B'Yachad

For the week ending 22 December 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Emailing to a Non-Observant Jew Close to Shabbat

by Rabbi Ari Wasserman
Library Kaddish

QUESTION

I am about to sign on with a firm that consists of a large non-observant Jewish team based in Israel and the US. I know that it’s more complicated than my just stating that I won’t work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and I want to be clear with them regarding my participation before we go to contract.

My questions are as follows:

Can I send an email on Friday afternoon (close to Shabbat) to a non-observant Jew in the same time-zone, knowing that my email may be opened and answered on Shabbat?

If this is a problem, what’s the guideline for how close to Shabbat an email should not be sent?

HALACHIC BACKGROUND

The issue at the heart of this question seems to be the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver (“placing a stumbling block before the blind”) — that is, causing an uneducated Jew to sin.

However, does lifnei iver really apply here? Does it apply to a situation where a non-observant Jew opens an email and possibly responds to it on Shabbat since it was sent to him close to Shabbat?

Derech HaAtarim suggests that it doesn’t, stating: “According to the strict letter of the law, it’s permissible to email a non-observant Jew on Friday right before Shabbat, despite the concern that he’ll read it on Shabbat.”

It support of this answer, Derech HaAtarim gives two reasons:

#1: Typing on a computer on Shabbat is a rabbinic prohibition, and there is no agreement among the poskim whether the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver can be extended to rabbinic prohibitions.

#2: It is not necessarily clear that the recipient of the email will write back on Shabbat (or even see the email). And again, there is no agreement among the poskim whether lifnei iver applies to such doubtful cases.

In support of the above, Derech HaAtarim cites Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who writes in his Minchas Shlomo that even according to those who apply lifnei iver to a situation where there’s a doubt about whether someone will in fact do something prohibited, they apply it only when one brings that person a forbidden object. But when one doesn’t give him such an object, but instead the matter depends on whether he’ll open an email before Shabbat, it’s possible to be lenient.

RESPONSE

Truth be told, the ruling of the Derech HaAtarim does not seem applicable in your situation.

Re his reason #1 that there are poskim who don’t extend lifnei iver to rabbinic prohibitions, this is not a strong basis to be lenient. In fact, Derech HaAtarim admits later in the book that lifnei iver indeed does apply to a rabbinic prohibition.

Re his reason #2 that it’s doubtful if the recipient will even see the email on Shabbat, this simply does not reflect the reality of the regularity with which people in the secular world check email. If you send your email moments before Shabbat, the non-observant Jewish recipient will almost certainly read it on Shabbat. There is no doubt about that. So, even if Rav Shlomo Auerbach’s ruling in Minchas Shlomo may give you some wiggle room, it is premised on there being a doubt that someone will in fact do something prohibited. But there’s no doubt here.

Having established that there is a problem, the question remains how long before Shabbat do you need to send the email to be sure you are not in violation of the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver.

On the one hand, if the recipient checks his email all of the time — as most people do — you can send the email to him relatively close to Shabbat, since he’ll very likely open it promptly upon receipt (before Shabbat starts). But, if he typically does not check regularly, you would need to refrain from emailing to him for a longer period of time before Shabbat starts.

I posed your question to Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz shlit”a, who responded as follows: “I believe that sending an email before Shabbos is permissible provided there is enough time before Shabbos for the recipient to open the message. As a somewhat arbitrary rule of thumb, I would suggest that Friday emails be sent to non-religious Jews no later that one hour before sunset (shekiah) wherever they are located.”

  • L’iluy nishmas Yehudah ben Shmuel HaKohen Breslauer

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