Businessman in a mirror 311.
(photo credit: Digital Vision)
Although business transactions are not included within the 39 categories of
forbidden Shabbat activities (melachot), all scholars assert that they are
nonetheless prohibited. Some believe the sages prohibited such activity since it
would inevitably lead to writing. Others contended that conducting business
violates the biblical mandate to make Shabbat a day of rest, beyond refraining
from proscribed activities.
Indeed, the Book of Nehemiah records how the
prophet banished vendors from cities as a part of a movement of national
repentance. The sages further assert, based on verses in Isaiah, that one
affords respect to Shabbat (kavod Shabbat) by distinguishing it from weekday
Beyond requiring the preparation of special food and
clothing, the sages also recommend avoiding discussions about weekday
activities, including business matters. Based on this notion, one should refrain
from reading financial documents or reports, including newspaper articles and
advertisements. Additionally, one may not be paid for services exclusively
performed on Shabbat, even if the given activity does not entail any form of
purchase or sale.
Beyond formal business activities, later decisors also
prohibited all transfer of property on Shabbat, including gifts. As such, people
should avoid giving presents on Shabbat unless they are meant for Shabbat
wine). One can avoid this prohibition, however, by
acquiring the object on behalf of the recipient before Shabbat. Alternatively,
the recipient may explicitly intend not to not formally acquire the object until
after the Shabbat, even if it is on his or her property. (Some exemptions to
these rules exist for financial matters related to mitzvot or communal needs,
such as charity.) Given these restrictions, under normal circumstances, one may
not operate a business on Shabbat. This includes explicitly asking non- Jewish
employees to work on Shabbat, since they are acting on their employer's behalf.
As such, the widespread practice among observant Jews has traditionally been to
entirely close their shops on Shabbat and festivals, which sometimes requires
requires a great deal of personal sacrifice.
When closing for Shabbat
would lead to tremendous financial loss, however, some scholars developed legal
methods to prevent Jews from economic hardship. When Jews have non-Jewish
business partners, contracts are arranged to ensure that all Shabbat profits and
expenditures are under the auspices of the non- Jewish partner. When Jews are
the exclusive owners, a more controversial arrangement was hesitatingly
constructed in the 19th century by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger to sell Shabbat ownership
rights to a non-Jew, usually an employee. Many scholars vociferously object to
this arrangement as being against the letter and spirit of the law, and even the
lenient scholars are frequently stringent when such arrangements might be abused
or even innocently misunderstood as a broader dispensation to work on Shabbat.
This is particularly true in cases when a business is known to be Jewish-owned
or housed on a Jew’s property.
Some Internet sites require ongoing human
support, and therefore raise similar questions to standard storefront
businesses. Yet many may be set to work automatically on Shabbat and only
provide content without generating direct revenue.
scholars, including rabbis Shmuel Wosner and Yosef Elyashiv, raise concerns that
keeping one’s site open represents a denigration of Shabbat and might also
attract Jewish web surfers, particularly if the content is written in Hebrew or
intended for a Jewish audience.
(Some sites close when it is Shabbat in
the location of the company, while others purchase programs to block site access
when it is Shabbat for the surfer.) Other scholars, however, assert that since
there are always additional sites to view, a website owner is not responsible if
a Jew happens to navigate to their site on Shabbat, especially since the owner
created the site for permissible use during the course of the
Commercial sites raise greater questions because consumers may
purchase items on Shabbat.
For that reason, some companies (B&H Photo
being the most well-known) prevent any Web transactions on Shabbat. Rabbi Shlomo
Dichovsky and the heads of the Eretz Hemdah Kollel, however, contend that in
cases of real potential loss of income, businesses may keep their websites open
if they arrange that an order will not actually be processed and no money will
actually be received from the credit card company until after Shabbat. Until
that time, the “sale” remains a mere declaration of intentions.
complicated are cases in which a onetime purchaser receives instant access to
the product on Shabbat (e.g. music downloads). In this case, the business is
receiving direct payment for a service it provided on Shabbat
Some believe this might be analogous to keeping open an ATM or
vending machine, which some (but certainly not all) decisors permit. Many,
however, believe that companies in this situation must close their sites or make
a partnership arrangement with a gentile.
Since these questions involve
complex financial matters as well as Jewish legal and public policy
considerations, business owners should consult with a competent halachic
authority to address their specific situations.
The writer, online editor
of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars
for Post-High School Students.