If a Jewish home was dimly lit – enough to allow the household members to eat, clean up, and wash the dishes, but not enough to allow them to read – and a non-Jew came and turned on an additional light for them, a Jew may use its light to eat, clean up, and wash the dishes, but not read. They may only do what they could have done without the additional light, but activities that were impossible to do without the additional light may not be done (SA 276:4; MB ad loc. 32).
If a non-Jew turned off a light to help a Jew sleep, the Jew may sleep in that room. Even though the non-Jew turned off the light on his behalf, and had he not done so the Jew would not have been able to sleep, the Jew is not benefiting from anything substantive created by the non-Jew’s melakha but from the absence of light.
Even though a Jew may benefit in the above situations from the light or darkness that a non-Jew contributed to a room, a Jew may not ask a non-Jew to turn the lights on or off. However, he may hint at such a request. He must be careful with his formulation, though. It may not include anything that might be taken as a command. For example, if there is not enough light, one may not say to a non-Jew: “Do me a favor – there is not enough light in the room.” Pointing to the light is also forbidden, because this is considered a hint that resembles a command (Ĥayei Adam 62:2). Similarly, if the light is on and is keeping one from sleeping, he may not say to a non-Jew: “Do what needs to be done” or “Do me a favor – I cannot sleep here,” nor may he point to the light.
In contrast, one may hint by way of description. Thus if one needs more light, he may say to a non-Jew: “It is difficult for me to clean the house or to read when the light is so dim,” or “The house is not well lit because only one light is on.” These descriptions do not comprise a request that the non-Jew act; he is simply reporting the facts. The non-Jew then decides on his own to help the Jew by turning on an additional light. Similarly, if light is keeping a Jew from sleeping, he may say: “It is hard for me to sleep with the light on.” The non-Jew will then figure out on his own that if he wants to help the Jew, he should turn off the light.
If no toilet paper was cut before Shabbat, this also may be reported to a non-Jew in descriptive form: “I have no toilet paper.” The non-Jew will then cut toilet paper for him. This is not considered benefiting from a melakha that a non-Jew performed, because it is possible in a pinch to use toilet paper even when it has not been cut. However, he may not formulate his statement as a command, such as “Do me a favor – I have no toilet paper.” Similarly, if the oven was left on accidentally, one may say to a non-Jew: “What a shame that so much electricity is being wasted.” The non-Jew will understand the hint on his own and turn it off. However, one may not include a command in the hint, such as: “Whoever turns it off will not lose [i.e., will be rewarded].”
In short, one may benefit from the actions of a non-Jew on Shabbat as long as he is careful to avoid two rabbinic prohibitions. First, he may not tell the non-Jew to perform a melakha, but must hint at it by reporting the facts. Second, one may not benefit from melakha performed by a non-Jew if it makes it possible for him to do something that he could not have done otherwise. Thus one may hint one’s request to a non-Jew by means of a description, and one may benefit from light that a non-Jew added where there was already enough light to manage in a pinch. In addition, one may benefit from a non-Jew’s act of turning off a light or an oven, since this does not involve direct benefit from the melakha he performed.
All the methods presented here are permitted le-khatĥila. When none of these methods are sufficient, then for a great need or for the sake of a mitzva, the Sages permitted asking a non-Jew to perform a rabbinically forbidden melakha. Sometimes one may even ask him to perform a melakha that is prohibited by Torah law, as will be explained in the upcoming sections.
. In a case where there is a possibility of major financial loss, such as a fire, the Sages permitted saying to a non-Jew: “Whoever puts it out will not lose” (SA 334:26). This is because in such a case, it would likely be ineffective to say: “Too bad about the house,” because the non-Jew cannot be expected to expend effort to put out the fire if he does not expect to be rewarded. If the Jew hints that a reward is involved, this will motivate the non-Jew to expend major effort to help the Jew. Therefore, the Sages permitted hinting that the non-Jew will profit, even though this is the type of hint that is generally not permitted because it encourages the non-Jew to take action and is thus considered a kind of command.
. If one sinned by explicitly asking a non-Jew to turn on a light in a room where there was already some light, then even though the Jew has transgressed, since there was some light was there prior to his request, a Jew may benefit from the additional light (MB 276:20).