Shabbat 19

Dogs don't keep Shabbat.

The sages taught: One may place food before the dog in the courtyard on Shabbat. If the dog lifted it and exited the courtyard (thereby transferring the food from private to public domain), one need not attend to him, as one is not required to ensure that the dog will eat it specifically in that courtyard.

Today we learn that we can make food available to pets and animals on Shabbat and not worry that they will violate the Sabbath by carrying it from a private domain to a public domain. This seems practical, but the continuation of this teaching might make us uncomfortable:

On a similar note, one may place food before the gentile in the courtyard on Shabbat. If the gentile lifted it and exited, one need not attend to him.

The logic here is the same. Like the dog, the gentile is not obligated in the laws of Shabbat and is permitted to carry your tasty dish of cholent (or insert alternative Jewy food example) between domains. And furthermore, you the purveyor of tasty Jewish food do not have to worry that by giving the gentile food in the courtyard, you are to blame for what would be a Sabbath violation — namely relocating the dish to the public domain — since the gentile is not obligated to follow the laws of the Sabbath. And yet, the implicit comparison between the gentile and the dog feels uncomfortable. But that’s the Talmud for you, very blunt and not always PC.

This line of reasoning, that we should not be concerned that our actions will cause a non-Jew to violate Shabbat (since the non-Jew is not obligated in keeping Shabbat), moves us into much more complex territory about the interaction of Jews and gentiles on Shabbat. The question arises: Can you ask the non-Jew to perform certain kinds of work on your behalf over Shabbat? Here, it gets much dicier.

Television and the movies include many jokes to the effect that Jews love to ask non-Jews to violate the laws of Sabbath for their own benefit. In fact, a number of celebrities have claimed the title of “Shabbos Goy” as a badge of honor: Jay Leno, Barack Obama, Elvis Presley, Al Gore, Harry Truman, to name a few, and these guys. And yet…as we see in today’s daf, it is a tad more complicated than that.

While the rumors might have you believe that you can ask someone who is not Jewish to violate Shabbat for you on the Sabbath itself (i.e. turn off your oven, turn on a light, drive Bubbie home, etc.) we see that it is not a free-for-all. Extremely strict standards that come into play well before sunset on Friday. Consider:

The sages taught: A person may not rent his utensils to a gentile on Shabbat eve, as it appears that the Jew is receiving payment for work performed on Shabbat. 

In other words, it might look like the gentile is doing work for you (using your utensils) over Shabbat and you cannot even make it appear as if this is the case — even if you are just lending a hammer to your friend. What will the neighbors say?

Can you never help your neighbor out? The daf clarifies: On the fourth and on the fifth days of the week it is permitted.

The same logic, timing and rules apply to having a letter delivered before Shabbat. You cannot hand your envelope to a postal worker on Friday, you have to do it on the fourth day (Wednesday) or the fifth day (Thursday). The basic idea is that a gentile can violate the Sabbath if it happens to be the best or most convenient time for them to perform that task, but it cannot happen because you would prefer that timing.

While the conversation continues, and there are many nuances and intricacies, and yes loopholes — rabbis love loopholes — to figure out how makes use of the help of gentile friends, today’s daf teaches us that it’s complicated.

Read all of Shabbat 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 25, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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