Last week we began exploring the controversy as to whether business owners are required to disable their business websites for Shabbat. We discovered that it is difficult to articulate a technical prohibition that one violates by allowing one’s business website to operate on Shabbat. However, the argument has been advanced that allowing a website to operate degrades Shabbat. This week we shall discuss this issue in light of the rulings of twentieth century Poskim regarding automatic timers, automatic food dispensers, laundry machines, answering machines and fax machines and discuss these rulings’ application in the context of allowing one’s website to remain operational on Shabbat.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:60) was asked if an automatic timer could be set before Shabbat to turn the oven on during Shabbat for the food for the Shabbat afternoon meal to be freshly cooked. Although Rav Moshe did not believe that there is a technical prohibition with doing so (unlike the Chazon Ish), he nonetheless strongly objected to doing so, since he considered it a degradation of Shabbat. In fact, Rav Moshe prohibits the use of all timers except for turning on and off lights which had already become accepted practice. Rav Moshe writes:
“In my humble opinion, it is obvious that it is forbidden to permit this because through the use of such automation one can perform all of the forbidden labor of Shabbat and operate every factory and there is no greater degradation to Shabbat than this. It is obvious that had this existed in Talmudic times, they would have forbidden this in the same manner in which they forbade asking a non-Jew to perform work on one’s behalf on Shabbat”.
It is very reasonable to assert that Rav Moshe would forbid allowing one’s website to operate on Shabbat for the same reason. However, Rav J. David Bleich observes (Tradition 35:2:50) that Rav Moshe’s ruling “has not been widely accepted among Halachic decisors”. Indeed, the following Poskim allow the use of timers for usage other than lighting – Chazon Ish (O.C. 38:3-4), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1: page 66), Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov O.C. 71), Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 1:20:9) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 2:57).
However, Rav Breisch (ad. loc. O.C. 70) permits automation only for the enhancement of the honor and enjoyment (Kavod and Oneg) of Shabbat. Similarly, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein told me that due to Rav Moshe’s ruling one should not set before Shabbat a machine to record a television program on Shabbat. Indeed, Rav Hershel Schachter (Mipeninei Rabbeinu page 79) cites Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik as similarly forbidding such activity (one must also consider the fact that most television programs today are not compatible with Torah values).
On the other hand, the Chazon Ish does permit automation as a manner in which to milk cows on Shabbat (see Gray Matter 1:210) in a manner that the milk will not be wasted. Thus, as Rav Shlomo Dichovsky (ad. loc. page 331) notes that Halachic authorities of the modern age
“Have not formulated clear guidelines and distinctions between areas where the practice has emerged to be lenient [to set timers for Shabbat use] such as between lighting and extinguishing lights for Shabbat and cooking using a timer”.
Automated Food Dispensers
Rav Doniel Neustadt (The Daily Halachah Discussion page 31 in the Hebrew section) argues that allowing a website to function on Shabbat is identical to the issue of allowing one’s automated food dispensers to operate on Shabbat. He notes the consensus of Halachic authorities permit one to operate such machines on Shabbat. These authorities include Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov O.C. 1:67), Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:38) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah 29:28), though Rav Shmuel Wosner (Teshuvot Sheivet Halevi 5:28) forbids their use. A simple proof to these rulings is the fact (noted in last week’s essay) that Halacha (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 244:1) follows the opinion of Beit Hillel who permit one’s utensils to perform his work on Shabbat such as a trap set before Shabbat to catch animals on Shabbat.
However, one may argue that business websites and automated food dispensers are not identical. Rav Breisch and Dayan Weisz specifically note that their permission extends only if the Jews’ name is not associated with the machine and that the business is not conducted on the Jew’s property (as indicated in Shulchan Aruch O.C. 245:4). In either case presumably this is regarded as allowing one’s store to remain open on Shabbat, which Chatam Sofer (Teshuvot number 195 in the addendum, based on Ramban to Vayikra 23:24) and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Teshuvot Achiezer 3:25) regard as a Torah level violation of the obligation to create “Shabbat Shabbaton”, a positive Shabbat atmosphere.
In fact, Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 9:24) for this reason forbids keeping open on Shabbat one’s store where one has laundry machines which the customers operate by themselves, since the business is operating on the Jew’s property. A business website certainly has the business name posted and therefore dramatically differs from anonymous automated food dispensers. Hence business websites far more resemble a “traditional store” than do automated machines.
Facsimile Machines and Voice Mail
Defining the boundaries as to when an automated process crosses the line from a permissible automation such as the classical trap to capture animals to a full-blown store is not a simple task. Poskim grapple with the permissibility of leaving one’s facsimile and voice mail (electronic mail seems to be the identical issue) in operation at one’s business during Shabbat and Yom Tov in order to retrieve messages after their conclusion. As Rav J. David Bleich (Tradition 35:2:45) notes the weight of rabbinic opinion favors a permissible ruling and this has become the accepted practice throughout the observant Jewish community. Rav Breisch (ad. loc. number 70) and Dayan Weisz (ad. loc. 5:14) permit these machines to be left to operate provided that they were not specifically set for Shabbat (as was necessary in the early stages of the developments of these products) although Rav Meir Bransdorfer (Mevakshei Torah 2:8) compares this to allowing one’s store to operate on Shabbat. Even Rav Mendel Zilber, the Satmar Dayan, permits the operation of such devices on Shabbat (Teshuvot Moznai Tzedek 2:14-15 and 3:24). One could argue that similarly a website should also be permitted to function on Shabbat.
However, Rav Breisch (ad. loc.) in the course of his responsum regarding answering machines raises the following issue (he wrote this in 1961 - his foresight is remarkable; we cite his comments in its entirety since his words are highly instructive):
“At a time when technology is quickly progressing forward, and it is possible to happen in the near future, to organize a large store through automation where the store will open by itself at the appropriate time without anyone present and the customers will arrive even though no individual is tending the store. All of this will be accomplished by automation where the merchandise will be purchased by the customers in exchange for the money they leave. If we degrade Shabbat by permitting business to be conducted through automation this will create an enormous desecration of Shabbat. An individual will sit in the Beit Midrash on Shabbat or sitting at his table singing Shabbat Zemirot and his business operates on Shabbat on his behalf as it does during a weekday. I am uncertain as to whether this is similar to the Ramban’s assertion (ad. loc.) that business conducted on a regular basis even if a Jew does not engage in any of the forbidden labors constitutes a Torah prohibition. Even though truthfully there is a great difference between the situations, as the Ramban addresses a situation where the business owner is actively involved in running the store (but takes care not to perform any forbidden labor) as opposed to a situation where the individual is entirely passive and all work is performed by a machine that is set before Shabbat.
Nonetheless, since his business operates in public on Shabbat on his behalf, this is not ‘Shabbaton’. This constitutes a problem of Uvda D’chol (engaging in a weekday type activity) and the obligation that one’s actions on Shabbat differ from one’s weekday activities (see Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 24:1 and 12). It is not comparable to the permission to allow one’s automated machines to operate in a public place where it is not known to whom the machine belongs.
Indeed, Rav Mordechai Willig and Rav Zvi Sobolfsky have told me that they strongly oppose allowing one’s website to operate on Shabbat and Yom Tov, as they compare operating a website to allowing one’s store to function on Shabbat.
Criticism of Rav Breisch
Rav Shlomo Dichovsky (Techumin 22:331) cites Rav Moshe Stern (Teshuvot Be’er Moshe (6:60 in his discussion of matters pertaining to electricity) who criticizes Rav Breisch’s approach:
He has issued a new Gezeirah (decree) which no contemporary rabbi, no matter what his stature, is permitted to issue (see Rosh, Shabbat 2:15 and Maggid Mishneh to Hilchot Chametz Umatzah 5:20). Certainly if the leading rabbis of our generation will jointly issue a prohibition I will certainly join their call, but an individual Rav is not authorized to make such a decree and we will certainly not accept his decree”.
Rav Doniel Neustadt (ad. loc.) essentially adopts this same approach arguing that it is essentially permitted to leave one’s website operational on Shabbat but he defers to the leading rabbinic lights of our generation to decide if allowing a business website to function constitutes a breach of Shabbat observance.
Rav Dichovsky (ad. loc.) summarizes this issue most aptly: “One cannot forbid allowing one’s business website to remain operational on Shabbat. However, there is certainly involved with this a “bad taste” (i.e., a violation of the spirit of Shabbat). Rav Dichovsky, however, offers two exceptions to this rule. He writes that “there is room to permit” leaving operational a website that is necessary for national security even if the security need for the website is only indirect. He also permits creating a partnership with a non-Jew where the profits earned on Shabbat will accrue to the non-Jew (in accordance with the provisions set forth in Shulchan Aruch O.C. chapter 245) and there is adequate publicity of this fact on the website.