Jewish Philosophy

Judaism and Modernity Part 10: Commerce on the Internet
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Monday 11th August 2014

It is almost essential for any kind of commercial enterprise to have an online presence. Last week, we discussed issues relating to maintaining websites. This week we will look at actual commerce on the Internet. Can a website remain open to take orders? Can you set automatic bidding on EBay for an auction that finishes on Shabbat? What about selling non-tangible products, such as music, that can be downloaded when purchased? Needless to say, there are many facets to these questions, and each case needs to be examined on its own merits by a Rabbinic authority. For our purposes, in a general sense, several principles underlie these questions:

There is a Rabbinic prohibition against trading on Shabbat, which is proscribed out of a concern that one may come to write down transactions (which is forbidden Biblically) and as part of a wider mandate to make Shabbat distinct and holy. It is also forbidden to gain monetary benefit from any work done on one’s behalf on Shabbat.

Part of the question about Internet transactions revolves around knowing precisely how such transactions take place. Purchasing online is often not the equivalent of paying in a shop, as items may only be charged for when the item is due for dispatch, even though they were ordered earlier. A successful bid on EBay creates a contract to purchase the item; this itself is not the purchase though. In such cases, no purchase actually takes place on Shabbat, and so websites can sometimes arrange for actual transactions to be avoided on Shabbat.

What about a website that sells downloads? One central point in this question came up in a case addressed by Dayan Yitzchak Weiss (d. 1989), who was asked about Jewish- owned vending machines on Shabbat. He permitted these, with several caveats. These include that the machines were in a public place and that the items were not sold specifically for Jewish purchasers. He also permitted the money earned on Shabbat through the principle of ‘havla’ah’ – viewing Shabbat earnings as being ‘absorbed’ into costs incurred during the week, such as maintenance. These principles could perhaps also provide a basis for allowing these websites to remain open.

These arguments apply only to websites that are aimed at the general public. Websites whose customers are generally Jewish have the additional issue of ‘lifnei iver’, assisting another in transgressing, in addition to the prohibition of trading on Shabbat. Therefore websites in Israel (for example) face a serious problem if they are providing a platform for other Jews to break Shabbat by visiting and purchasing on their websites.