Amirah le’Akum: Basic Parameters

Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

Although the consensus of the Poskim is that the prohibition of amirah le'akum (instructing a non-Jew to do a melachah for a Jew on Shabbos) is only a rabbinical ordinance,[i] it has a Biblical source[ii] and is, therefore, considered a severe rabbinic prohibition. Let us review the parameters of this multi-faceted halachah:

General Rules

Having a non-Jew do a melachah on Shabbos for a Jew is permitted only when neither of two separate restrictions applies. These restrictions are:

  • To instruct a non-Jew to do any work that would be prohibited for a Jew to do on Shabbos. The instruction may not be issued on Shabbos or even before Shabbos.[iii]
  • To benefit from melachah done by a non-Jew for a Jew on Shabbos, even if the non-Jew was not instructed by the Jew to do the melachah.[iv] Our Sages enacted this prohibition so that a person will not be tempted to transgress the prohibition of amirah le'akum and ask a non-Jew to do a melachah for him.[v]

Consequently, if a) the non-Jew was not instructed to do the melachah and b) the Jew will not benefit from his work, it would be permitted for a non-Jew to work on Shabbos for a Jew, for in this way, neither prohibition is being transgressed.

How does one avoid the first restriction – instructing the non-Jew?

This prohibition can be avoided if the non-Jew understands what he has to do without being explicitly instructed. The Jew may hint to a non-Jew what he wants done, but the hint may not be given in the form of a directive. For example, it is permissible to tell a non-Jew, “My bedroom lights are on and I will not be able to sleep,” “It is a pity that so much electricity is being wasted,” “The food on the stove is burning,” etc.[vi]

It is forbidden, however, to add: “Will you please help me out?” since then the hint is accompanied by a form of a directive.[vii] Even if the non-Jew asks: “Should I turn the light off for you?” it is forbidden to answer: “Yes.” Hints are also prohibited even if no words are exchanged and one merely gestures or nods in a way that implies do such and such.[viii]

How does one avoid the second restrictionbenefiting from a melachah of a non-Jew?

Our Sages prohibited benefit from a melachah of a non-Jew only if the benefit is both direct and absolute. If, however, the benefit is either indirect or marginal, it is permitted. Let us explain those terms:

  • Direct benefit is when the benefit is one that could not have been had if the melachah had not been performed, such as if the non-Jew cooked a raw food and made it edible, or kindled a lamp, enabling one to read a book. Indirect benefit is when the benefit is not a direct result of the melachah, but a byproduct of it; that is, the melachah removes an obstacle which then enables one to benefit from something. For example: Putting out a light in a bedroom does not directly enable a person to sleep; it merely removes the light which until now made it difficult for him to fall asleep.[ix]
  • Absolute benefit is when the benefit could not have been had at all without the melachah. For instance, reading in a dark room is impossible; reading by light of a candle kindled by a non-Jew is considered absolute benefit. Marginal benefit is when a benefit was previously available to some extent, but the melachah performed by the non-Jew makes it easier to do that which was possible to do even had the melachah not been done. For example: Additional lights are turned on by a non-Jew in a room which is already dimly lit.[x]

Note: Although the restriction of benefiting from a non-Jew’s melachah is inapplicable when the benefit is indirect or marginal, it is still forbidden to instruct him to do the melachah that will provide either of these benefits, since the first prohibition still applies.

Practical Applications:

  • A non-Jew, without being told, turns on a light in a dark room for the benefit of a Jew. It is forbidden to read in that room or to derive any other use from the light, since the benefit is absolute and direct. (There are exceptions to this rule: In the case of a mitzvah that affects many people, in the case of an ill person, even if he is not dangerously ill, etc. A rav should be consulted.)
  • A non-Jew turns off the light in a bedroom. One is permitted to sleep there since one is benefiting indirectly. One may not, however, instruct the non-Jew to turn the light off.[xi]
  • A non-Jew, without being told, turns on a light in a dimly lit room so that the Jew can see better. The Jew may continue doing the same things he had been doing before the non-Jew turned on the light, even though it is now much easier for the Jew to see in the room.[xii]
  • A room is lit by faint, natural daylight. If a non-Jew turns on an electric light, the Jew may continue using the room as long as there is some degree of daylight. Once it turns dark, however, the non-Jew's melachah is producing absolute, not marginal, benefit. It is, therefore, prohibited to derive any benefit from the light that was turned on.
  • It is prohibited to hint to a non-Jew that it is hot in the room, hoping that he will turn on an air conditioner, since the benefit that the Jew will have from the air conditioner, cool air circulating in the room, is both direct and absolute.[xiii] (There are exceptions to this rule: In the case of a mitzvah that affects many people, in the case of an ill person, even if he is not dangerously ill, etc. A rav should be consulted.)

Note: The illustrations above are merely samples of the general principles governing amirah le'akum. Many more details, exceptions and conditions that are involved in the practical halachah – sometimes manifesting stringency and, other times, leniency – are not included here. See the following Discussion for more details.

Question: What may be done if someone realizes on Shabbos or Yom Tov that his car lights – either the headlights or the interior lights – were mistakenly left on?

Discussion: In order of halachic preference, the following may be done:

  • If a non-Jew who sees the lights on offers to shut them off, it is permitted to accept his offer. Benefiting from a melachah of a non-Jew on Shabbos which he offered to do on his own is permitted if the benefit is indirect (see previous Discussion), and shutting off lights is considered an indirect benefit, a preventive action, which is permitted.[xiv]
  • If there is no non-Jew who offers to shut off the lights, it is permitted to hint to a non-Jew that the lights should be turned off, e.g., “It is a pity that the battery is going to die.”
  • If the hint will not be understood, and if the battery will in all probability die and cause a substantial loss to the owner of the vehicle, it is permitted to ask the non-Jew directly to extinguish the lights. This is permitted because most Poskim maintain that extinguishing a light on Shabbos is merely a rabbinic prohibition,[xv] and the essential halachah[xvi] is that it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to perform a rabbinically prohibited act on one’s behalf in order to prevent a substantial loss.[xvii]

[i] A minority view maintains that amirah le’akum is Biblically forbidden. While the Poskim generally reject this approach, it is an indication of the severity of the prohibition; see Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 243:7.

[ii] Mishnah Berurah 243, note 5 and Sha'ar Hatziyun 7. See also Mor Uketziah, Orach Chaim 243.

[iii] Shulchan Aruch 307:2. See Avnei Nezer, Orach Chaim 43:6 and Aruch Hashulchan 307:12.

[iv] Shulchan Aruch 276:1.

[v] Mishnah Berurah 276, note 2; 307, note 72; 325, note 28.

[vi] Mishnah Berurah 307, note 76; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 30:5-6. According to some Poskim, however, these types of hints are permitted only in a hotel or at the home of a non-Jew; see Shulchan Shlomo 307:32:2.

[vii] When the directive is given before Shabbos, or when it is given on Shabbos for work to be done after Shabbos, it may be given as a hint in the form of a directive; Rema 307:22; Mishnah Berurah 307, note 10.

[viii]  Chayei Adam 62:2.

[ix]    See Kalkeles Shabbos (Amirah Le'akum 5); Mishnah Berurah 307, note 11; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 30:5; 30:44; The Sanctity of Shabbos, pg. 11.

[x] Mishnah Berurah 307, note 76.

[xi]    According to some Poskim, turning a light off is prohibited only by rabbinic law. Accordingly, in certain situations one may even instruct a non-Jew to turn the lights off; see The Sanctity of Shabbos, pg. 26. Rav S.Z. Auerbach, however, was hesitant to allow this (written responsum, Me'or HaShabbos I, pg. 513).

[xii]   Shulchan Aruch 276:4.

[xiii]  Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah III, 47:2; Rav Y.S. Elyashiv (Koveitz Teshuvos I, 32:3); Rav C. Kanievsky (Amirah Lenochri, pg. 36). See, however, Minchas Yitzchak III, 23, who is inclined to be more lenient.

[xiv]  Based on Shulchan Aruch 307:2 and Mishnah Berurah 11, ad loc., and Shulchan Aruch 334:25 and Mishnah Berurah 61,, ad loc.

[xv]   See Mishnah Berurah 278, note 3.

[xvi]  See Mishnah Berurah 307, note 22 and Sha’ar Hatziyun 334:57.

[xvii] Melachim Omnayich 4:8 and 6, footnote 4. See Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 30, footnote 14.