It was once common for synagogues and Jewish families to employ a Gentile—known as a shabbos goy—to perform tasks prohibited on the Sabbath, a phenomenon that was the subject of a book by the outstanding Jewish historian Jacob Katz (1904-1998). Allan Arkush reflects on the book and on the halakhic loophole it describes:
Why, one might wonder, should there be a book about something like the shabbos goy? Isn’t the whole concept just a silly piece of rabbinic hypocrisy, nothing but a legal ruse to get around problems posed by the divine prohibitions of labor on the Sabbath by having a Gentile do the work for you? How much can there possibly be to say on the subject?
Well, it is a fairly short book—but it is rich in content and should disabuse any of its readers of the idea that the shabbos goy is a bit of a disgrace to Judaism. It is not a wink-wink subversion of God’s law. The main problem the rabbis faced, according to Katz, was one that they believed to be of their own—not God’s—making. “In the original terminology [from the talmudic tractate of Shabbat], telling a Gentile [to perform creative labor for a Jew on the Sabbath] is a rabbinic prohibition.” It “is not included in the Sabbath observance as laid down in the Torah,” which pertains only to the people of Israel. What they struggled to get out of, when it was necessary, was a trap of their own making.
The subtitle of Katz’s book is A Study in Halakhic Flexibility. His subject is the way in which leading rabbis over the centuries, from ancient Babylonia to 19th-century Russia and Hungary, endeavored both to maintain as much of the traditional law as possible and to accommodate themselves to changing economic, technological, and social circumstances. . . .