With the recently announced impending bankruptcy of the US Postal Service, I thought it would be interesting to discuss various ways in which the halakhic system treats and is affected by the modern postal service. The first and most obvious point of contact is the receipt of mail on Shabbos. We discussed this at length regarding delivery of Harry Potter books and I won’t repeat it here.

Postal Service in Jewish Law

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I. Mail and Judaism

With the recently announced impending bankruptcy of the US Postal Service, I thought it would be interesting to discuss various ways in which the halakhic system treats and is affected by the modern postal service.

The first and most obvious point of contact is the receipt of mail on Shabbos. We discussed this at length regarding delivery of Harry Potter books (I, II, III) and I won’t repeat it here.

II. Sending Mail

Somewhat related is sending mail right before Shabbos. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 3 no. 46) notes that many Jews work in the New York post office, including on Shabbos. When you put something in the mailbox on Friday, you are essentially giving it to Jews to transport on Shabbos. Therefore, R. Feinstein forbids sending mail late on Friday. R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 73:5) disagrees. Because at least some gentiles work in the post office, we can assume that they, rather the Jews, will handle your letter. I once heard R. Mordechai Willig say that this entire debate no longer applies today, now that so few Jews work in the post office.

Somewhat related is sending express mail to arrive on Shabbos. You are asking a gentile (presumably) to deliver your package on specifically Shabbos. This is amirah le-nokhri, asking a gentile to perform labor on Shabbos for you. Therefore, R. Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 31:20) forbids sending express mail to arrive on Shabbos except in urgent situations. R. Braun (ibid.) and R. Gedaliah Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun vol. 3 p. 63) similarly permit sending express mail in urgent situations. Their logic is that you give the package to a gentile who gives it to another gentile to deliver. This additional layer of distance from the labor renders it permissible.

III. Sending Wheat

Before baking matzah for Pesach, we watch the wheat to ensure that it does not come into contact with water before the baking process begins. The Mishnah Berurah (453:4, Bi’ur Halakhah sv. u-lefachos) quotes a discussion of the Sedei Chemed about whether wheat can be sent by train, unguarded. R. Simcha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvos 453:13) describes the Sedei Chemed and others as concluding that wheat may be sent if it is in a container that is doubly sealed. But if for seem reason the container is not sealed, and there is no reason to believe the container was tampered with, we can rely on the professionalism of the postal service.

IV. Declaring Death

The case of a husband disappearing in a tragedy is often difficult to resolve because he may have have fled. Among the many considerations is whether advances in communications allows us to assume that were he still alive. These issues are thoroughly address in the recent book, Contending With Catastrophe (p. 55f.). Noteworthy is that leading scholars such as the early nineteenth century R. Moshe Sofer were willing to consider this within their deliberations based on improvements in mail service (see Pischei Teshuvah, Even Ha-Ezer 17:34).

V. Remarrying

While contemporary practice forbids polygamy, even when it was allowed it was guided by certain restrictions. The Gemara (Yoma 18b) forbids a man to marry two wives in two different cities. If siblings in different cities do not know each other, they may end up meeting later in life and marrying. R. Yechiel Mikhel Epstein (Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Even Ha-Ezer 1:24) asks why a man may divorce and marry in another city. Does not the same concern apply. He explains that the entire worry is no longer an issue. Because of the reliability of the modern postal service, people are in more frequent contact with relatives. They will know who moves where and remarries, and the names of relatives. There is little realistic probability that siblings will marry each other due solely to living in different cities.

VI. Delivering Mail

Halakhah recognizes the importance of mail delivery. The timely arrival of mail is not only important for business but also a distinct pleasure for personal recipients. People are normally forbidden to work at their jobs on chol ha-mo’ed, the intermediate days of the festivals. While there are leniencies for many cases, I suspect that people today widely abuse them and neglect the holiness of the days. However, the compendium Chol Ha-Mo’ed Ke-Hilkhaso (9:10) convincingly rules that a mailman may freely work on chol ha-mo’ed. His delivery of the mail is a source of holiday joy and, therefore, his job constitutes permitted public work for community needs.

Jewish law recognizes the importance of regular delivery of mail, allowing for leniencies in urgent cases and delivery on some special days. However, the US Postal Service is not the only source of mail. UPS, FedEx and other carriers share similar status. All of these methods are equally important in the eyes of Jewish law.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

15 comments

  1. Jonathan Berger

    Before the post became reliable, when a Get was written in one city and delivered in another, the ba’al (or, depending on circumstances, the Mesader Gittin) would appoint a shaliach who acted as a courier and then delivered the Get. When the post became more reliable, it became acceptable to most poskim to use it to convey the Get from where it was written to the destination city. A shaliach must still be appointed at the destination city to deliver it to the ishah, but the actual transportation took place through the post. I believe that some poskim objected to this change.

  2. amirah le-nokhri,
    ===================================
    does wrining =amira. it would seem in most cases you have writing that is given to one nochri who will paas it on to many others. and if one says , “I want it delivered over the weekend”, and they only have saturday delivery, how is that different than sending it regular mail on friday (or thursday)?
    KT

  3. Jonathan: I believe that the man also has to appoint a shaliach to take the get to the post office. I’m not quite sure why and didn’t have time to look this up so I omitted it. But you are essentially correct.

    Joel: Agreed, but if you put it in the mailbox on Thursay or Friday without specifying when you want it delivered, then it could take longer and you have no asked them to deliver on Shabbos. Then again, this may all go away soon if the USPS stops Saturday service,

  4. “Therefore, R. Feinstein forbids sending mail late on Friday. R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 73:5) disagrees. Because at least some gentiles work in the post office, we can assume that they, rather the Jews, will handle your letter. I once heard R. Mordechai Willig say that this entire debate no longer applies today, now that so few Jews work in the post office.”

    tHERE MAY WELL BE VERY FEW jEWS LIVING IN rI8VERDALE WHO WORK FOR the Post Office-but I have seen some clerks in recent years who cl;early have names that are frequent among Jews. It is likely that a postal worker will not be able to afford an Orthoodx lifestyle and thus not effectively be welcome in day schools etc but there are clearly Jews who work there.

  5. Who is the baalim of mail ? Is it property of the sender, the recipient or the government? Nafka mina would be regarding hashavas aveida (assuiming there is an issue of aveidas akum today) and dina d’malchusa dina.

  6. There is alot on the history of mail if you look at meforshim/scholars on Megillat Esther, s.v. “ha’acharshtapanim bnei haramachim”. The Persians perfected the ancient mail system,including express/overnight delivery (ie. “yatzu dechufim”) which is how Achashverosh circulated his edicts.

    Ari Enkin

  7. overnight delivery to 127 medinot?

  8. “shmuel on September 12, 2011 at 1:03 am
    Who is the baalim of mail ? Is it property of the sender, the recipient or the government?”

    If my recollection is correct at least in the US the sender of mail can theoretically until delivery sign a form to not to have the mail delivered . Of course, I wouldn’t bet on the likelihood of the success of such request.

  9. avraham etzion

    Your comments are to the point-relevent to Jews living in Galut
    The situation is different here in Israek
    Another major issue here is sending mail and telephone to
    anxious relatives in cases of war and emergencies!

  10. It was about the Persian couriers that herodotus wrote what is now the motto associated with the USPS “Neither rain nor snow …”

  11. “Somewhat related is sending mail right before Shabbos. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 3 no. 46) notes that many Jews work in the New York post office, including on Shabbos. When you put something in the mailbox on Friday, you are essentially giving it to Jews to transport on Shabbos. Therefore, R. Feinstein forbids sending mail late on Friday.”

    who still gets twice-daily pickups? this is surely outdated, and early friday is the same as late friday (?)

    also if you send it at all on friday, aren’t you effectively asking them to process it on saturday? why is that any different than dropping in the mailbox where you are not technically asking them to transport the envelope on shabbos rather than leave it there for after shabbos. at what point dropoff in advance are you not effectively asking them to process it on shabbos

  12. I thought you were also going to mention Cherem D’Rabbenu Gershom to not read someone else’s mail. But I guess that’s not related to delivering the mail which is the focus of this post.

  13. MiMedinat HaYam

    “Their logic is that you give the package to a gentile who gives it to another gentile to deliver. This additional layer of distance from the labor renders it permissible.”

    since you mentioned the chatam sofer later, discussion of “amirah l’amirah is warranted (better yet, a post dedicated to this issue.)

    2. ““ha’acharshtapanim bnei haramachim”” seems to be a “fast service” (or maybe just pony express, or better yet, camel express) while ““yatzu dechufim”” seems to be express mail. of course, not by overnight, but …

    and unlike r ari e — i found almost nothing on this issue in purims past. ditto “patshegen”, which i define as “certified copy” (by default).

    3. there’s no way you can cancel a usps delivery once its in the mailbox. but ups can reconsign, etc., if you are the consignor / sender (and you have a ups account.)

    and breaking into the mailbox is a federal offense. just like “tampering” with the mail.

    4. sending a get — only the first and last shaliach must be specified. the intermediate shlichim do not have to be assigned. mail or not.

    5. neither rain nor snow is not a motto; its just engraved in the (soon to be deactivated) post office building in manhattan opp penn station. and of course, its a legend. any excuse not to deliver, shabat, or not. no legal requirement, even for express mail.

    6. late friday drop off — its like giving your car to a non jewish mechanic before shabat. as long as he can do it before shabat, the rest is up to his schedule. (provided the car / the envelope is not identifably jewish. like halachot of “selling a business” for shabat; this particular detail often ignored, out of ignorance. or not ignorance.)

    7. does “Contending With Catastrophe” deal with the companion issue of a — was the marriage a good one; if not, the heter is suspect. and b — was the missing person experiencing trouble, financial, medical, other?

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