May a business keep its website open on Shabbat?

Commercial sites raise greater questions because consumers may purchase items on Shabbat.

Businessman in a mirror 311 (photo credit: Digital Vision)
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 activities.
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 consumption (e.g.
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.
Nonetheless, some 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 week.
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.
More 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 itself.
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.
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