Halacha for Thursday 29 Nissan 5780 April 23 2020

A Double Rabbinic Prohibition in Cases of Great Need

In the previous Halacha, we have discussed that if one forgets to activate the “Shabbat mode” feature (or deactivate the refrigerator light) before Shabbat such that if one opens the refrigerator door, the light will turn on, it is nevertheless permissible to ask a non-Jew to open refrigerator since there one is not instructing the non-Jew to directly perform a forbidden work; rather, opening a refrigerator door is fundamentally permitted on Shabbat and the light turning on merely occurs as a result. It is therefore not considered a forbidden work the likes of which one may not ask a non-Jew to perform.

Once one requests from a non-Jew to open the refrigerator door so that one may take out food, it is likewise permissible to ask the non-Jew to activate the “Shabbat mode” feature or to deactivate the light since these are merely rabbinic prohibitions. In cases of great need, one may ask a non-Jew to perform rabbinic prohibitions.

The Poskim refer to this idea as “a double rabbinic prohibition in cases of great need.” This means that since both turning off a light on Shabbat and asking a non-Jew to perform a forbidden work are only rabbinic prohibitions, this case of a double rabbinic prohibition will become permissible in cases of great need. Since activating the “Shabbat mode” feature or turning off the light of the refrigerator are considered great needs (since a non-Jew is not always present to open and close the refrigerator), it is permissible for a non-Jew to perform these functions on Shabbat. (See Sefer Halichot Shabbat, page 181, by Hagaon Harav Gad Yazdi Shlit”a)

We must point out though that the laws of instructing non-Jews to perform forbidden work on Shabbat are vast and one should not compare different cases to one another without consulting with a competent halachic authority first. Let is just give another example just to illustrate this point:

It is permissible to ask a non-Jew to open a hot water faucet on Shabbat connected to a gas or electric boiler although this will result in new cold water to enter the boiler and get cooked on Shabbat (which would be forbidden for a Jew to do on Shabbat). The reason for this is because the non-Jew merely intends to allow hot water to flow out of the faucet without any care for the new cold water entering the boiler.

On the other hand, it is forbidden to ask a non-Jew to open a hot water faucet connected to an instant (tankless) water heater since at that moment, the non-Jew’s intention is for the forbidden work as well, i.e. activating the instant heating element, without which, there will be no hot water. Thus, there is no room for leniency in this regard. (Halichot Shabbat, page 182)

We have not spoken about the laws of instructing non-Jews on Shabbat as part of “Halacha Yomit” because these laws are less prevalent in Israel because non-Jews do not live among us. However, outside of Israel where many people enlist the help of non-Jews on Shabbat, one must learn these laws well or ask a competent halachic authority about all the cases that may arise so that one does not transgress these laws on Shabbat.

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