When a Non-Jew “Clicks” a Door Open on Shabbat

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: My shul has a guard station near the entrance. The non-Jewish guard has instructions that, on Shabbat, he should get up to open the door for people manually. Sometimes he electrically clicks the door unlocked. When that happens, may I enter, or should I wait for him to get up and open the door?

Answer: A Jew may not benefit from melacha done by a non-Jew on behalf of a Jew even if the non-Jew decided to do so unprompted (mishna, Shabbat 122a). It is permitted to benefit if the Jew told him not to do so (Mishna Berura 276:35). However, if the guard disregarded his instructions over a long period of time without recourse, the stipulation loses its relevance. 

However, according to most poskim, we have no problem with the guard clicking the door open for the following reason. A Jew may request of a non-Jew to provide something for him on Shabbat if it is feasible for the non-Jew to do so without violating Shabbat, even if we expect him to choose the more convenient way that includes doing a melacha (Orchot Shabbat vol. 2 p. 466; see Mishna Berura 276:31; Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata does not discuss this concept). 

However, the fact that a non-Jew’s melacha for a Jew does not involve a Jew’s improper involvement does not necessarily mean the Jew may afterward benefit from it on Shabbat. First, the aforementioned mishna includes cases of no Jewish pre-knowledge. Also, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 252:4) says that if a Jew promises a non-Jew “pay per the job” for work he does not have to do on Shabbat, it is not a problem if he does it on Shabbat, and even if he does, the Jew may benefit right away. However, the Rama (ad loc.), while agreeing the setup is fine, forbids the benefit on Shabbat (except for in cases of need). 

How does our case fit in? The prohibition on benefit applies only when the non-Jew acted on behalf of a Jew (Shabbat ibid.), and your type of case is difficult to categorize. If one asked him why he clicked the button, he would say: “To let the congregant in.” If you asked why he did it by means of clicking rather than manually, he would answer: “Convenience.” This is roughly parallel to the Rama’s case – he did the work for a Jew/to get paid, and he did it on Shabbat for his own convenience – yet, the Rama forbids benefit.

Nevertheless, Orchot Shabbat (22:57), regarding our exact case, permits the setup without stipulations (he agrees with your shul that the guard should be told to open the door manually to avoid “degrading Shabbat”). He does not explain why benefit is not a problem, and we will now discuss possible reasons. 

1) In many areas of Halacha, there is a distinction between positive benefit and the removal of an impediment from benefit. Some of our time’s major poskim (see Melachim Omnayich p. 525) disagree whether unlocking a door is removing an impediment (i.e., no prohibition of benefit) or providing entry (i.e., can be prohibited). 

2) Not only is the Shulchan Aruch (OC 252:4) the simpler opinion, but the Rama is lenient in cases of need, which implies his opinion is a stringency. Furthermore, the Biur Halacha (ad loc.) says that the Rama only applies to cases where Torah-level melacha was done, which we assume does not occur by electrically unlocking the door. Therefore, the closest source we found for stringency likely does not apply here. 

3) Finally, there is no benefit to speak of here, as the door will be open the same manually or electrically (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 276:4). Admittedly, in all likelihood, clicking gets you in a few seconds faster. But in the case poskim discuss (see Orchot Shabbat 23:53) of having a hotel worker bring an item to the room by elevator, when he could have walked, although the elevator is often quicker, the Jew can take the item immediately. In general, in Halacha, when getting something at a later time is significant depends on context (development of this idea is beyond our scope), and here, a few seconds seems insignificant.

Based on all we have seen, when the guard clicks you in, you may open the door and enter without delay.

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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