Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Internet Commerce on Shabbos

The current RJJ Journal (Fall 2005), has an article by its editor, R. Alfred Cohen, on the issue of internet commerce. The article itself is preliminary and does not claim to be conclusive. However, there area a few things I would have liked to have seen in such an article:

1. A differentiation between a website that performs a service and one that simply allows consumers to buy something. For a service-providing website, there is a question of sekhar Shabbos, receiving money for work performed on Shabbos. For an internet store, I would assume that the work is performed during the week when the item is shipped.

2. Given the global nature of the internet, and the differences between the times of Shabbos' beginning and end according to the views of Rabbenu Tam and the Ge'onim, there is essentially no time in the week that is Shabbos everywhere in the world. Someone, somewhere will be allowed to use your website any time during the week. Holidays, however, might cause a problem.

3. As correctly noted in the article, money transfers are currently done through credit cards, which themselves are done through banks' clearing houses that are closed during the weekend. Therefore, there is not truly any money changing hands on Shabbos. However, my understanding from my days in banking is that the ATM network does move money on weekends and that technology already exists (I've seen it) to tap into the ATM network through the web. I don't believe it has been implemented on a large scale for technical reasons, but it is certainly a theoretical possibility. If that is the case, I'm still not sure that someone purchasing something from you and depositing money in your account is problematic.

R. Shlomo HaKohen of Vilna has an important responsum (Binyan Shlomo, 17) in which he argues that a kinyan with no ma'aseh (act) is permissible on Shabbos. If someone comes to your house and places a gift in your premises, you may acquire the object through a kinyan hatzer because there is no formal act of acquisition. If someone deposits money in your account on Shabbos, you have not violated the rabbinic enactment against making an acquisition. Does this mitigate the problem of internet commerce on Shabbos? Maybe, but that's beyond my expertise.

4. There is an issue of zilzul Shabbos (denigration of Shabbos) if a store is open on Shabbos. I find it hard to believe that it also applies to an internet store, in which there is no foot traffic and everything is done in the privacy of one's home.

These are just some thoughts. The question is so complex that it will only be decided by the greatest of halakhic minds who will, undoubtedly, disagree. So if this is relevant to you, ask your rabbi and he will probably ask his advisor.

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