Yesterday, we examined the theory advanced by some scholars that one who asks his or her non-Jewish employee to perform an act on Shabbat that is forbidden for a Jew, the Jew transgresses a Torah violation. Whereas it is generally assumed that amira le-nokhri (asking a non-Jew to perform an act forbidden on Shabbat) is forbidden only by force of rabbinic enactment (as stated by the Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat 150a), the Mekhilta in Parashat Bo (12:6) appears to take the position that this is prohibited by the Torah itself. Some have suggested that the Mekhilta – and the Semag, who follows this view – refer specifically to the case of a request made to a non-Jewish employee. As the non-Jew works for the Jew, the employee’s actions done at the employer’s behest are attributable to the employer, such that an act of melakha (activity forbidden on Shabbat) is considered as having been performed by the employer.
This theory is developed at length in a fascinating responsum written by the Klausenberger Rebbe, in Divrei Yatziv (1:105). The Rebbe notes the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Shabbat (119b) that “dibbur ke-ma’aseh” – “speech is like action.” The Gemara derives this notion from the verse in Tehillim (33:6), “The heavens were made with the speech of the Lord.” As this brief remark is made in the context of the Gemara’s discussion of Shabbat, the Rebbe observes, we may reasonably conclude that the concept of speech being equivalent to action has specific relevance to the laws of Shabbat. The Rebbe explains based on the comment of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 15:3) that when the Torah describes Shabbat as “the Sabbath for the Lord your God” (“Shabbat le-Hashem Elokekha” – Shemot 20:10), it means that “just as the Almighty ‘rested’ from speech, so shall you ‘rest’ from speech.” Meaning, our abstention from work on Shabbat commemorates the Almighty’s cessation of work after the six days of creation, and it thus follows that since God created the universe through speech, by making proclamations, we must likewise abstain from creative speech on Shabbat. On Shabbat we must refrain not only from constructive activity, but also from constructive speech – the kind of “work” which God ceased on Shabbat.
The Rebbe explains this to mean that when it is possible to perform melakha through speech, such speech is forbidden. The practical application of this theory is a non-Jewish employee, who is obligated by force of his contractual agreement with his employer to fulfill his wishes. Under such an arrangement, instructing the employee to perform a melakha on Shabbat amounts to performing melakha through speech, and is thus forbidden on the level of Torah law. Since the employer knows with near certainty that the employee will oblige, performing melakha by instructing the employee constitutes a melakha performed through speech. And it is precisely this type of performance of melakha, the Rebbe suggests, that the Mekhilta claims is forbidden on the level of Torah law. Whereas generally asking a gentile to perform melakha on one’s behalf is forbidden only by force of rabbinic enactment, instructing an employee to perform melakha on Shabbat resembles God’s creating the world through the utterance of proclamations, and is thus forbidden on the level of Torah law.