Non-LDS Sabbath Guy

Yesterday I read an article in my local paper about an institution I had never heard of before: the Shabbos goy (or Shabbes goy or Shabbat goy; in modern Hebrew, goy shel shabbat, “Non-Jew of the Sabbath”). This particular article was about a man who was both Arab and Muslim, yet performs this service in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Orthodox Jews have very strict regulations for the Sabbath. So no cell phones, computers, TV, shopping, driving, cooking (meals are prepared in advance), not even flipping a light switch. But as you can imagine, there are times when such things really must be done. The Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), an authoritative 16th-century codification of halacha (Jewish law), provides a loophole where a goy (traditonally “gentile”; foreigner or non-Jew) may perform certain services for the benefit of Jews that would be forbidden for they themselves to do. Thus the Shabbos goy. The Shabbos goy can turn on the air conditioner when it is hot, turn off a light that was accidentally left on, fix a fuse when it blows, rush pregnant wives to the hospital (lots of pregnant wives!), and so forth. (Before electronics, the Shabbos goy would do things like light the fire when it was cold.) The one described in the article works out of a plastic shed with a big sign that reads “Goy shel Shabbat”; the shed is just big enough for a white chair and a small fridge with soda pop.

In America, such services would often be performed by friendly neighbors. Well known examples of people who have served in the role of the Shabbos goy include Harry Truman, Elvis Presley, Mario Cuomo, Martin Scorsese, Colin Powell and Barack Obama. But in orthodox neighborhoods where the needs are great, the Shabbos goy is actually a job, and he is paid for his services.

I find this all quite fascinating, and I wondered: could we Mormons use the equivalent of a Shabbos goy? (Although historically we used the term gentile to refer to non-LDS, that usage has fallen out of favor, so my proposed equivalent is “Non-LDS Sabbath Guy.”)

Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have any use for such a service, as by Mormon standards I’m very permissive about Sabbath observance. (I watch the NFL on TV, for example.) And my guess is that Mormons tend to be more pragmatic about the ox in the mire, and in extremis will break the sabbath themselves if they have to. And I’m not sure we would go for the idea of having a non-LDS fill our car with gas, because we’re still causing others to work on the Sabbath.

But I still think it’s a fascinating idea.


  1. We were having friends (Catholics) for dinner one Sunday, and the meal went awry. So we ended up getting pizza. We joked about having them go get it, so we wouldn’t be breaking the sabbath. It’s become a running joke with them, very similar to the concept here – but it’s really just a joke.

    I don’t actually have much problem getting my own pizza in that situation. My capacity to ignore guilt is pretty high.

  2. mardell wenger says:

    Lets see all the work a mother could pawn off on to him for Sunday. Because we all know Sunday is not always a day of rest for mothers. The list of jobs could include; changing dirty diapers, dressing children, cleaning up the half gallon of milk on the floor, watching the kids while I take a nap, etc… I personally think it would be a wonderfully grand idea in theory. It could be like a nanny for a day, and as long as I am paying him he also could do all of the deep cleaning once a week. Oh what a dream.

  3. Maybe I could find someone to do my home teaching.

  4. I don’t think it would work for us, because, as you mentioned, it would be just as bad in the LDS-world view to cause someone else break the Sabbath in our behalf. Actually, I think — my own form of Mormon self-inflicted guilt — we’re still held accountable (or more accountable) for making others break it for us. Like we broke it and made someone else break it too. A double whammy.

  5. Mardell’s idea is wonderful but I’d like to take it a step further. Given that Sunday* is rarely a day of rest for Mormons, we should get someone to do all our Sunday stuff — go to meetings, teach lessons, ferry kids to firesides, etc. — and just wake us up in time to take the sacrament.

    *Of course Sunday is not the Sabbath, but that’s another question.

  6. I don’t have any use for such a service either:

    Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.

    Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

  7. In Mormon circles, it’s actually worse to cause someone else to work for pay than for you do do actual light “work” for yourself. In my parents rural branch where Sunday is the one day some members go to town, it’s not uncommon to see members gassing up their cars… as long as they pay at the pump. Using the pizza example, no one would bat an eye if a familly made thier own pizzas at home on Sunday. Pay someone else to make it and bring it to you and you’re going to hell.

  8. Expanding on what Meems said, I’m interested in how Jews (or Mormons) could justify the idea of a shabbos goy in light of the actual text of the fourth commandment:

    But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: [Exodus 20:10]

  9. We’ve thought about asking our Jewish or Catholic neighbors to be our own Shabbos Goy, making that run to the grocery for that one missing ingredient.

    But, they’d look at us real funny–why can’t you go to the store, it’s just around the corner?

    They’d also think we were really odd if we used the old Mormon escape hatch: calling the neighbors to ask for that missing teaspoon of ground sage, or whatever. What’s wrong? Can’t walk the 100 yards to the store?

  10. #8 – The Sabbath Guy wouldn’t fit any of those categories, technically.

    Interesting post, Kevin. Reminds me of paying for my sins in advance. I guess there are some advantages of being Jewish or Catholic.

  11. In Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, he talks about the crosswalk lights at intersections in Los Angeles. Basically if you do not push the button for the light it will never change, with a small exception. On Saturdays approximately 75 lights will start switching on a timer in Orthodox neighborhoods. The people will not push the button on the Sabbath and were left with jaywalking as an option. For public safety they have this sabbath sacrifice. Sort of a shabbos goy once removed.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    TStevens, that is awesome!

  13. Along the lines of TStevens’ comment, when we went looking for refrigerators awhile back, the dealer was selling several models that are on a seven day timer and do not turn on the inside light when opened on the Sabbath.

  14. I have long advocated hiring 7th day Adventists and Jews who observe the Sabbath on Saturday to run the nursery on Sundays since most wards I’ve been in rely on young mothers who already are home with their children all week to do it. That way, everyone who wants to can go to RS, and since the hired help has already observed their own Sabbath you are not causing them to break it.

  15. I was a Shabbat goy once. We lived in a part of Pittsburgh that had a large Jewish community, including several orthodox and ultra-orthodox synagogues. I was jogging by one on a Saturday morning when a congregant came out and asked it I could help him. Their worship hall was on the second story of the building, and they had an elevator for those who could not walk up the stairs. But they had forgotten to turn on the elevator’s on-switch the day before. So he had me come down to the basement and flick the switch on. (I guess it is okay for the infirm to press the up switch on the elevator, but a healthy orthodox Jew should not go downstairs and turn on the switch). He then gave me a tour of the synagogue, which was great (although I felt a little embarrased in my little running shorts).

  16. #5 Ronan,

    I second your motion, but I thing the real solution is to take Steve’s post from today one step further and participate online for our classroom instruction, and just come to sacrament meeting and go home. I’m only half-joking…

  17. BTW, on European calendars, isn’t Sunday the 7th day of the week?

  18. This whole post is awesome. It reminds me of two things – one: my mom never minded going out for Chinese food (specifically) on a Sunday because since most of the guys working there were Buddhist, we wouldn’t be causing them to break the Sabbath.

    Two: When I lived in Japan, I know people who would take full advantage of shopping via vending machine, because they weren’t making another person work for them.

  19. TStevens,
    That makes sense. I lived in West LA for 2 years and remember seeing the jewish families walk to synagouge every saturday morning. I dont recall ever seeing them push a button. Yet, I dont remember seeing them jaywalk.
    Lol, funny.

  20. I dunno. The “stranger that is within thy gates” wording of Exodus 20:10 implies to me that it doesn’t matter whether the person doing the working is of your religious persuasion.

  21. Interesting moral philosophy here, Kevin. I doubt that the Jews imagine that they are causing these goyim to sin. This offers further evidence that such divine injunctions are seen by Jews to apply only to themselves. I reckon “stranger withing thy gates” must refer only to someone who lives in your household. Thus the rest of us can break the Sabbath with impunity! (As I will tomorrow. Matt, in the UK, Sunday is indeed the first day of the week.)

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is the question several have asked about how this concept is justified in light of the text of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, it is couched in halachic technical terminology that is beyond me:

    Halacha – shabbas goy

    Submitted by isadore a. suchman Answered by Rav Peretz Moncharsh
    Question: what is the halachah on use of a shabbos goy? Torah says clearly: “Kol M’lochoh lo ya’a’seh bo’hem” Rashi say: “Lo – al a’filu al y’dei a’charim.” What authority, if any, justifies the use of a shabbos goy?

    The Ramban there in Shmos 12:16 asks a similar question to yours. He asks: if “acheirim” in Rashi refers to Jews, they are anyways forbidden to do melacha. If it refers to non-Jews, the Gemorra in numerous places in Shabbos is explicit that there is no issur d’oraisa. He concludes that the derasha Rashi is quoting from the Mechilta must be an asmachta.

    The halachos of a Shabbos goy are very complicated, but suffice it to say that while there is no issur d’oraisa, many people frequently transgress the issur d’rabannan

  23. Ronan,

    Sorry, I meant to say in “Continental Europe”. I know the fog is very thick in the English channel, as they say. I just know my German and Spanish colleagues’ calendars all show Sunday as the 7th day, and they begin their week for all intents and purposes on Monday. Which makes me wonder, do 7th Day Adventists attend on Sunday?

  24. @22:

    Oh, well, that clarifies it, then. ;-)

  25. Interesting Kevin. What is the story behind Elvis as a Shabbat goy?

  26. The Amish eschew technology, but they too have become more pragmatic recently. They will not drive, but they will ride in cars. They won’t have a phone in the house, but they will have a cell phone in the barn for business. They won’t use buttons on their clothing, but they will shop at the mall. Many of these concessions (willingness to rely on others to make life more convenient) have come about in the last 20 years. I think it makes them less Amish, but more practical. The concessions seem necessary.

  27. I got in a very stupid argument when I was a freshman at BYU. People were gasping in horror that I was using the vending machines on a Sunday. A machine is not me, nor my manservant nor my maidservant nor any other kind of human being. Even now I’ll take the kids over to the grocery store and let them each buy a can of soda as a treat on Sunday.

  28. JimD (#8):

    Have your wife do whatever needs doing; note that she’s not mentioned in the 4th commandment.

  29. But in telling HER that, Micah, I’d be inducing her to break yet another commandment (number 6).

  30. Most of the hospitals in New York (all, maybe) have at least one elevator that is marked “Sabbath Elevator” which will go up and down, presumably stopping at all floors, without any buttons being pushed.

    I’m surprised, though, that the Shabbos Goy is a new concept to you, Kevin. Having spent my only years in Chicago in Hyde Park, I guess I came away thinking that Chicago is more a Jewish town than it actually is.

  31. When I was a missionary in Baltimore, I heard a curious story – travel on the Sabbath is restricted unless done within the borders of a walled city. So, in the late 1800s, the Jewish community gathered up every bit of rope they could pull together. They picked a day, tied the ropes end to end, and put a rope around the entire city. Baltimore was ruled to have a “wall”, and travel within the city limits on the Sabbath was allowed.

    I don’t have any sources, but it’s certainly an interesting story.

  32. Jami-I remember feeling a twinge of guilt as a freshman at BYU using the vending machines (I arrived a zealous recent convert) on the Sabbath. But my guilt was assuaged by the fact that every Sunday the machines were quite depleted, so I was certainly not the only one who disdained the cafeteria’s cooking. It was either chips from the vending machines or Cup O’Noodles in my room.

    One of my friends would go every Sunday to McDonald’s and come back to the dorm with the bag in tow. As a wide-eyed convert I felt simulaneously aghast at her Sabbath-breaking and envious of her imperviousness to our critical judgments.

  33. That’s an eruv, Michael. Look it up on Wikipedia. It’s essentially a “walled” courtyard within which the prohibitions on carrying things across property lines are suspended–since the entire area is deemed a single courtyard.

    They’re all over in New York.

  34. Let me volunteer.

    But perhaps no one wants a Gentile like me on the Sabbath.

  35. Re #15: “I guess it is okay for the infirm to press the up switch on the elevator,”

    It is not okay, if you’re very, very Orthodox. Various NY newspapers have had a few articles about Orthodox Sabbath rules lately — a little Orthodox boy died in a housing project when he fell down an elevator shaft (when the elevator got stuck between floors,) and that prompted a half dozen stories about the culture, the neighborhood, etc. Anyway, someone — I think the NY Times — did a story on manufacturers that make Orthodox-compliant technology, including, but not limited to, the stops-on-every-floor elevator and the light-stays-off-(or-on)-when-the-door-opens refrigerators. You can also find stories that stress how many Orthodox feel that relying on an elevator is against the rules, because it’s an avoidance of work.

    My grandfather was raised in a conservative Jewish environment, and I was raised very aware of that part of my heritage (along with Communism, Unitarian Universalism, etc.,) but this aspect of Judaism has always bothered me to some extent — a bit like how the Orthodox have jurisdiction over deciding who is and isn’t legally Jewish in Israel. I know a girl who was left to walk several miles back to her hotel room, or beg a ride from strangers, because her father had to be in his room before sunset (she was 12 or 13; fortunately one of the few people she knew in that city who actually had a car was able to give her a ride.) It makes me want to start bringing up the ox in the mire, in its original context, (as an argument against this sort of behavior, rather than a rationalization for having pizza delivered.)

    Or, in other words, I would be a bad candidate for this sort of job. But I’m glad someone wants to do it.

  36. RE: gentiles in the nursery
    My area has a large Jewish population and several local Synagogues host fabulous Christmas parties for the homeless and poor so they can work it and Christians can celebrate with their families. Very kind of them.

  37. Ugh. How could people believe in a God that is so legalistic? Surely an all-knowing God would be aware of all the ways that the law can–and will–need to be overridden because of special circumstances.

    This is one of the things that I think makes Mormonism great: the fact that the religion is based on principles, not on ultra-legalistic codes of conduct. In Mormonism, God can give new revelations that change the commandments and that’s ok because the foundation of the religion is on the principles, not on the commandments themselves. An example of this is polygamy: God gave it as a commandment and when the circumstances changed he took the commandment away, but the principle of eternal families on which it is based has always been the same. Another is the Word of Wisdom: the particular do’s and do not’s have changed over the millenia, but the principle of respecting your body as a sacred creation of God has not changed. Commandments are not absolute: truth is.

    And since we can all receive personal revelation, we can change and adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in so that we keep our spirituality intact without getting overwhelmed by this useless guilt that tends to plague our culture. Some of the most spiritual Sundays I ever had were the Sundays I had to work: because I didn’t have the whole day to worship, I did the best with what I had and the spirit affirmed that God had accepted that.

  38. Missionary churches like ours face a conflict of interest in the Shabbos goy concept that the Jews do not: We should hope to convert the goy guy to our faith, including our Sabbath observance. Would we really want to convert him if it meant that we would have no one to go buy our croissant and paper on Sunday morning?

    This is one reason that, as for me and my house, we don’t roll on Shabbos.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 25 JA Benson, on Elvis as a Shabbos goy, see footnote 4 here at the Wikipedia article:

  40. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark B. no. 30, Chicago does indeed have some major Jewish communities (Skokie, for example). But I live in a northwest suburb 35 miles from downtown, and the area where I live is not a Jewish enclave.

  41. MattG,

    You’re right that continental calendars end with Sunday. But the 7th Day Adventists still meet on Saturday.

    we don’t roll on Shabbos.

    Preach on. I told those [guys] down at the league office a thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!

  42. Steve Evans says:

    Shut up Donny!

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s an interesting essay about a Jewish couple walking to a wedding on Shabbat.

  44. I remember reading some years ago about the travel restriction on the Shabbat and how it did not apply if one was traveling over water. Someone invented a device where a container of water would be suspended underneath the car so orthodox could travel without breaking the Law.

  45. Michael #31, The symbolic wall is called an “Eruv.” Many cities have them in the US as well as in Israel. Again, it is a legalistic attempt at circumventing the commandment. The Eruv is basically a wire that is strung around a given area that area is declared the “home.”

  46. And the Eruv plays a not-insignificant role in Michael Chabon’s recent The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. In spite of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Chabon’s was the first reference I heard of it.

  47. Most of this discussion assumes that the LDS Sabbath should be along the lines of the Jewish Sabbath, thus the need for some helpers. I guess I want to think twice about that assumption. The early Christians didn’t share it. They didn’t think of Sunday as the Sabbath, but as the Lord’s Day. If you speak a Romance language, you’ll see the ancient connotation: Saturday is some form of Sabbath, Sunday some form of Lord’s Day. It wasn’t just a different name, but carried a different connotation. Mostly the Lord’s Day was a day of joy, reflected especially in the Eucharistic (thanksgiving) meal, which devolved into what Mormons call the sacrament. A meal like that was a genuine meal, whose focus was fellowship—with each other and with Christ, believed to be present. But it wasn’t a day for rules, a day that needed to be set apart from others, because every day was now holy to a Christian. Paul reflected this in noting they were no more respecters of days. The story of how Sunday came to be seen as a Christian Sabbath is a long one, but basically the attitude changed around Augustine’s time, who believed that Christians needed on their Lord’s Day to outdo the Jews on their Sabbath, and culminated with the English Puritans in the 16th century, who brought the idea to the New World. It’s such an assumption that the question of Sunday as Sabbath isn’t even thought about twice among Mormons. Yet the creation of a Sabbath happened long after the early Christian church.

  48. I think we’ve established that LDS don’t particularly need a Shabbos goy specifically due to our built-in loopholes, but I think the more interesting introspection is to be had in asking ourselves if we might need an analogous institution for other things.

    For example, the existence of other churches helps us by taking in those who can’t or won’t stay in ours. Hinckley said as much when the Southern Baptists brought their convention to SLC–he said he something to the effect that he had some names of friends who’d left the church to suggest for the SBC’s missionary efforts. A little organized religion in their lives is better than none.

  49. Did Shabbos Goy happen to have a mustache?