QUESTION: Must a Shabbos-observing business shut down its website on Shabbos and Yom Tov?
DISCUSSION: A final decision on a question with such far-reaching consequences requires the da’as Torah of the gedolei hador, the halachic decisors of our generation. This is an issue that not only will impact many thousands of people and many millions of dollars, but will also affect the very spirit of Shabbos. Our discussion, therefore, will limit itself to a presentation of the arguments, pro and con, from an halachic perspective.
The Torah command to keep Shabbos specifically prohibits one’s minor children, servants and animals from performing forbidden Labors on behalf of their parents or masters.(1) But the Torah does not prohibit one’s tools or machines from working on Shabbos on behalf of their owner or operator. It is for this reason that we permit our light fixtures to light our homes and our air conditioners to cool them, since it is permitted for machines to “desecrate” Shabbos. Min ha-Torah, therefore, there is no reason why a website would not be allowed to operate on Shabbos. Websites are completely automated and require no human intervention. They are no different from any other machine which is set to operate before Shabbos and continues to run automatically throughout Shabbos.
There are, however, a number of Rabbinic restrictions that may – or may not – apply to operating a website. Here are three possible concerns:
In order to avoid potential Shabbos violations such as Writing, the Rabbis forbade all types of business transactions on Shabbos, even if no contract will be drawn up nor will any money change hands. This edict, known as gezeiras mekach u’memkar, prohibits any kinyan, transfer of ownership from one party to the next – including selling, buying, gift giving or rendering an item hefker – to take place on Shabbos. An argument can be made, therefore, that if a business website offers items for sale and the sale is consummated on Shabbos, it should not be allowed to operate, since a business transaction – a sale – will take place on Shabbos on behalf of its owner.
But on the other hand, the transaction is being completed on a machine without any active involvement or knowledge of the website owner. We do not find an halachic requirement that one is obligated to stop someone else from transacting business on his behalf on Shabbos. Indeed, there is a case in Shulchan Aruch which implies otherwise – that it is, indeed, permitted l’chatchilah to arrange such a transaction before Shabbos:
Shulchan Aruch(2) rules that it is permitted to give a non-Jew money before Shabbos so that he may purchase items for a Jew, provided that he does not instruct the non-Jew to buy the item specifically on Shabbos. Similarly, it is permitted to give a non-Jew clothing to sell on his behalf before Shabbos, provided that he does not instruct him to sell the clothing on Shabbos specifically.
Apparently it is Shulchan Aruch’s opinion that as long as the restrictions against amirah l’akum are adhered to, it is permitted for business to be transacted on Shabbos on behalf of a shomer Shabbos Jew, since the Rabbis forbade only an active transaction; they did not forbid a “passive transaction” from taking place.(3)
Allowing a website to operate on Shabbos and conduct business on behalf of its owner is quite similar to this case. Business is being conducted by means of a machine. Passively, the Jewish owner of the business is engaged in business, but passive business, apparently, is not prohibited on Shabbos.
[An apparent difficulty with this conclusion arises from a ruling in Teshuvos Rav Akiva Eiger (159). He prohibits, for instance, a pidyon ha- ben transaction from becoming valid on Shabbos, even if the father gave money to the kohen on erev Shabbos with the stipulation that the pidyon ha- ben will go into effect on Shabbos. It seems, therefore, that Rav Akiva Eiger would prohibit a passive transaction from taking place on Shabbos. There is, however, a fundamental difference between Rav Akiva Eiger’s specific case and ours. In his case, a transaction is deliberately initiated on erev Shabbos with the stipulation that it should go into effect on Shabbos. There is a particular reason for the transaction to take place specifically on Shabbos: that is the correctday for the pidyon ha-ben. In our case, there is nothing specific being prepared or initiated on erev Shabbos to become valid on Shabbos; the fully automated website is open 7 days a week all year long. Whether or not a transaction takes place on Shabbos, before Shabbos or after Shabbos is of no consequence whatsoever.(4)]
As part of the Rabbinic decree against engaging in business on Shabbos, the Rabbis also prohibited profiting from an activity engaged in on Shabbos. Even if the profit is being generated by a permitted activity such as babysitting, still it is prohibited to keep the profits from an activity that was performed on Shabbos.(5) Even money earned from property rentals on Shabbos is not allowed to be kept by the Shabbos observing owner, since these are considered Shabbos profits.(6) An argument could be made, therefore, that the profits generated by the sale of items on a website on Shabbos are prohibited to be kept by the owner.
But this is not the case. The poskim agree that the Rabbis forbade only profits generated from a service [or a rental] rendered on Shabbos. Profits generated from a sale that takes place on Shabbos, such as food which is bought on credit on Shabbos, are permitted.(7) This is because the payment is for goods, not for services, and profits generated from goods are not considered sechar Shabbos.(8) Thus a website owner is permitted to keep his profits from Shabbos sales.
There remains the intangible yet crucial issue that allowing a website to operate on Shabbos will cause zilzul Shabbos – a desecration of the sanctity of Shabbos, since business will be conducted seven days a week with no regard for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Traditionally, a Jew was always cognizant of the fact that Shabbos was a day when business was not conducted and profits were not earned. Allowing business to be conducted on one’s behalf on Shabbos could very well be considered a pirtzah, a “breakdown” and a violation of the spirit of Shabbos. A final decision on this subject should be rendered by the leading poskim of the generation, Shlita.
1 Shemos 20:10; Devarim 5:14.
2 O.C. 307:4.
3 Indeed, according to the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah, it is even permitted to derive benefit from that item on that very same Shabbos day; see 307:15 and Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 17.
4 In addition, several poskim disagree with Rav Akiva Eiger even in his case; see Maharam Shick O.C. 131; Igros Moshe O.C. 3:44.
5 O.C. 306:4.
6 Mishnah Berurah 306:19.
7 See O.C. 323:1-4.
8 Noda B’yehudah, Tanina, O.C. 26; Minchas Yitzchak 3:34; Harav S.Z. Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 29, note 70).
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Rabbi Neustadt is Rav of Young Israel in Cleveland Heights. He may be reached at 216-321-4635 or at [email protected]