While there are some mitzvot that are obligatory on all people (e.g. the seven laws of Noach), the observance of Shabbat is not one of them. It therefore seems entirely natural that if one needs a forbidden creative labor done on Shabbat, one could simply call on a non-Jew to do it for them.
Numerous well-known public figures, such as Colin Powell and Mario Cuomo, have acknowledged that they acted as their neighborhood “Shabbos Goy,” proudly using the Eastern European term for a non-Jew hired to do “work” on Shabbat that may be forbidden to Jews.
The idea of asking a non-Jew to perform m’la'cha (creative labor) sounds like an easy solution...but it isn’t quite so simple. It is, in fact, unacceptable to ask a non-Jew specifically to do anything on Shabbat that a Jew may not do oneself. There are, however, caveats to this rule. If, for instance, the non-Jew is building a fire for himself and invites a Jew to sit with him, the Jew may join him.
Certain situations, however, allow for, and even require, leniencies. If one is ill, one may ask a non-Jew to perform certain m’lachot that are beneficial to one’s health, such as turning up the heat. Because cold, especially in frigid climates, is itself a health danger, it was rather common for a “Shabbos Goy” to maintain the fires in Jewish homes.
In situations where one might be permitted to benefit from the work of a non-Jew, one should not ask them to do the m’la'cha directly, but rather give them a hint (“Gosh, it’s cold in here.”). In cases of saving a life, however, one can ask a non-Jew directly or perform the necessary forbidden m’la'cha oneself.
This is but a brief overview of the idea of the “Shabbos Goy.” Questions should be addressed to one’s local qualified rabbi.
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