05. A Non-Jew’s Melakha for Someone Sick or Suffering (and Air Conditioners)

Under normal circumstances, one may not ask a non-Jew to perform melakha on Shabbat. However, for the sake of a sick person, one may ask a non-Jew to perform melakhot, even those that are prohibited by Torah law. These leniencies apply even to one who is not dangerously ill. If one is dangerously ill, then even a Jew must desecrate Shabbat in order to help him, as saving a life overrides Shabbat (SA 328:17). The laws pertaining to sick people will be explained below in chapters 27 and 28.

A child who needs something very badly has the same status as a sick person, and one may ask a non-Jew to do even melakhot that are prohibited by Torah law on his behalf. Therefore, one may ask a non-Jew to cook for a child who has nothing to eat or to turn on a light in the home of children who are very scared of the dark (Rema 276:1; MB ad loc. 6; Rema 328:17; 24:6 above).

In the cold areas of northern Europe, keeping homes warm on Shabbat was an ongoing struggle. Since homes were generally heated by coal- or wood-burning stoves, by Shabbat morning the fuel supply would be depleted and the fire in the stove would go out. Since all people are considered ill when it comes to extreme cold, the rabbis permitted asking a non-Jew to come and light the stove on Shabbat morning (SA 276:5). The non-Jew who did this was known as the “Shabbos goy.” Nowadays, however, when heaters are powered by electricity or gas and do not run out during Shabbat, there is no justification for using a “Shabbos goy” on a regular basis. Only if, by chance, the heater went off and it is extremely cold, may one ask a non-Jew to turn on the heat. One may do this even if there are no small children. In a home with children who truly need the heat, one may ask a non-Jew to turn on a heater even if it is not extremely cold (SSK 23:28; see n. 87 ad loc.).

Permission to ask a non-Jew to do melakhot that are prohibited by Torah law is limited to the needs of the ill. For one who is suffering but not ill, one may ask a non-Jew to perform a rabbinically prohibited melakha but not one that is prohibited by Torah law. Based on this, some maintain that on a hot day one may ask a non-Jew to turn on an air conditioner, claiming that turning on an air conditioner is only rabbinically prohibited. Accordingly, for the sake of the mitzva of oneg Shabbat, and in order to alleviate great suffering, one may ask a non-Jew to turn on an air conditioner. However, since others maintain that turning on an air conditioner is prohibited by Torah law (17:2 above), it is proper to ask the non-Jew to turn it on using a shinui (for example, using a teaspoon to depress the air conditioner’s on button), which renders the action a shvut di-shvut.

If the air conditioner is running and has gotten too cold, one may ask a non-Jew to turn it off. Preferably, one should simply tell him that it is too cold, and allow him to figure out on his own that he should turn off the air conditioner. If he does not take the hint, one may tell him directly.[6]


[6]. According to y. Sanhedrin 10:5 and Tosafot (Ketubot 30a, s.v. “ha-kol”), heat causes more suffering than cold but does not cause as much illness as the cold. Therefore, the Sages permitted asking a non-Jew to do a rabbinically prohibited activity in order to avoid the heat, but not one that is prohibited by Torah law. For those who say that turning on an electrical appliance without a heating element is only rabbinically prohibited, asking a non-Jew to do so is a shvut di-shvut; accordingly, one may alleviate great suffering, and even more so when the mitzva of oneg Shabbat is involved as well. Many rule accordingly (SSK 13:39; Minĥat Yitzĥak 3:23-24; She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-halakha 90:20). In contrast, according to those who maintain that using electricity is prohibited by Torah law (17:2 above), asking a non-Jew to turn on the air conditioner is only a single shvut. Therefore, one should ask the non-Jew to turn it on using a shinui. Then all would agree that the case is a shvut di-shvut. If it cannot be turned on using a shinui, one may ask the non-Jew to turn it on normally rely on the opinion that turning on an air conditioner is only rabbinically prohibited when asking a non-Jew to do a melakha, which itself is only rabbinically prohibited. Furthermore, we can take into account the opinion of Itur that one may ask a non-Jew to do even a melakha that is prohibited by Torah law for the sake of a mitzva, as explained in 9:11 above. As for turning off an air conditioner, all poskim agree that it is only rabbinically prohibited, so one may ask a non-Jew to do this for the sake of the mitzva of oneg Shabbat or in order to alleviate great suffering, since such a case is a shvut di-shvut. Thus Igrot Moshe, OĤ 3:42 permits asking a non-Jew to turn off the air conditioner in the synagogue, so that the congregants can remain there.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman