Robots on Shabbos

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I. Precedent

While modern technology has few ancient parallels, its underlying mechanical concepts often do. As we look back at Talmudic dialogue to appropriately apply it to today’s dramatically different context, one particular debate between the Academies of Shammai and Hillel stands out as crucial.

Machines acting on their own accord, based on mere human instruction, did not exist in Talmudic times. However, if we break down the issue into its components, we can find analogues. When discussing robots, which may not yet have reached Asimov’s vision but are still quite advanced, there are two main issues — the instruction and the action.

II. Instruction

The first regards how we command a robot. Is merely telling a robot to perform a melakhah (forbidden action) allowed? The Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 90b and elsewhere) debates whether speech is considered an action. Only a person who performs a forbidden act may be punished with lashes. Does cursing God, for example, constitute an action? One suggestion is that the movement of lips is an action. Tosafos (ad loc., sv. Rabbi Yochanan) conclude that only speech that leads to commission of an act is considered also an act. If we accept this ruling as conclusive, then ordering a robot to perform a melakhah can be considered, all other things equal, a forbidden act. Additionally, since this is the normal way of commanding a robot, according to may authorities it is a direct, and not indirect, action (see this post).

Indeed, when halakhic authorities discussed the status of telephones, microphones and hearing aids, they assumed that speech that causes electricity to flow is potentially forbidden. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, according to one report, considered thought that directs a forbidden labor, such as via machines that read brain waves, to be forbidden (Me’orei Eish Ha-Shalem 10:13 pp. 765-766; pp. 893-895).

Therefore, if we assume that a robot’s electrical movement is at least forbidden rabbinically, ordering a robot to move or function in any way is also forbidden. But this only refers to commanding a robot on Shabbos to act on Shabbos. What about instructing the robot before Shabbos? The Sages (Shabbos 19a) forbade asking a gentile before Shabbos to perform forbidden labors on Shabbos except under specific examples. The concept of the “Shabbos Goy,” a gentile who performs labor for Jews, is highly limited. Yet, since robots did not exist in Talmudic times, one would be hard pressed to claim they fall under the rabbinic prohibition. Rather, the aforementioned debate between the Academies of Shammai and Hillel provide a more compelling precedent.

III. Action

While the biblical prohibition of performing melakhah only applies on Shabbos, it applies to more than just the Jew himself. A Jew is obligated to ensure that his entire household — including his servants and animals — observe Shabbos. What about his utensils and appliances? Can he lend his lawnmower to his gentile friend to use on Shabbos?

The Mishnah (Shabbos 17b-18a) lists a number of such actions that, according to Beis Shammai, are forbidden on Shabbos while according to Beis Hillel are permitted. Beis Shammai forbids you to start a melakhah on Friday afternoon that will continue on Shabbos but Beis Hillel permits. The Gemara (ibid., 18a) quotes a Baraisa that permits opening an irrigation tunnel that will water a garden on Shabbos but forbids placing wheat on a water-driven grinding mill that will grind it on Shabbos. The Gemara contains three ways of understanding the debate between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, and the Baraisa:

  1. Rabbah: Beis Shammai forbids all such actions (for whatever reason) and Beis Hillel permits them all except for grinding wheat in a mill. Beis Hillel forbids the latter, and anything like it, because it generates noise. Rashi (18a sv. she-yetachanu) explains that the noise is a disgrace to Shabbos.
  2. Rav Yosef: Beis Shammai requires that you rest your appliances on Shabbos and therefore forbids any melakhah done with your utensils on Shabbos. Beis Hillel forbids only active violations, such as the mill grinding wheat, but permits water to flow while a person’s appliances do nothing.
  3. Rav Oshia: Beis Shammaai forbids any melakhah performed by your utensils and Beis Hillel permits them all, including grinding wheat.

IV. Three Approaches

This is based on a simple, perhaps overly simple, explanation of the Gemara. Medieval authorities reach any of the following three conclusions from this Gemara:

  1. There is no issue at all with allowing your appliances to function on Shabbos, even if they make noise (i.e. Beis Hillel according to #3 above). (Rabbenu Tam and Rambam)
  2. The only potential problem with your appliances working on Shabbos is noise (Beis Hillel according to #1 above). (Tosafos and Rosh)
  3. Even according to Rabbah, Beis Hillel forbids you to allow your appliances to actively perform a melakhah but mentions noise to forbid even using a gentile’s mill. (Rokei’ach)

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 252:5) rules like #1 above, that there is no problem when your appliances perform melakhah on Shabbos, even if they generate noise. The Rema (ibid.) rules like #2 above, allowing for exceptions in the case of loss. The Bach (ibid., 246:2) suggests that a God-fearing person will follow #3.

Applying this to contemporary technology, the Rema would insist that you turn off before Shabbos any appliance that will make noise. Exactly what constitutes making noise is subject to debate, but authorities have used this reason to forbid leaving a radio or television running on Shabbos, or turning on by a timer (e.g. Yesodei Yeshurun, vol. 3 p. 50).

The Bach would be stricter. He would insist you turn off all appliances before Shabbos. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Me’orei Eish ch. 4 sec. 6=Shulchan Shlomo, Shabbos 246:1) rules according to the Bach. However, rather than turning appliances off, he suggests rendering them ownerless (hefker) before Shabbos. My sense is that this is a minority view. R. Nosson Gestetner (Le-Horos Nasan, vol. 8 no. 13) explicitly rejects this approach and R. Simcha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvos vol. 7 ch. 246 n. 1) states that he is unaware of a contemporary who agrees with R. Auerbach’s rulling. [However, see here: link]

V. New Technologies

This issue applies to a number of technological developments of the past century. Not just timers, which are older, but vending machines (see Minchas Yitzchak, vol. 3 no. 34; She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 80:63), answering machines (see Shevet Ha-Levi, vol. 5 no. 28) and web servers (see Or Yisrael 35, Nissan 5764, pp. 17-54). Are you allowed to let them function on Shabbos or not? There are other considerations but regarding the basic rule of your appliance working on Shabbos, the above three-way debate would seem to apply.

Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh would allow a Jew’s robot to act on its own initiative on Shabbos (although this view might be stricter than I am presenting it — see Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 3 55:1; Yabi’a Omer vol. 1 20:12, vol. 3 17:6-7). The Rema would forbid it from moving or acting in any way that causes significant noise. And the Bach would forbid the robot to move at all, unless its Jewish owner relinquished ownership before Shabbos.

As mentioned, there are other considerations involved, many of which R. J. David Bleich discusses in his Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 5 ch. 5. Perhaps most significant is the meta-halakhic issue raised by R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 4 no. 60) regarding timers, that they could effectively undermine all the Shabbos rules, thereby disgracing the day. While most authorities disagreed with R. Feinstein’s application to timers, the concept may still be effectively applied to robots. When and if they become commonplace, halakhic authorities will have to decide whether the idea is sufficient to forbid their use on Shabbos.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.


  1. I’m sorry, but any halachic analysis on Robots that does not include Golems is not complete. In the case of Robots, we have 100% direct parallels!

  2. another meta issue (which will also apply to ipods etc.) will be how deeply embedded in everyday life these technologies become. it doesn’t take a science fiction fan to see a scenario where the act of waking up or exiting your front door triggers all kinds of responses. i wonder if the parallel of using the non-jewish baners’ pans in towns where there was no jewish baker (bread is the staff of life etc.) will be followed?

  3. bakers’ not baners’

  4. Avi: What is the din of a Golem on Shabbos?

    Joel: I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  5. On further thought, wouldn’t a Golem be classified as someone’s animal which is obligated to rest on Shabbos?

  6. At work, but would have to refer to the do you count a golem for a minyan tshuva as a starting point.

  7. “Avi: What is the din of a Golem on Shabbos?”

    No idea, but that is where I would start looking for questions about robots.

  8. This article here has the following footnotes about Golem questions.

    [12]See Yeshurun 17, pp. 665 – 666, in the article by R’ M.D. Chichik on Rabbi Eliyahu Ba’al Shem from Chelm, for more on this topic. In fact, the story of Rabbi Eliyahu and his Golem was recently adapted as a hardcover comic book entitled “The Golem of Chelm – Hayah V’Nivra”.

    [13]Shu”t Chacham Tzvi 93, Shu”t She’elas Ya’avetz vol. 2, 82.

    [14]Shem Gedolim vol. 1, Ma’areches Gedolim – Ma’areches Alef, 166.

    [15]Mishna Brura 55:4, who does not actually rule, but rather addresses the issue and says it is a safek; which is actually the main thrust of the Chacham Tzvi’s teshuva – that he personally was undecided as to the proper halacha.

    [16]Chazon Ish Y”D 116:1, who wrote that a Golem would not be able to count for a minyan as it not only would be excluded from the rights and privileges of a Jew, but even from those of a human being. This is also the opinion of the Ya’avetz (quoted above), as well as the Chid”a (Birkei Yosef O.C. 55, 4 s.v. u’lmai), the Ikrei HaDat (Ikrei Dinim O.C. 3:15), and the KafHaChaim (O.C. 55:12).

    Then there is this incomplete question on Judaism.SE that could use more answers.

    There are also some audio shiurs on the topic online, but I can’t access them.

    Regarding being an animal, I think it would depend on if the golem/robot is able/requires sustenance and if it can partake of it itself. Are angels allowed to do work for you on Shabbat?

  9. Which of those sources deals with Shabbos?

  10. Although R. Yaakov Emden does say that a golem is like an animal. The question is whether it falls under shevisas behemto.

  11. According to this link:

    “t is sometimes alleged that Elijah of Wilna also made a golem, and the Ḥasidim claim the same for Israel Ba’al Shem-Ṭob, but apparently the claims are based on the similarity in the one case of the name “Elijah” and in the other of the appellation “Ba’al Shem” to the name and appellation of the rabbi of Chelm. The last golem is attributed to R. Davidl Jaffe, rabbi in Dorhiczyn, in the government of Grodno, Russia (about 1800). This golem, unlike that of R. Löw, was not supposed to rest on Sabbath. Indeed, it appears that it was created only for the purpose of replacing the Sabbath goy in heating the ovens of Jews on winter Sabbaths. All orders to make fires were given to the golem on Friday, which he executed promptly but mechanically the next day. In one case a slight error in an order to the golem caused a conflagration that destroyed the whole town.”

    It seems that the Golem is allowed to do whatever a shabbat goy is allowed to do.

    But does this mean it can only do things for it’s own benefit?

  12. “Which of those sources deals with Shabbos?”

    It doesn’t specify but it seems to say that 13 and 14 are halachot that deal with golems in general.

    Reading now, I see that the Maharal’s golem apparently rested on Shabbat.

  13. Avi: A story is irrelevant. The story is also told that the Maharal took life out of the Golem every erev Shabbos so it wouldn’t violate Shabbos. We need halakhic sources, not the imaginations of story-tellers.

  14. Abba's Rantings

    “While most authorities disagreed with R. Feinstein’s application to timers”

    how does that happen?

  15. Rafael Araujo

    Plus, there is no evidence that the Maharal created a golem.

  16. R Gil-does not Halacha refer in many contexts to what is described as a “Maaseh Kuf”, an action that has no halachic consequences but is essentially that of a trained animal?

  17. Steve: A robot acts based on commands, not on its own accord.

  18. “I’m sorry, but any halachic analysis on Robots that does not include Golems is not complete. ”

    And here was I thinking how glad I was that this doesn’t mention golems.

  19. “We need halakhic sources, not the imaginations of story-tellers.”

    Ok, so that’s what the sources I provided you are supposedly about. They are halachic arguments regarding those stories.

  20. No, a halakhic source is a responsum or commentary written by a great Torah scholar.

  21. “Steve: A robot acts based on commands, not on its own accord.”

    What do you mean by that?

    A roomba is not commanded to clean up a specific part of your floor. It travels around and cleans anything it finds, and avoids any objects that are in it’s way. The only thing the owner commands it, is to “wake up.”

    A robot designed to help the elderly, also, is not given any direct commands, but will lift up a person who they see has fallen and call the hospital. Some robots will mimic a person, even if they say “stop copying me”, the robot will respond “stop copying me.” etc.

  22. “No, a halakhic source is a responsum or commentary written by a great Torah scholar.”

    I’m pretty sure the Chacham Tzvi, Mishna Bruah, and Chazon Ish count as great Torah scholars…

  23. MiMedinat HaYam

    you dont distinguish between mi-deoraita and mi-derabbanan.

    shabat goy (amera le-akum) is only derabbanan.

    shvitat behemto is deoraita.

    2 and “amera le-amera” is whole other category. (and most electricity usage can be classified as “amira le-amira”, due to electronics, etc.)

    3. RMF only permitted timers for “tzorchei tzibur” and other specific, limited cases. we, however, use it for (almost) every other “melacha”. see his tshuva, where he opposes it not for specific technical reasons, but for overall “hashkafic” reasons.

    4. of course, the whole issue of electricity (therefore, robots) is a whole other ball game, not necessartily de-oraita, though we treat it as de-oraita.

  24. Avi: I’m pretty sure the Chacham Tzvi, Mishna Bruah, and Chazon Ish count as great Torah scholars…

    But they didn’t discuss a Golem on Shabbos.

  25. R’ Abba,
    ““While most authorities disagreed with R. Feinstein’s application to timers”

    how does that happen?”

    It happens because halacha is not the black and white system process driven system many pretend it to be.

  26. MiMedinat HaYam

    the “gramma” switch (in all its incarnations) can be classified as a robot.

    2. comment above re: RMF. you better described his argument as “meta halacha”.

  27. MMHY: you dont distinguish between mi-deoraita and mi-derabbanan

    You are correct. However, R. Akiva Eiger holds that shevisas keilim also applies to melakhah derabbanan. See here for the Birkas Avraham’s discussion of this:

    2. My assumption is that this does not fall under the category of “amirah”

    3. Referenced in the post’s final pargraph

    4. Of course, but as long as it is assur miderabbanan it is still an issue

  28. Avi: You raise a good point about robots currently available. This post deals with Asimov-type robots that respond to commands. However, setting up a robot to perform labor on Shabbos without a command is similar to setting up a timer, setting aside all other issues. And if it responds to your presence (i.e. moves out of the way because of sensors), that raises the issue of setting off sensors on Shabbos.

  29. Abba's Rantings

    R’ Joel Rich:

    so what determines then when his psak is final and when it isn’t?

  30. Larry Lennhoff

    If a psak is never accepted by the relevant community, it is hard to see how it could be considered final. I can think of a couple of examples involving RMF – limiting timers on Shabbat to lights and prohibiting cage raised veal. I’m sure there are others.

  31. R’ Abba,
    Several things -probably most importantly is whether the community and/or other rabbis support it (no matter how much lip service is paid to “posek hador” status when there is agreement with the position taken)

  32. On a more general note, melacha in general has to be “melechet machshevet” to be forbidden. Surely melacha by animals, and all the more so vessels, fails to meet that criterion?

  33. I wonder how it would be on the Enterprise on shabbos. “Computer, don’t you think it’s hot in here?”

  34. “This post deals with Asimov-type robots that respond to commands.” Again, I’m not sure what you mean by that. Asimov type robots are almost nearly human, and work with their own “ratzon” until ordered differently by a human. They make calculations on what they “think” to be best for the humans.

  35. Shlomo: Shevisas behemto is de-oraisa.

    Avi: To review this post — 1) you can’t ask a machine to perform a melakhah, 2) according to some, your appliances must rest on Shabbos, 3) according to some, your appliances may not make noise on Shabbos.

    The type of robot seems not to matter. Even if they make decisions on their own, they still fall under all 3 of the above. In fact, a slave falls under the equivalent of #2 as well (shevisas avdo vs. shevisas keilav).

  36. davidwag: LOL!

  37. Hirhurim: I know, the question is why.

  38. Perhaps it is more of a machshava than a halacha question though.

  39. The Avnei Neizer discusses it a bit in Shu”t 57 par. 5

    He says that according to Tosafos (Shabbos 53b) you need a person’s machashavah. Be’er Moshe (vol. 6 no. 54 par. 4) disagrees with the Avnei Neizer.

  40. The equation of electricity with fire is very unfortunate, given that we have learned that our bodies are run, muscles, brains, by electricity. So, a pious Jew, maintaining that illogical equation, cannot live on Shabbat.

  41. Jacob Silver: Who equates electricity with fire???

  42. R Gil-Do most Poskim assume, like R Akiva Eger that Shevisas Kleim applies to Melachos of a Rabbinic nature? Am I incorrect in thinking that there is no such Issur on a Melacha Min HaTorah?

    Amirah LAkum, as you correctlt point out, is not a generalized heter, but only Bmakom Mitzvah. The real issue, IMO, on a halachic and hashkafic level, is whether commanding a robot to do abnything violates the views of Rambam re Shevisah HaNikeres and Ramban ( and Ritva) re Shabason. Pushing or clicking a button is a means of exercising control over our world-which can be argued is completely contradictory to the rationale of Shevisah from Melacha on Shabbos as well as activities that may very well lead to Melacha. Why shouldn’t using a robot be viewed at least as problematically as riding on a horse or climbing on a tree?

  43. “The equation of electricity with fire is very unfortunate, given that we have learned that our bodies are run, muscles, brains, by electricity. So, a pious Jew, maintaining that illogical equation, cannot live on Shabbat.”

    I know. We are such hypocrites. Time of mass suicide.

  44. Sorry, should read “time for mass suicide”.

  45. MiMedinat HaYam

    steve b:

    “Why shouldn’t using a robot be viewed at least as problematically as riding on a horse or climbing on a tree?”

    these particular examples are not because i may break off a tree branch, applicable to riding a horse(-led carriage = car, or other robotically controlled car, but not robots in general such as a roomba) not applicable to robots.

    2. amirah le-amira is not for “bimkom mitzva”. its for building private homes after a disasterous fire in pressburg or other specific criteria, discussed by the chatam sofer (who is the one who “reactivated” this heter).

    or for constructing homes in yesha before political forces render it impossible / difficult. that is a mitzva.

  46. I was thinking about this over shabbat, and why are sufficently advanced machines (aka robots) just not considered “servants” which must also rest on Shabbat?

    If the halacha views servants and animals as property, how is a sufficiently advanced machine any different?

  47. Who wrote the original article? I’d like to be able to cite it.

  48. All unnamed articles are written by Gil Student

  49. MeMedinatb HaYam wrote:

    “2. amirah le-amira is not for “bimkom mitzva”. its for building private homes after a disasterous fire in pressburg or other specific criteria, discussed by the chatam sofer (who is the one who “reactivated” this heter).

    or for constructing homes in yesha before political forces render it impossible / difficult. that is a mitzva.”

    Obviousy, The CS thought that there was a Mitzvah DRabim at issue. Building homes in EY was also viewed as a Mitzvah DRabim, by the Baalei HaTosfos in the first Perek of Maseces Gitin.

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