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A Rabbinic Responsum: The Shabbat Goy

Jewish law prohibits the kindling of fires on the Sabbath. Although hiring gentiles to perform prohibited acts for the benefit of the Jewish employer was not permitted, it was a very common practice. In accordance with the view widespread custom must be legitimate, many rabbis went out of their way to find ways to justify what was, according to the letter of the law, a dubious practice. The following is one such justification. It is found in the Talmudic commentary of the thirteenth century German Jew, Mordecai b. Hillel. The Mordecai contains within it many responsa, rabbinic answers to practical questions on Jewish law.

The question is whether  I may warm myself at a fire kindled by a Gentile on Sabbath.  The following is the Response of R. Yomtob of blessed memory:  From my youth I have wondered at those who forbade us to warm ourselves at a fire kindled by a Gentile for a Jew, because I have seen my father and R. Menahem and other men of fame, who were particularly pious [perushim, set aside] thus warming, themselves. The reason seems to me this as we say, elsewhere [Talmud, Sabbath] that we reckon circumcision as an illness and can therefore do things otherwise forbidden on a Sabbath for a circumcised child] so every one is considered ill from the effects of cold: though they may not be really ill, yet they suffer from it. . .   And if it would not  perplex the people I would allow them to order a Gentile to make a fire on Sabbath and [among other proofs]  as we say of the High Priest that, if he is delicate, they heated his bath [on the Day of Atonement] with hot iron [Talm. Yoma 34b], so every man is delicate as regards cold, and therefore he can  warm himself. And may my share in the future life be among the just who warm themselves and not among those who separate themselves.   And so let those who warm themselves on Sabbath rejoice in much peace.


Source: Hag. Mordecai  Shabbat, i., 450, ed. Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), pp. 111-12.

Scanned by Elka Klein.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, January 1999

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