is a halachic “twilight zone” — a time when we are unsure if it is already Shabbos or not, since we are uncertain whether this period of time belongs to the previous day or the next. In this time, Chazal permit asking a gentile to do work.

Defining bein hashemashos can be confusing: while some maintain that Shabbos begins the second the sun slips off the horizon, others opine that Shabbos does not begin until 72 halachic minutes have passed from sunset. Can bein hashemashos be seen as the timespan between sunset until the latest possible opinion, allowing a gentile to be asked to do work in the interim?

Rav Nissim Karelitz is said to have ruled that any time between sunset and tzeis hakochavim one refrains from forbidden activity out of concern it is Shabbos – both on Friday evening and Motzaei Shabbos — is considered bein hashemashos in which he is permitted to ask a gentile to do work. Therefore, one who is careful not to do any forbidden work after sunset and resumes his weekday activities at the time that appears on the calendar, may ask a gentile to do forbidden work for him between sunset and the calendar-recorded time when Shabbos ends.

(Shabbos must be accepted a few minutes at lesst before sunset, and there are various customs as to how long. Regardless of one’s personal custom, the time he begins Shabbos before sunset is not seen halachically as bein hashemashos.)

Rav Moshe Feinstein, though, (Igros Moshe OC IV 74:40) defines bein hashemashos as twilight – when the level of darkness is unclear. In New York it is between sunset and the next 30 minutes. Practically though, he rules (Igros Moshe OC IV 62) that optimally on Motzai Shabbos one should refrain from resuming weekday activities until 72 minutes after sunset, and in urgent cases, no less than 50 minutes after sunset. (This ruling pertains to the New-York/ New-Jersey skyline. Rav Moshe mentions that he heard it was shared by most US cities.)





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