The Shabbos Goy is a gentile who carries out certain “work” tasks which are not permitted to an observant Jew on Shabbat. The fourth of the Ten Commandments prohibits work on Shabbat, but it does not forbid a Jew from benefiting from the activities of a non-Jew on Shabbat.
Nonetheless the non-Jew, though not personally obligated to keep the Jewish Sabbath, may not be instructed or directly asked to perform tasks that are not permitted to the Jew, though his/her assistance is allowed in an emergency or if arranged in accordance with halachically acceptable procedures.
The subject recalls a personal experience I had in Sydney. One year during my ministry there, Anzac Day (a national day of remembrance) was a Friday, and after marching through the city thousands of old soldiers made for the pubs to satisfy their urgent need for a drink. When the time came for the Friday evening service at the Great Synagogue in the central business district, Mick the janitor was missing, so I unlocked the building and turned on the lights.
But that was before the commencement of Shabbat. After the service it was a different matter. Shabbat had definitely begun. The janitor had still not turned up, so who would secure the building and turn off the lights? The cantor decided to look for Mick in one pub; I went to another. No luck in either place.
Being resourceful I went over the road to the Masonic Club and sought out the commissionaire. I tried to explain my predicament to him. He obviously did not believe a word of it. “What? An able-bodied young man,” his eyes seemed to say, “and he can’t flick a light switch?” He knew nothing of rabbis, synagogues or Jewish practices and had obviously never heard of a Shabbos Goy. In the end he came across to the shul with me, did the necessary and returned to his post, muttering all the while. I ensured that on Monday our appreciation was expressed with a few bottles of beer. (On Shabbat morning Mick returned to duty and we never told him of our Friday evening experience).
The Shabbos Goy is a fascinating aspect of halachic and social history.
Professor Jacob Katz of the Hebrew University researched it thoroughly in a significant study, The ‘Shabbes Goy’: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility, issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1989. The original Hebrew title of the book is Goy Shel Shabbat.
Though Katz regards the Shabbos Goy as an example of external realities affecting Halacha, it might be more correct to see the phenomenon as the outcome of internal flexibility within Halacha itself: like any legal system, it applies differently in different circumstances.
There were some famous Shabbos Goyim over the centuries, including, so I have been told, the former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Maxim Gorky was a Shabbos Goy too. In the United States it is said that Governor Mario Cuomo, General Colin Powell and even Elvis Presley were Shabbos Goyim in their youth. I personally remember a Yiddish-speaking table steward on a P&O ship who had been a Shabbos Goy in the East End of London when he was young. Being a Shabbos Goy was generally a good source of pocket money.
The Shabbos Goy phenomenon began in the Babylonian period, allowing the Halacha to accommodate social realities without transgressing Jewish law. However, it depended on a reasonable relationship between Jews and gentiles, and as the relationship varied so did the availability of the Shabbos Goy.
The more complex the commercial and industrial realities became, the more difficult were the halachic ramifications of the phenomenon.
It was not only a question of whether the gentile was a “servant” in the sense in which the term is used in the Ten Commandments, but by extension there was the issue of a gentile partner who kept a business or factory going on Shabbat.
Could a Jew benefit from a contract entered into in the name of the business that day, or take a share of the profits derived from Shabbat trading? The Shabbos Goy issue often arose in relation to a Jew traveling by ship, and this remains a question in this age of holiday cruises.
In every case we have to ask about the status of the Shabbos Goy in the light of Jewish law. Even if the gentile carries out the task without payment, can they be asked straight out to perform an act forbidden to Jews, or should the need only be hinted at? What if the gentile does not take the hint? Could one have a Shabbos Goy on a regular basis or only in to an emergency, e.g. in a freezing winter or if the summer heat is excruciating and it is too oppressive to be without fans or air conditioning? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein regarded both icy cold and extreme heat as hazards to health. But what happens if what a Jew wants the Shabbos Goy to facilitate might not be within the spirit of Shabbat, such as watching sports or serials on television? In a previous generation many Jewish families had domestic help.
When a maid was engaged, the employer explained what she would need to do on Friday evenings and Saturdays. The method generally worked, but sometimes the maid told the tale to her acquaintances on her day off, and both the maid and her friends agreed how crazy those Jews were.
Further problems arose when the Shabbos Goy actually turned out to be Jewish. It is said that in the East End of London there was a local boy who made good money from turning down the gas lights for Jewish families on Friday nights, until the day came when he told them, “Sorry, I can’t come next week – it’s my bar mitzva!” There was a somewhat similar problem in a certain community in relation to the sale of hametz before Passover, when it turned out that the “goy” to whom the hametz was sold was actually halachically Jewish! There are stories (possibly apocryphal) about a golem – a sort of preprogrammed automaton – replacing the human Shabbos Goy, not that using a robot is without its halachic problems. Technology has made life easier for Orthodox families since the invention of time clocks, though sometimes the human hands that set the clocks make a mistake or miscalculate, and the electricity goes off in the middle of a Shabbat service or meal, including the Passover Seder. There have even been occasions when the time clock turned off the synagogue lights too early on Yom Kippur – a real problem because hardly anyone knows the Ne’ilah service by heart.
There is also a problem if there is a sudden change in the weather and (for example|) an air conditioner operated by a time clock goes on as planned on a day which has plunged from unseasonably hot to unreasonably cold weather. Further, Rabbi Feinstein was not entirely in favor of electric timers because they change the nature of the day.There’s an old saying, “It’s hard to be Jewish.” It’s also hard to be a Shabbos Goy, and even hard to be a Shabbat time clock! The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.
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