Must Your Online Shop Shut On Shabbat?

Shabbat Internet Commerce

Widespread internet use has transformed the way many businesses operate. It is possible to use the internet to sell clothes, household appliances, books, or almost anything. And as websites are ‘open’ around the clock, this raises new issues for Jewish law: since commerce is forbidden on Shabbat, must one close down one’s internet site on Friday afternoon to prevent purchases being made?

Another related ‘hot’ topic is the issue of on-line auctions. May one bid for an item if the auction will end on Shabbat? What if the system bids automatically on Shabbat (when you are outbid in an on-line auction, such as eBay, but have indicated that you will pay more than the current highest bid by putting in a maximum bid before Shabbat)? The core issue is whether a transaction that takes place with no human involvement on Shabbat, even without one’s knowledge, remains prohibited by the laws of Shabbat.

By way of introduction, many authorities assert that the entire corpus of laws regulating commerce on Shabbat is of rabbinical, rather than Biblical origin. While this means they must be taken very seriously (and observed without compromise), in a case of uncertainty, the final ruling may allow for some flexibility.

Some 200 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Eiger considered the permissibility of selling an object when the money is handed over on Friday but remains the property of the vendor until Shabbat. Even though the acquisition happens automatically on Shabbat, he adopts the stringent position and prohibits this.

This point is qualified by Rabbi Zvi Pesah Frank, who asserts that when the entire process occurs on Shabbat, both the vendor and the purchaser transgress, but when the purchase is started before Shabbat and concludes on Shabbat, only the purchaser transgresses. While the owner of a website might not actually sin by ‘trading’ on Shabbat, he or she may be enticing a potential (Jewish) purchaser to sin!

According to this view, it would be difficult to allow a website to remain open on Shabbat, since any purchase made would result in transfer of title to the goods on Shabbat. However, if the vendor’s website can be designed not to actually process the charge on Shabbat, but instead wait to receive payment until the goods are available and ready for shipping, there may be no halachic problem.

Based on this ruling, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, senior halakhic authority of the American Orthodox Union, is quoted as prohibiting ‘proxy’ bidding for an item when the internet auction ends on Shabbat. However, his ruling seems to ignore the fact that when the sale ends, all that actually happens is that one becomes legally committed to buying the item; until one pays for it after Shabbat, there is no actual transfer of title. This should remain permitted even according to Rabbi Eiger, since no acquisition actually happens on Shabbat.

Offering a fresh approach, Dayan Yitzhak Weiss considered the permissibility of a Jew trading on Shabbat using a vending machine. As the device is left in a public place and is freely accessible to passersby, it provides an excellent precedent for its ether-equivalent, the e-commerce website. After an extensive discussion of the issues, Dayan Weiss permits the use of vending machines when the following conditions are met:

  1. The owner of the machine must declare that the proceeds of the sales won’t be acquired until after Shabbat (to avoid the above-mentioned concern of Rabbi Eiger).
  2. The owner must have in mind that any items purchased on Shabbat are notionally considered to have been acquired by the purchaser before Shabbat commences. In certain circumstances, Jewish law allows the status or ownership of items to be determined in this way, even though the actual selection takes place on Shabbat.
  3. The vending machine is in a public place, which avoids the appearance that the product has been bought from a Jewish business on Shabbat.

It seems reasonable to apply these conditions to e-commerce websites. The website may be considered to be a ‘public place’, and, as discussed above, the site can be designed to avoid the issue of actual acquisition on Shabbat.

While beyond the scope of this study, modern sources also consider the issue of enticing another Jew to sin and the concern that trading in a technically permissible manner degrades the sanctity of Shabbat. However, while there is indeed room for concern that internet trading interferes with the sanctity of Shabbat, even when no humans are involved, many modern halachists have adopted a lenient stance.

Sources

The rabbis forbade many things on Shabbat, some because they resemble Biblically prohibited acts and others because they may lead to committing a Biblically prohibited act. (Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 21:1)

Re: the sale of an item on Friday for money on the condition that it becomes your property the next day, such that the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat. Is it permissible, as no prohibited act takes place on Shabbat since the acquisition happens automatically, or forbidden, as the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat? It is forbidden. (Responsa of Rabbi Akiva Eiger 1:159)

The purchaser transgresses by acquiring title to an item on Shabbat, even if the contract was made on Friday… (Responsa Har Zvi, Oreh Hayyim 1:126)

In conclusion, when one fulfils all the conditions: the machine is not in a Jewish place and located such that no-one can identify the owner and all the preparations are made before Shabbat… there is room to permit its use. (Responsa Minhat Yitzhak 3:34)

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.