May one invite someone on Shabbat knowing they will drive?

Around the world, many non-observant Jews are increasingly interested in participating in traditional Shabbat experiences

June 27, 2013 15:04
4 minute read.
Shabbat table

Shabbat table 521. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Around the world, many non-observant Jews are increasingly interested in participating in traditional Shabbat experiences, even though they do not necessarily desire to become firmly observant. This is a wonderful phenomenon which helps strengthen Jewish identity and unity. Yet it raises the question of whether more observant Jews can invite them to Shabbat services or meals, knowing this will likely entail them driving in a car or performing other forbidden activities.

May one encourage Shabbat observance even if will entail Shabbat desecration? The desire to increase Shabbat observance, as well as the concern regarding encouraging its desecration stem from one broad value: “All Jews are responsible for one another.” This dictum reflects many Biblical commandments in which the Torah depicts all Jews as comrades, such as “Do not hate your kinsfolk... Reprove your fellow but incur no guilt because of him... Do not bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18).

Jews bear an obligation to help others perform positive activities and avoid bad deeds.

This sentiment is embodied in the so-called lifnei iver commandment: “You should not place a stumbling block in front of the blind,” which the Sages interpreted as prohibiting the enabling of sinful behavior of others. Thus a Jew may not give a ham sandwich to fellow Jews.

(Similarly, one cannot help a non-Jew worship an idol.) Accordingly, many decisors including rabbis Shmuel Wosner, Moshe Feinstein and Yosef Elyashiv believe Shabbat invitations such as discussed above transgress this prohibition.

Yet a number of scholars have questioned whether Shabbat invitations violate the lifnei iver prohibition, or if not, whether it can be overridden by other considerations.

The Talmud states that one only violates lifnei iver if the transgressor is “on the other side of the river,” i.e., could not otherwise sin. Thus if the ham sandwich is readily available, a Jew does not violate any Biblical prohibition by helping another Jew to get it; he could have gotten it himself.

Some commentators, however, claim that even when a Jew does not facilitate the transgression, he still violates a rabbinic prohibition of mesayea (“aiding and abetting”). Medieval commentators, for example, debated whether Jews could sell non-Jewish religious artifacts to Christians since the latter could always find suppliers within the gentile community. Our case might be similarly contingent on this debate since the non-observant Jews have access to their own automobiles to travel elsewhere.

Some scholars believe one should rule stringently on this matter since any public toleration of Shabbat violation constitutes an affront to the religion. Yet others contend that such fears are overridden by the fact that participation in Shabbat rituals is an important step toward stronger religious identity. Several further argue, albeit for various reasons, that Shabbat invitations do not violate the prohibition of aiding and abetting.

Some contend that the Sages only prohibited a direct, physical act of assistance at the time of the actual sin; a verbal invitation, issued before Sabbath, might not technically fulfill that criteria.

Several scholars have noted that mutual responsibility only goes so far and therefore the entire prohibition on aiding and abetting does not apply to those who have chosen to be nonobservant.

Others have rejected that claim, yet asserted that there is no greater act of taking responsibility for another Jew than showing them how to observe the Sabbath.

A different argument for leniency accepts the fact that such Shabbat invitations are theoretically prohibited, yet contends that this relatively minor transgression may be tolerated in order to facilitate broader religious commitment from others.

This claim, in part, relates to a larger discussion on whether one may commit a transgression to prevent themselves or others from committing a more severe violation.

In medieval times, for example, scholars allowed outright Shabbat violation in order to save a Jew from apostasy or prevent a Jew’s marriage to a gentile. In that case, however, the effect of the “rescue” is immediate, whereas the impact of Shabbat invitations is less direct, not immediate, and far from guaranteed.

Taking these considerations into account, rabbis Yaakov Kaminetsky and Shlomo Auerbach argued that one must frame the invitation in a manner that would not necessarily lead to Shabbat violation. Accordingly, one could invite someone for a whole Shabbat, even if they are unlikely to stay that long, and then encourage them to come for a Friday night meal, when guests may arrive before Shabbat begins, even as we assume they will drive home later.

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, however, allows Shabbat-day invitations because he believes Jews cannot violate the lifnei iver prohibition if they intend to bring others closer to Judaism. This leniency was recently adopted by the Beit Hillel rabbinic organization, even as it stressed that it should be used cautiously and only in cases of great need, such as to foster family unity. ■

The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post High School Students.

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