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The Code of Jewish Law specifically allows using a Shabbat goy when it comes to heating a house in extremely cold weather, because it may be a matter of life or death, in which case most commandments may be broken:

It is permitted for a Gentile to make a fire ... when it is extremely cold, as everyone is at risk of catching a cold. [Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 276:5]

This was particularly important in Eastern Europe, where temperatures could dip very low in winter, whence the institution of the practice. But this practice can (and is) easily abused, such as by asking a Gentile to turn lights on and off for convenience.

So my question is: If it is permitted for a Gentile when lives are at stake, why is it not permitted for a Jew? Why was the institution allowed to be born, instead of telling Jews: "If it's too cold on Shabbat, do what it takes to heat the house yourself." ?

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  • It appears that the reality of real-non Canaan, non-circumcised, and non-dipped slaves was prevalent among Jewish aristocracy throughout ages, and no Biblical laws would apply to them as they didn't pass the enslavement process on purpose, including the prohibition of resting on Shabbos. So it was a practical necessity to find a way of making use of those slaves on Shabbos. Rabbis could not eliminate it completely, but they put great constrains on it. – Al Berko Jan 15 at 12:42
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The rule is that one can ask a non-Jew to perform melacha for the sake of an ill person, even if there is no risk to life (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 328:17).

That is the case under discussion in Shulchan Aruch which you quote. The worry is that the extreme cold will make people ill, not that they are in danger of dying. Therefore only a non-Jew is allowed to perform melacha and prevent them from falling sick, but not a Jew.

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  • This is correct, but it's also worth noting that even when there is actual risk of life, some say that one should avoid prohibitions as much as practical such as by asking a gentile, which is a lower level prohibition, where possible. – Double AA Jan 13 at 17:23
  • The same logic would apply to assist someone with non-life-threatening migraine, or anything else that would leave the person in need of lying down. – Shalom Jan 13 at 18:48
  • @JoelK -- I still don't understand the logic. What if there are no gentiles around? You are supposed to let people get sick, or suffer more if they are already sick, as long as there is no imminent threat to life? What about long-term threat? – Maurice Mizrahi Jan 13 at 19:02
  • @mauricemizrahi Regarding your last point, someone already asked that: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/113983/…? – Joel K Jan 13 at 19:45
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    @MauriceMizrahi If the only way to save someone from non-life threatening illness is to violate a biblical prohibition, then you indeed have to let them suffer the illness. – Double AA Jan 13 at 20:09
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To add to what @joelk has already said it is worth noting the Shulchan Aruch HaRav 276:15 who spells it out clearly:

All of the prohibitions mentioned with regard to warming oneself opposite a fire or in a winter home apply only in temperate climates. In colder lands, like these countries, it is permitted to instruct a non-Jew to kindle a fire for a Jew on a day of severe cold, and similarly, to heat a winter home. [The rationale is that] everyone is considered as sick in situations of severe cold. However, on days when the cold is not so severe or [in a household] where there are no young children who suffer extreme distress because of the cold, it is forbidden to tell a non-Jew to kindle a fire or to heat a winter home.

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