The “Shabbos Goy”

Question

I was recently at a Chabad Shabbat dinner and someone accidentally backed into a light switch, causing one of the young boys to go out onto the street in Brooklyn in search of a non-Jew to turn on the light since doing so himself would break the Sabbath. Many synagogues similarly employ non-Jewish custodians to turn on lights and prepare the sanctuary on Shabbat. These people are often colloquially referred to as the “Shabbos goy.” Isn’t this disingenuous? Taken to an extreme example, in the case of a murder for hire, the law imputes criminal liability on the person who did the hiring even though they didn’t pull the trigger. If a person is restricted from doing a certain act by Talmudic law, how can he legally get around the prohibition by simply getting a nonobservant person to do the thing he is not allowed to do in his place?

8 months

Answers

  1. Yes, it can definitely seem to be incongruous to ask a non-Jew to do an act that is forbidden for a Jew to do on Shabbat. And, in truth, it is forbidden to do so! However, according to Jewish Law, even though it is prohibited to ask a non-Jew to do something directly that is forbidden for a Jew to do on Shabbat,  nevertheless, there is no prohibition for a non-Jew to do actions for himself on Shabbat that are forbidden for Jews to do.
    So, what happened at the Shabbaton that you attended? Well, there is a way around these problems and that is what you saw happening. It is permissible for a Jew to hint to the non-Jew that he wants something done, for example, “It is difficult for me to sleep in the room because of the lights” and if the non-Jew understands the hint and does the action it is completely permissible.

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team