A group of rabbis in Bat Yam including the city’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi Shaul Yosef Weingerten recently convened in order to discuss the increasing demand for employing the shabbat goy better known as the “shabbes goy”. A shabbes goy is a non Jewish person who performs those tasks that are halachically forbidden for Jews to perform on Shabbat or yom tov. Examples of the kinds of work the shabbes goy is called upon to do is turning on or off electricity, cooking, cleaning, indeed any kind of work that is prohibited according to the 39 categories (avot) and their derivations (toledot). One of the means by which some of these prohibitions may be circumvented is through the shabbes goy. The laws regarding the shabbes goy are complicated and complex and weren’t treated lightly until the 19th century. By the mid 20th century with the accessibility of Jewish education and the deterioration in the respect for the orthodox communal rabbi and the ascendance of the yeshiva scholars (roshei yeshiva), laws regarding the governance of the shabbes goy were dramatically relaxed.
Our sages throughout the ages from the talmudic/geonic period up through the 19th century were concerned with the possible abuse of the laws regulating the shabbes goy from an ethical perspective as much as a halachic one. The purpose of this posting is not to examine the halachic aspects of the shabbes goy in the 21st century but to explore the ethical / moral ramifications which arise when use of the shabbes goy is abused.
Rules concerning the shabbes goy depended on whether the use was for the community or the individual. Regardless of the use of the shabbes goy, Jews have always understood that we were responsible for our actions and that observing the commandments assumed certain responsibilities, privileges as well as sacrifices. It was for this reason partly that Jews avoiding the use of the shabbes goy didn’t work in agriculture during the early geonic period. Farming and agriculture required working 7 days a week; cows had to be milk every day otherwise there was issues of “tzar lbaalei chaiyim” as well as economic loss. On the other hand it was easier for a community to employ a shabbes goy because the community as a whole was held to a standard, unlike the individual who might abuse the system. The use of the shabbes goy by the individual was of greater concern to our rabbis because implied was the fact that by using a goy we were relinquishing individual responsibility for our actions benefiting from the use of someone else’s work that was prohibited to us. The ethical fallout was that at some point the halachic system would trump ethics or even define ethical standards. If the law was designed to accommodate the individual as well as the collective, in their own land or in the Diaspora, then avoiding that responsibility by seeking out the loopholes of a shabbes goy would be to undermine the intention of the original design. Subscribing to a religious system assumes that at times there will be inconveniences. Seeking the loopholes in the system is to ultimately avoid responsibility and the benefit of that design, however flawed. On the contrary, by creating a shabbes goy we ultimately impinge and corrupt the intention of the design.
To fulfill a mitzvah by use of a proxy goy is to diminish its meaning and purpose as well as to impede the Jew from practicing his mitzvot. To relinquish obligations is no different than avoiding conscription by paying someone else to serve in one’s place. To relinquish obligations is no different than paying someone else to serve out ones prison sentence. According to the logic of using the shabbes goy what would be wrong if Bernie Madoff decided to hire someone else to do his time! This has been done before in Europe and the feudal system ultimately collapsed giving way to other enlightened political systems. The use of the shabbes goy effectively diminishes the ethical underpinnings of halacha and it is happening today. By using the shabbes goy, the gentile has become objectified, an easy target, someone to be taken advantage of.
The use of the shabbes goy not only objectifies him but also enhances our ability to discriminate. We may not be able to do the work on Shabbat, but at some point work in general becomes unseemly; let the goy do the work. This has become a mentality quite ubiquitous in some quarters of the orthodox Jewish community. That coupled with the fact that they subscribe to a literal understanding of “asher bacar banu mecol hahmim” becomes a formula for the perfect storm. The likes of the Spinka rebbe or the Deal NJ gang of five or the Rubashkin fiasco is no longer a surprise when put into this perspective. Remarkably and ironically the shabbes goy has truly done its work – objectifying itself with a boomerang effect!