Q. What can you tell me about the idea of the Shabbos Goy?
A. Your question reminded me of an experience in Sydney. One year Anzac Day was a Friday and after the march thousands of old soldiers made for the pubs for Kiddush and Havdalah – or at least that’s the way I described their need for a drink. When the time came for the Shabbat evening service at the Great Synagogue I unlocked the building and turned on the lights. But that was before the commencement of Shabbat; after the service it was a different matter. The janitor had not turned up to secure the building. The cantor looked for him in one pub; I went to another. No luck.
Being resourceful I went over to the Masonic Club and sought out the commissionaire. I tried to explain my predicament to him. He obviously did not believe a word of my story. “An able-bodied young man,” his eyes seemed to say, “and he can’t flick a switch?” In the end he came across to the Shule with me, did the necessary and returned to his post, muttering all the while. I ensured that on Monday our appreciation was expressed with a few bottles of beer.
From a more serious point of view, the Shabbos Goy is a fascinating aspect of halachic and social history. Professor Jacob Katz of the Hebrew University researched it thoroughly and produced a significant study, “The ‘Shabbes Goy’: a Study in Halakhic Flexibility”, published by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1989. The original Hebrew title was “Goy Shel Shabbat”.
The phenomenon began in the Babylonian period and allowed the halachah to accommodate social realities without transgressing the strict law. However, it depended on a reasonably cordial relationship between Jews and gentiles, and as the relationship varied so did the availability of the Shabbos Goy. And the more complex the commercial and industrial realities became, the more difficult the halachic ramifications of the phenomenon. If a gentile partner kept the business or factory operating on Shabbat, could the Jew benefit from a contract entered into that day? Could the Jew take a share of the profits derived from Sabbath trading?
There was always an issue with the Sabbath law of the Bible. Was a Shabbos Goy a servant in terms of the Fourth Commandment? How was the master-servant relationship to be obviated? Was the Shabbos Goy a response to an emergency situation?
Further problems arose when the Shabbos Goy actually turned out to be Jewish. In the East End of London there was a local boy who made quite a lot of pocket money from turning down the lights for Jewish families until the day came when he told them, “I won’t be able to come next week because it’s my Bar-Mitzvah!”
Technology has made life easier for orthodox families since the invention of time clocks, though new problems arise when the human hands that set the clocks sometimes make mistakes and the electricity goes off in the middle of a Shabbat meal…