| Medieval Sourcebook:
A Rabbinic Responsum: The Shabbat Goy
Jewish law prohibits the kindling of fires on the Sabbath. Although hiring gentiles
to perform prohibited acts for the benefit of the Jewish employer was not permitted, it
was a very common practice. In accordance with the view widespread custom must be
legitimate, many rabbis went out of their way to find ways to justify what was, according
to the letter of the law, a dubious practice. The following is one such justification. It
is found in the Talmudic commentary of the thirteenth century German Jew, Mordecai b.
Hillel. The Mordecai contains within it many responsa, rabbinic answers to practical
questions on Jewish law.
The question is whether I may warm myself at a fire kindled by a Gentile on
Sabbath. The following is the Response of R. Yomtob of blessed memory: From my
youth I have wondered at those who forbade us to warm ourselves at a fire kindled by a
Gentile for a Jew, because I have seen my father and R. Menahem and other men of fame, who
were particularly pious [perushim, set aside] thus warming, themselves. The reason
seems to me this as we say, elsewhere [Talmud, Sabbath] that we reckon circumcision as an
illness and can therefore do things otherwise forbidden on a Sabbath for a circumcised
child] so every one is considered ill from the effects of cold: though they may not be
really ill, yet they suffer from it. . . And if it would not perplex the
people I would allow them to order a Gentile to make a fire on Sabbath and [among other
proofs] as we say of the High Priest that, if he is delicate, they heated his bath
[on the Day of Atonement] with hot iron [Talm. Yoma 34b], so every man is delicate as
regards cold, and therefore he can warm himself. And may my share in the future life
be among the just who warm themselves and not among those who separate themselves.
And so let those who warm themselves on Sabbath rejoice in much peace.
Source: Hag. Mordecai Shabbat, i., 450, ed. Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin
England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), pp. 111-12.
Scanned by Elka Klein.
This text is part of the Internet
Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and
copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright.
Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational
purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No
permission is granted for commercial use.
© Paul Halsall, January 1999