Hi Rabbi Fried,
I am emailing you several questions about buying and selling on the internet with regard to the laws of Shabbat:
1. Is one allowed to own an online company that would allow people to purchase things even on Shabbat? Or would they have to shut down their website on Shabbat?
2. Is one allowed to sell something online with an ongoing auction even if it doesn’t end on Shabbat; there is a possibility that people would place a bid on Shabbat?
3. Is it a problem if the seller uses the “buy it now” option (such as on eBay) and someone happened to purchase it on Shabbat?
There are four separate issues involved in your question:
1. One is that of your “vessels” resting on Shabbat, i.e., your computer site, if you are the owner of the site or the company which utilizes a site.
2. Secondly is the question of “mekach umemkar,” or involvement in business transactions on Shabbat.
3. Third is the issue of “sechar Shabbat,” deriving monetary benefit from a transaction completed on the Shabbat.
4. Lastly is that of “mar’it ayin,” or the desecration that could be caused by it being known that a Jewish-owned site is functioning on Shabbat, possibly leading others to desecrate the Shabbat. (Although there are varying opinions regarding this question, some more stringent, I will answer you in accordance with the opinion of most contemporary authorities).
The first concern, the “resting” of vessels, is a dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shamai. The decision of the Talmud is like the opinion of Beit Hillel that one’s vessels need not rest on Shabbat. So as long as the process (in this case, the site) was set into motion before Shabbat and the owner of the vessel, i.e., the computer, is not involved with it in any way during Shabbat, the process can continue on Shabbat.
For the same reason, there is not a concern of involvement in business transactions, mekach umemkar, since it is an inanimate object, i.e., the computer, and not the owner, which is performing the transaction.
As far as deriving monetary benefit; we can draw a comparison to that which earlier authorities have allowed the owners of vending machines to keep their machines operative on Shabbat. Although the owners receive monetary benefit from the purchase of candy or other items on Shabbat, this is not considered “sechar Shabbat.” This is through exercising the principle of “havla’ah,” meaning that the Shabbat benefit is factored into the overall outlay of goods and services; i.e., the weekday purchases of the candies and servicing the machines, etc.
All this renders the payments of Shabbat to really cover many weekday activities and therefore be permitted. This is the same principle which allows us to pay, for example, a cleaning lady for her work on Shabbat as part of her pay for the entire week. It also allows a hotel owner to rent out rooms on Shabbat, as the payment includes his cleaning, laundry and other peripheral costs which accrue during the week.
Furthermore, the authorities have allowed the vending machines, as long as they are not distinguishably Jewish-owned. The same would apply to owning an internet business; as long as it’s not clearly a Jewish-owned business the final concern of “mar’it ayin” would not be a concern at all.
In summary, your site can remain operative during Shabbat, even if you utilize a “buy now” option.
Much success in your business!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.