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By Rabbi Doniel Neustadt | Series: | Level:

The following is a discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.

And on the Shabbos day… (28:9)
QUESTION: Is it permissible to send a letter or a package on Friday with instructions to deliver it on Shabbos?

ANSWER: Amirah l’akum, giving instructions to a non-Jew to do an action which would be forbidden for a Jew to do on Shabbos, is prohibited (1). It makes no difference whether the Jew’s command is given on Shabbos or before Shabbos. Accordingly, it should be forbidden to instruct a non-Jew to deliver an overnight package on Shabbos, since there are several prohibitions involved in delivering mail on Shabbos (2).

When necessary, however, there is room for leniency. There are some poskim (3) who hold that only a direct command to a non-Jew is forbidden. Instructing a non-Jew to instruct another non-Jew (amirah l’amirah) is permitted. Not all poskim agree with this leniency. Mishnah Berurah (4) rules that one can rely on this view only to avoid a major financial loss (hefsed gadol). Other poskim (5) rule that one may rely on this view only in a case of great need (tzorech gadol). It follows, therefore, that one is permitted to send an overnight letter to be delivered on Shabbos in case of great loss or great need, since the command to deliver the item is not given directly to the delivery man but to another non-Jew (6).

There are several other arguments for permitting one to have a letter delivered on Shabbos:

Firstly, the Chasam Sofer (7) rules that even those who prohibit instructing a non-Jew to instruct another non-Jew would permit it if the Jew’s instructions were given before Shabbos (8).

Secondly, some poskim (9) hold that if the second non-Jew does not know that he is doing a melachah for a Jew, then it is clearly permitted for the Jew to instruct a non-Jew to tell another non-Jew to do a melachah.

Thirdly, some poskim (10) argue that mailmen do not work for the sender but for the government [or a private company] Postal Service, which has an interest in mail being delivered. They are not delivering the mail because the Jew asked them to do so, but because they are employees of the Service. They are not considered, therefore, as doing something for the Jew. Mail delivery is similar to garbage collection in which the garbage men are not working for the homeowner but for the city government (11).

All these reasons are sufficient to permit a letter to be sent with instructions to deliver it on Shabbos, even when the situation is not necessarily one of averting a major loss or filling a great need. Obviously, if there is no need or urgency, one should not rely on the above arguments (12).

When a letter arrives on Shabbos, the recipient should not take it directly from the mailman’s hands. Rather, he should allow the mailman to place the letter in the mailbox or in the house. The reason for this is that we do not want the Jew to inadvertently carry the letter into the house, an act which may be Biblically forbidden (13). Possibly, therefore, if there is an eiruv, one may take the letter directly from the mailman’s hands (14). Some poskim maintain that even though the letter or package originated outside the techum Shabbos, it is not muktzeh (15)–unless it contains a muktzeh item, such as money, bills, important documents, etc. (16)


1 This is a Rabbinic prohibition. According to a minority opinion, it is considered a Biblical prohibition; see Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 243:7.

2 If the overnight mail is delivered to the house together with the rest of the mail, it is permitted to be sent, since the mailman is not doing a special melachah for the Jew; see Chelkas Yaakov 1:65. But usually, overnight mail is delivered separately from the regular mail.

3 Chavos Yair 53.

4 307:24, quoting the Sefer ha-Chayim.

5 Responsa M’harsham 2:136, quoting the Shvus Yaakov 2:42.

6 M’harsham, ibid. and in Da’as Torah 247:1; Az Nidberu 3:36.

7 O.C. 60.

8 See Beiur Halachah 307:2, who quotes this Chasam Sofer and comments that from the Rashba it seems that this is not so, that even during the week it is prohibited. But see Zichron Yosef 97 (quoted in Machazeh Eliyahu 37) who explains that there is no contradiction between the Rashba and the ruling of the Chasam Sofer.

9 Mishneh Sachir 73 quoting M’harshag. See also Chasam Sofer C.M. 185.

10 Pri Megadim 247:3 according to the explanation of Machazeh Eliyahu 37.

11 Possibly, this argument could be advanced to include employees of a private company as well.

12 See Minchas Yitzchak 6:18, who is hesitant about permitting this, although the author says that many people are lenient.

13 Mishnah Berurah 307:56.

14 See Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 307:66.

15 Mishnah Berurah, ibid. and Beiur Halachah who explains that although a letter is not a keli and therefore subject to the prohibition of muktzeh, it is nevertheless permitted to carry since one can use a letter to cover a bottle (or as a bookmark). Harav S.Z. Auerbach (printed responsum in Sefer Tiltulei Shabbos, pg. 13) rules that even nowadays one can rely on this. Igros Moshe O.C. 5:21-5; 22:5 does not agree with this leniency. Harav S.Y. Elyashiv is also hesitant about this (see Shalmei Yehudah 12, note 21). See Hebrew Notes, pg. 570-571, for further elaboration.

16 See Hebrew Notes, pg. 571-574, concerning the reading of a letter which arrived before Shabbos, which according to some poskim is forbidden because of the prohibition of shtarei hedyotos.

Weekly-Halacha, Copyright © 5759 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross and Project Genesis, Inc.

Rabbi Neustadt is the principal of Yavne Teachers’ College in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the Magid Shiur of a daily Mishna Berurah class at Congregation Shomre Shabbos.

The Weekly-Halacha Series is distributed L’zchus Hayeled Doniel Meir ben Hinda. Weekly sponsorships are available–please send email to the moderator, Dr. Jeffrey Gross [email protected].

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