The question I am to ask is related to personal experience I've had but can be easily broadened. I am really asking for the sake of broadening my knowledge, and I apologize if any part of my question is offending as it is really not my intent.

As a non-jewish person, I have been asked by jewish people on Shabbat day to switch a water boiler on. The same thing happened to a friend, except he was asked to turn the lights on.

Although we both complied gracefully, I am wondering: is asking a non-Jew to perform such forbidden actions legal ? If so, how would things turn out in a society where everybody is a Jew and complies to the laws ?

I can't help but feel that either me doing what I did or them asking me to do them was somewhat unethical. However, I can also imagine that boiling water could be necessary for such urgent need as feeding a baby or tending to wounds. In such a case, does the law provide other workarounds ?

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    Also see: Asking a Gentile for Air Condition on Shabbos
    – yydl
    May 26, 2011 at 0:18
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    Welcome to Judaism.SE, and thanks very much for bringing your question here! This concept is fodder for many popular misconceptions, so I really appreciate your giving the community a chance to write up useful explanations.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 26, 2011 at 1:36
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    Your excellent discourse has not answered the question of why should a non-Jew be doing things for a Jew if that Jew is forbidden to do such a thing in that said time. If an action cannot be done bu you, then you should do without the results of such action until such a time as it can be performed by you again. It seems to me that the religion cannot function independently of others who should make themselves available to perform such actions that are wrong for you to do.
    – alice
    Apr 30, 2012 at 1:00
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    @alice, indeed, the spirit of the rules described by jake's answer includes your point, but do note that there is a real distinction between "wrong for you" and objectively "wrong," even within one belief system, as explained in my answer. Also, note that unlike some other religions, Judaism does not have a goal of being practiced as such by everyone on the planet, so it has less need to "function independently."
    – Isaac Moses
    Apr 30, 2012 at 2:43

3 Answers 3


There are many restrictions placed upon Jews on Shabbat that prevent them from doing even relatively simple things like switching on a light or heating up some food, etc.

Although biblically there is no prohibition against a non-Jew doing something for a Jew on Shabbat, to keep the spirit of Shabbat, and as a safeguard against violating it, the Sages prohibited a melacha (form of work prohibited on Shabbat) to be done by a non-Jew for a Jew on Shabbat.

However, this rabbinic prohibition is only violated if one of two things occurs:

  1. The Jew asks the non-Jew outright to do a melacha for him. This includes a command, request, significant gesture, or even answering "yes" if the non-Jew asks, "Do you want me to do such-and-such?"
  2. The Jew derives direct benefit from the melacha performed by the non-jew. This means that the benefit obtained by the Jew is a direct consequence of the melacha performed by the non-jew. This would not include, though, a melacha which removes an obstacle thereby allowing the Jew to derive benefit; that is called indirect benefit.

In order for the melacha done by the non-jew to be permissible, it must be done in a way which avoids both the above conditions. A classic example is to hint to a non-jew to turn off the light in a bedroom so that a Jew may sleep there by saying "The light was accidentally left on in my room. I will have trouble sleeping." There was no explicit command or request, so #1 is avoided, and turning off a light is considered indirect benefit, since it removes the obstacle (light) which prevented the Jew from deriving benefit (ability to sleep). So #2 is also avoided. Thus, this case is permitted.

However, if the non-Jew was asked to do so outright, or if he turned on a light in a room for the benefit of a Jew even without being asked at all, both of these cases are prohibited (by conditions #1 and #2 respectively), and the Jew may not derive benefit from the non-Jew's actions.

Two other important exceptions to this rule are:

  • A Jew may hint to a non-Jew to perform a melacha for the sake of a communal mitzva, even where direct benefit will be derived by the community. That is, even though #1 must still be avoided, #2 is not a problem. For example, one may hint to a non-Jew to turn on the lights in a synagogue for communal prayers even though turning on a light is considered direct benefit.
  • For the sake of a sick person, direct benefit may be derived from a melacha done by a non-Jew, though again, he may not be asked outright. [How "sick" a person has to be for this exception to apply is a matter of discussion, but it should be noted that there is no doubt that in the case of life threatening illnesses, no time should be wasted asking others to do melachos, rather a Jew is obligated to save the dying person by any means necessary.]
  • Good write-up! Citations would round it out nicely.
    – msh210
    May 26, 2011 at 2:35
  • @msh210, It's pretty much a summary of what I remember from reading R' Ribiat's 39 Melachos, Amira L'Akum chapter.
    – jake
    May 26, 2011 at 2:39
  • @jake - The Artscroll Sefer "Sanctity of Shabbos" AKA Hilchos Amirah L'AKUM is less stringent regarding certain aspects of this. IIRC, according to it, a Jew is allowed to ask a Gentile directly for something, if it is for a communal need. (Personal needs or wants are more complicated.) Aug 9, 2012 at 12:08
  • With all due respect, I believe the Halacha is not quite like you said. Perhaps you want to check up your source. There are many times a non-Jew may be asked outright to do something; indeed, the main idea of Amira L'akum is when the non-Jew is asked outright.
    – LN6595
    Mar 2, 2015 at 4:17
  • Note also that if the nonJew does an action for his own benefit, such as turning on the light in the bathroom, a Jew is later allowed to benefit by using the light in that room that the nonJew has not turned off. Oct 30, 2017 at 2:31

To add just a little to jake's excellent explanation of the relevant Halachic rules:

It's important to remember that Jews are required to adhere to many commandments and restrictions that God set up to apply specifically to Jews. Roughly speaking, these particularistic commandments are not statements of universal ethics or morality; they're statements of God's particular mission for the Jews.

For example, regarding the Sabbath restrictions, God tells Moses (Exodus 31:13-17):

"And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: 'Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy.

Therefore, keep the Sabbath, for it is a sacred thing for you. Those who desecrate it shall be put to death, for whoever performs work on it, that soul will be cut off from the midst of its people.

Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever performs work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.'

Thus shall the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.

Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."

It's clear from this language that the Sabbath represents a particular covenant between God and the Jewish people, which the Jews observe as a perpetual testimony to God as Creator. For whatever reason, God chose to only require the Jews to fill this role, not all of humanity. So, universally speaking, is doing work on the Sabbath day a bad thing? No. If you're subject to a covenant that forbids it, is doing it a bad thing then? Yes.

So, in these terms, your question boils down to "Is a Jew asking a gentile to perform acts that are forbidden for the Jew on the Sabbath compatible with the Jews' Sabbath covenant or not?" Intrinsically, there's no problem; the Jew's personal restraint in this situation fulfills the covenant. However, as jake explained in detail, the Rabbis eventually legislated additional restrictions so that Jews won't see their work getting done on the Sabbath and forget about their special role.

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    Thanks for the additional explanation ! I'd accept both answers if I could...
    – RaphaelSP
    May 26, 2011 at 16:15
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    @RaphaelSP You're welcome! Thanks again for posing the question. Don't worry about the checkmark; I am so not in this for the points.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 26, 2011 at 16:17

There is a vital and simple set of rules I'd like to point out here. 1st, I assume a Gentile is either a family member (-in-law) or an invited guest. Such people should know about the traditional function of a Shabbos goy, even if only for the fun of it. I'm not sure I am clear about the situation presented in the original question....

As to that, I'd say any Gentile ought to be very vigilant, especially if the person is very close to the family. That Gentile ought to watch for necessities that Jews cannot perform should those necessities arise. Then the Gentile may do the action with ZERO prompting. If you followed my advice, well, out the window with rabbinical migraines!

A final note: any Jew not knowing what he's doing halachically needs to find the guidance of a rabbi, and FAST. It's one thing to be tangled up in a silly little matter of Law, but if you can't even handle Shabbos...well!

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