Shabbos Goy a la Mode

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Not being a very ritually observant Jew, I needed the Home & Garden section of the April 9 New York Times, to which my attention was called by my wife, to teach me a new Jewish term I didnt know. This is “Sabbath mode,” and it has been around, so I subsequently learned, since 1997, when Whirlpool Corporation, the manufacturer of KitchenAid products, introduced the first “Sabbath-mode” oven.

A Sabbath-mode appliance, for the benefit of those of you who are as ignorant as I was, is one that, while it runs on electricity, is considered halachically permissible for Orthodox Jews to operate even though opening or closing an electric circuit on the day of rest is forbidden by Orthodox law. The reason for the prohibition is that electricity is considered the equivalent of fire, the lighting or extinguishing of which on the Sabbath is strictly enjoined by the Bible.

An appliance set for Sabbath mode operates in one of two ways. The first is by rendering inoperative an electrical feature. Thus, for instance, a Sabbath-mode-programmed refrigerator deactivates the electric bulb that ordinarily switches on when the refrigerator’s door is opened. The second way is by severing the direct connection between an electrical feature and the appliance’s user. To take the example of a refrigerator again, normally, its compressor and cooling system are switched on by a thermostat when the internal temperature rises to a certain level, which again makes opening the door forbidden because this lets in warmer air that affects the thermostat. When a refrigerator is put in Sabbath mode, however, the thermostat is disconnected and the compressor is linked to a timer that turns it on and off at regular intervals, unaffected by temperature.

Of course, Jewish law had its “Sabbath-mode” procedures long before the term itself was invented. The legendary Shabbos goy, or “Sabbath goy,” of Eastern Europe, the gentile who performed acts forbidden to a Jew on the Sabbath, is one of the oldest of these. Here, too, the procedure depended on decoupling the Shabbos goy’s act from the Jew’s instrumentality. Although a Jew was allowed to benefit from what a gentile did on the Sabbath, he was not permitted to be the direct cause of it by saying things like, “Please light a fire in the fireplace,” or, “Do be so kind as to shovel the snow from the front door.” Rather, the gentile either had to be told what to do in advance, before the Sabbath began, or respond to a technically noncausative hint, such as, “It’s awfully cold in this room,” or, “There’s so much snow in the street that it’s blocking the front door.” This didn’t always work, and Jewish lore is full of funny stories about Shabbos goys who had difficulty understanding what was wanted of them.

The idea of substituting a mechanical contrivance for the Shabbos goy is also not new. So-called Shabbos clocks, which can be set to perform such tasks as turning off the lights after a family has finished Friday night dinner and gone to bed, go back to 19th-century Europe and were the subject of rabbinical rulings at the time. They worked by means of a revolving disk that alternately forms and breaks an electric contact, and refinements of them still serve as the basis of many more sophisticated Sabbath-mode products. Nowadays, the term Shabbos clock is often used to refer to an alarm clock that turns itself off after ringing, so that the awakened sleeper needn’t do this himself.

Also going back a long way, at least as far as the 1950s, is the Shabbos elevator, which runs all the time and automatically stops at every floor, so there is no need to press a button when stepping into it. Since getting to the 19th floor of a 22-story building by means of a Shabbos elevator is like traveling a mile in bumper-to-bumper traffic, most buildings that have these elevators also have the ordinary kind. In Israel, Shabbos elevators are known as ma’aliyot shel Shabbat and are common in many hotels that cater to observant clienteles. In his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character),” the great American physicist Richard Feynman has an amusing chapter, called “Is Electricity Fire?” that starts with his first encounter with a Shabbos elevator, when he was a graduate student.

Terms like Shabbos goy, Shabbos clock and Shabbos elevator have a folksy Jewish ring. “Sabbath mode,” on the other hand, is commercial-sounding through and through. It is also, when used, as it commonly is, as an unhyphenated qualifier — for example, “Sabbath mode refrigerator” — in violation of the rules of English punctuation, which call for hyphenating all adjectives fused out of two words. (Since there is no such thing as a “mode refrigerator,” “mode” cannot stand by itself unlinked by a hyphen to “Sabbath.”) Yet, as it has now become the preferred term of many large appliance companies, like General Electric Co., Frigidaire, Electrolux, Whirlpool, Maytag and Viking, it is here to stay. There are already numerous varieties of Sabbath-mode refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers and hot-water heaters on the market, and no doubt we will soon be seeing Sabbath-mode egg poachers, hair-dryers and Jacuzzis. The once honorable job of the Shabbes goy, already rarely encountered in today’s world, will have been, like so many other traditional occupations, permanently eliminated by automation.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.