Hot Off the Hotline

In the last issue of Kashrus Kurrents the following appeared in “Hot Off the Hotline:”

Q: On Shabbos does an observant Jew have to close a website that is selling products online?

A: Yes. As in the case of a regular business transaction, no electronic business transactions may be made on Shabbos or Yom Tov on a website belonging to a shomer Shabbos businessman. The web site may remain open for informational purposes, if the shopping cart on the website is shut down. The time Shabbos or Yom Tov begins is determined by the entrepreneur’s geographic location.

Rabbi Heinemann Responds:

We have received many requests for greater elaboration of Rabbi Heinemann’s answer. Below we present a more detailed discussion of websites and Shabbos.

The Torah forbids us to do melacha on Shabbos. Generally speaking, we are forbidden to perform an action that is creative on Shabbos. We are not responsible, however, for activities that happen by themselves. An example of this concept is that one may not light a candle on Shabbos, but one may light a candle on Friday and allow it to burn into Shabbos.

Additionally, there is no prohibition for a Jew to benefit from an action performed on Shabbos by a non-Jew, who is not obligated to observe Shabbos, as long as the non-Jew, who caused the action, intended to do it for his own benefit and did not have the Jew in mind. For example, if a non-Jew turned on a light in a dark room on Shabbos, in order to look for something, and did not bother to turn it off when he left, a Jew may use that light to read. This is true even if he would not have been able to do so prior to the non-Jew’s action. It is also permissible to turn on an electrical appliance, such as a fan, before Shabbos, and use it throughout Shabbos, provided that one does not tamper with the appliance in any way, e.g. changing the fan’s speed on Shabbos.

There are certain exceptions to this rule of benefiting from an activity that comes from an action that a Jew did not perform on Shabbos. One is forbidden to have food on the stove during Shabbos if this will improve the food’s taste, unless the burners are covered with a blech. Even though the individual is doing nothing to the food on the stove, without a blech this situation is forbidden.

The act of writing is one of the thirty-nine forbidden acts of melacha. Our Chachamim, our Sages, forbade doing business on Shabbos based on a concern that one may come to transgress the Shabbos by writing an invoice, a receipt, or details of a business transaction.

A business transaction is normally concluded with an act of acquisition such as paying for a product or taking the product home. Our Chachamim forbade many acts of acquisition on Shabbos except when needed for a mitzvah or for Shabbos. For instance, if one received a cake as a present on Shabbos, and planned to eat it on Shabbos, he may acquire it immediately. If he does not plan to eat it on Shabbos, he may only acquire it after Shabbos. The issues are similar regarding people who have a business on the internet. The website owners do not do any business activity on Shabbos; they may be at shul davening or at home enjoying the Shabbos seudah, etc. The customers are ordering goods on the website.

This shaila under discussion mirrors the well-known question that concerns a Jew who owns a vending machine. Although the owner is selling merchandise on Shabbos, when the non-Jew purchases candy from the machine, the Jewish owner is not performing any positive action.

This question is discussed at length in various responsa. The Sh”ut Minchas Yitzchok (Vol. 3, No. 34)1 analyzes this question from various angles. If the vending machine is located in a building or on a piece of property that is owned by a Jew, it would not be permitted to allow a non-Jew to purchase products from the vending machine, as it may appear as though the non-Jew was instructed by the Jew to take the item to another location. This problem does not apply to purchases made on the internet because there is no transfer of property, just placement of an order online. Even if there would be a transfer of ownership, there is no physical transfer of property.

The Sh”ut Minchas Yitzchok raises another issue that concerns vending machines. Every sale requires the implied consent of the owner. Even though the non-Jew seems to be making the purchase himself without any interaction with the owner, there is, in fact, this implied interaction of the owner agreeing to the sale.

The Sh”ut R’ Akiva Eiger (No. 159) writes that if someone stipulates that an acquisition made on Friday should take effect on Shabbos – he transgresses the prohibition of doing business on Shabbos. We see from this R’ Akiva Eiger that one may not do an action on Friday that will cause a transfer of ownership on Shabbos. Based on this, it would seem that when the owner fills a vending machine with a product on Friday, it is being filled with the understanding that whoever inserts a coin and acquires the product may do so whenever he wishes, including Shabbos. He has therefore transgressed the prohibition of doing business on Shabbos.

The Sh”ut Avnei Tzedek (Orach Chaim, No. 34), however, explains that this thinking of the R’ Akiva Eiger does not apply to vending machines because the owner does not mind if the kinyan, the acquisition, were to take place on Friday. The owner could, and should, have in mind that ownership of the product be given on Friday2 to whomever will buy that product on Shabbos, provided that he will pay for it. Therefore, even though the candy was actually purchased on Shabbos, the acquisition really took place on Friday (ub’milei d’rabbanan amrinan yesh breirah).

Again, this issue should not present a problem with regard to internet purchases because the orders are not processed until after Shabbos. The real issue pertaining to an internet purchase is the fact that the Jewish owner immediately acquires the money at the time of the sale.

In the case of the vending machine this problem can be resolved if the Jew specifically states that he does not intend to acquire the money until after Shabbos. We normally assume that a person expects to acquire the money immediately, through his property, unless he declares otherwise, that he wants to defer the acquisition until Shabbos ends.

With regard to websites, however, it is very doubtful that such a declaration will help because purchases are accomplished by entering a credit card number, whereby the bank immediately transfers funds from the purchaser’s account to that of the vendor. It is incongruous to contract with the bank to have the money transferred, while verbally stating that one does not want to acquire the money until after Shabbos. Upon inquiry of a major credit card company, we were informed that it is theoretically possible to work out an agreement with the bank to defer the payment. This would allow the website to remain open on Shabbos. Such an arrangement, however, is both difficult and unlikely.

Another difficulty with a website, which must be taken into account, is whether or not there is a chance that a Jew will be making purchases on Shabbos. If this chance does exist, there would be the problem of lifnei iver, putting a stumbling block in front of the blind, or ignorant. However, this only applies if the website owner is selling items that are not generally available from another source, e.g. antiques or original paintings. If the items are available elsewhere, the owner is only transgressing the prohibition of aiding a Jew in doing an aveirah. In this latter situation, one may rely on the Shach (Yoreh Deah No. 151 #6) who states that it is permitted in this case. This is especially true here where it is only doubtful whether a Jew will be making a purchase on Shabbos.

Each individual should explore the possibilities available, and decide what would be the best way to ensure that the sanctity of Shabbos is preserved.

The Chofetz Chaim (Biur Halacha 246 end) writes that whoever fulfills the will of the Torah to keep Shabbos without looking for loopholes is a fortunate person, and Hashem will certainly grant him success in his business during the six days of the week.

1 Written by Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss, the Rav of Manchester and later the head of the Badatz of Yerushalayim.
2 In order for this to work, the owner must be makneh al yedei acher.