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Given that practically all poskim accept R' Shlomo Zalmen's view that electricity is d'rabbanan over the Chazon ish, I would think that a Jew could simply ask a non-Jew to turn on/off lights on Shabbat since it should be sh'vus d'shvus. However, common practice where I live is to avoid asking or even halachic remiza to the non-Jew. Halacha classes and pamphlets by local rabbanim deal with the issue based on the premise that it is assur to ask.

Question: What is the reason to forbid just asking?

For the purposes of this question we will assume that the light in question is a CFL to avoid the side issue of incandescent bulbs.

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As was pointed out by @DoubleAA in the comments, the turning on of many types lights is biblically prohibited on the sabbath. I will address in this answer those types of lights assumed by some to be only rabbinically prohibited.

Even something which is only rabbinically prohibited is included in the prohibition of Amira LiNachri (asking a gentile). The only allowance to ask a gentile to do a rabbinically prohibited action is a case of need, (or great need, according to some authorities).

The Shulchan Aruch 307:5 states:

ה. דבר שאינו מלאכה ואינו אסור לעשותו בשבת אלא משום שבות מותר לישראל לומר לאינו יהודי לעשותו בשבת והוא שיהיה שם מקצת חולי או יהיה צריך לדבר צורך הרבה או מפני מצוה כיצד אומר ישראל לאינו יהודי בשבת לעלות באילן להביא שופר לתקוע תקיעת מצוה או להביא מים דרך חצר שלא עירבו לרחוץ בו המצטער ויש אוסרין. הגה: ולקמן סימן תקפ''ו פסק להתיר ועיין לעיל סימן רע''ו דיש מקילין אפילו במלאכה דאורייתא ועיין שם סעיף ג':

My loose translation: Something which does not constitute [Biblical] "work" and is only prohibited on the sabbath by the rabbis one is allowed to ask a gentile to do on the sabbath, provided that there is some minor illness [which necessitates it] or if there is a great need, or for a mitzvah... And some prohibit [even in those cases]. The Rama says, and later...[The Mechaber] holds like those who permit. And see 276 that there are those who permit even a biblical prohibition.

As you can see, it is clear that all agree that without at least some need, we do not permit one to ask a gentile to violate a rabbinic prohibition.

As for hinting, there is a common misconception that one may hint to a gentile to do prohibitions on the sabbath. While there is some basis for this (see end of OC 307 and MB there 76), it is certainly prohibited where the Jew receives what halachically qualifies as benefit. What falls into this category is not clear, but lighting a dark room certainly does, see OC 276 at length.

That is why people refrain from asking, or even hinting to Gentiles to turn on lights. The question is if there is any rational for permitting.

(If there is already a source of light in the room there are many authorities who would permit one to hint to a gentile to turn in additional light. However, this is far from obvious).

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The problem of Amira Lenochri is treated in Gemara Eruvin 67b-68a:

There was once a child whose warm water(needed for the brit milah) was spilled ... 'let a gentile be instructed to bring it for him {from the courtyard}'

--> We see that the question to instruct a gentile was discussed in a background of preparation for a Mitsva, brit mila, which override the Shabbat.

For healthcare of an ill person, even without life threatening situation, see Gemara Shabbat 129a:

[A women after delivery, from] thirty days, even if she says, 'I need it,' we may not desecrate the Sabbath for her, yet we may do so by means of a Gentile, as R' Ulla the son of R'Ilai, who said: All the requirements of an invalid may be done by means of a Gentile on the Sabbath, and as R'Hamnuna, who said: In a matter entailing no danger [to life], one bids a Gentile and he does it.

For the Mitsva to buy a land in Erets Israel, Gittin 8b:

R'Shesheth Says: It means that a contract for selling it [to a Jew] can be drawn up even on Sabbath. What? On Sabbath? - You know the dictum of Raba, 'He tells a non-Jew to do it.' So here, he tells a non-Jew to draw up the contract. And although there is a Rabbinical prohibition against telling a non-Jew to do things on Sabbath [which we may not do ourselves], where it was a question of furthering the [Jewish] settlement of Eretz Israel the Rabbis did not apply the prohibition.

But the Mishna in massechet Shabbat 121a prohibit it to save property and said:

if a gentile comes to extinguish, we do not say to him, 'extinguish it' {Rashi commented that ordination to a gentile is prohibited rabbinically.}

Here we see that to give instructions is prohibited but if he extinguish spontaneously, there is no problem, despite that he makes this for needs of the Jew. Shut Rivash enlight that the prohibited work is Mel'acha Sheeina tsricha legufa.

So we see Brit Mila, buying Land in Erets Israel, caring an ill person, but not to salve material property.


let's continue to read the Gemara in Eruvin.

After that he said to him, 'What objection was it that you wished to raise against the Master? ' 'It was taught', the other replied, 'that "sprinkling" on the Sabbath is only Rabbinically forbidden. Now, instructing a gentile to do work on the Sabbath is also Rabbinically forbidden. why then should it not be said: As "sprinkling" on the Sabbath which is a Rabbinical prohibition does not supersede the Sabbath so should not an instruction to a gentile to do work on the Sabbath which is also Rabbinically forbidden supersede the Sabbath? - 'Do you', the first retorted: 'draw no distinction between a Rabbinical prohibition that involves (a manual cat) [an action] and one that involves no such act?'

Baal Halachot Gedolot and Rif discuss the meaning is "Rabbinical prohibition that involves an action".

  1. Rif translates this as Rabbinical prohibition that involves a Melacha Deorayita. So, to instruct him to make a Scriptural Prohibition is not allowed, but to ask him to make a Rabbinical Prohibition is allowed, the gemara talk about carrying a pan in a Chatser without Eruv Chatserot.
  2. Baal Halachot Gedolot translates this as Rabbinical prohibition tha is itself not an action. To speak is not an action, so Amira Lenochri is a weak rabbinic prohibition. For some need, it is allowed to ask him to make a Scriptural Prohibition as to boil water. (See Tosfot Gittin 8b, Paragraph 'אע"ג')

Rambam (Zemanim, Shabbat, 6, 9) ruled as the Rif:

A Jew is permitted to instruct a gentile to perform an activity that is not a [forbidden] labor and is prohibited from being performed on the Sabbath only as a sh'vut. [This leniency applies] provided that this is necessary because of a minor infirmity, a very pressing matter, or a mitzvah.

For a mitsva, as Tkiat Shofar, to go to take a Shofar which is in a tree, SA 307 cited 2 opinions and concluded to allowing in Siman 586, 21

Further the Gemara Eruvin 68a, (according to the version of the Rif, but Rishonim said that Bahag has a different version of Talmud without this snippet), concludes:

The teacher has not said to the gentile go to heat water. {he said only to move the water in the courtyard. (ruled explicitly in Shulchan Aruch OC 307, 5) }.


But the Rama on SA OC 276, 2 ruled as the Baal Halachot Gedolot (See the explanation of the Beur Hagra) for a great need, despite that he sees this opinion as minority. This is the source of a current lenient custom to ask a non-Jew to ignite candles for a meal of marriage, or Brit Milah.

So, even if to turn on electric light is deRabanan, we see no source to permit instructing non-Jew through Shvut Deshvut, following the Rif, we allow only for mitsva or ill, or great need. Following the Rama in siman 276, 2, who explained the Minhag to ask to ignite candles for Shabbat, marriage or Milah, may be that a rabbinic turn on electric light is allowed for a simple seudat Shabbat. Following the Rama, we cannot stopping someone who ask to the NJ to turn on electric light for a mitsva as light for Seudat Mitsva, even if turn on light is a scriptural prohibition. But the right behavior is to be stringent.

  • corrected with 3 simanim in SA – kouty Aug 6 '16 at 22:01

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