By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara in Shabbos makes an undisputed statement: Less than three days before Shabbos, one is not allowed to board a boat that will travel on Shabbos unless the travel is for the purpose of a mitzvah. The Gemara does not elaborate on the reason for this halachah. There are two major points that need to be addressed. What is wrong with traveling on a boat on Shabbos? Whatever the explanation is, how does starting one’s travel three days before Shabbos solve the problem?

One explanation was offered by the Rif. Traveling on a (non-motorized) boat operated by non-Jews does not, in his view, violate any Shabbos prohibition. The issue involved is that of the biblical mitzvah of oneg Shabbos. A person may get seasick and not be able to enjoy his Shabbos meals. Usually after three days on a boat, a person gets used to sea travel. So if he embarks on his journey more than three days before Shabbos, he will feel fine when Shabbos arrives.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, said that if it takes a person more than three days to acclimate to sea travel, he should preferably leave earlier in the week. Nevertheless, according to the letter of the law, one is not required to leave earlier than three days before Shabbos. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, ruled regarding a modern cruise liner, on which most people are able to travel without ill effects, that one can embark even within three days of Shabbos according to the Rif. It is interesting to note that the Chasam Sofer said that since train travel is bumpy, there would always be a problem of traveling on a train on Shabbos–even if one boarded on Sunday.

An interesting application of this halachah is tooth extractions. Rav Nissim Karelitz said that if possible one should schedule a tooth extraction early enough in the week so that it won’t cause him distress on Shabbos. This is analogous to starting one’s journey early in the week, so that he won’t be distressed on Shabbos.

The Baal HaMaor offered a vastly different explanation for the Gemara. Often during sea travel back then all able bodies were called into service in times of distress. Of course, it is totally permitted to violate the laws of Shabbos when human life is in danger. Still, when one boarded the boat before Shabbos, he knew there was a good chance he would have to violate Shabbos. The Baal HaMaor said that putting oneself in a situation where he would be compelled to violate Shabbos, even permissibly, is in itself a desecration of Shabbos. However, if one embarked on his trip more than three days before Shabbos, he is not yet obligated to start worrying about his situation on the following Shabbos. There is therefore no inherent desecration of Shabbos by boarding the boat then. Consequently, if a situation arises where he has to violate Shabbos he may do so freely.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, applied this halachah to non-emergency surgery. In some situations Shabbos may be violated for a post-operative patient. If it is foreseeable that Shabbos will be violated, the surgery should be scheduled early enough in the week so that one will not have to violate Shabbos. HaRav Nissim Karelitz said that in general we see from here that one has to ensure that he is able to keep a mitzvah even before the time for it arrives. If one takes a strong sleeping pill right before Pesach and sleeps straight through to Pesach morning, he missed out on the mitzvos of the Seder. Technically, he was an oneis because at the time of the Seder he was not in a state to perform the mitzvos. Yet he violated the aforementioned halachah. One has to ensure even before the time of mitzvos arrive that he is able to keep them when the time comes.

Rabbenu Chananel said that the problem with boat travel on Shabbos is that it involves the prohibition of traveling outside techum Shabbos. Most Rishonim disagree with this interpretation, because generally speaking boats travel in water where the seabed is more than 40 inches below the bottom of the boat. Consequently, techum would not be applicable. However, the Chasam Sofer points out that a rider on a train that is traveling on the ground would be subject to the laws of techum.

Many Rishonim felt that boat travel did not involve actual melachah being performed on Shabbos. Consequently, they had a need to explain why boat travel was forbidden on Shabbos. But nowadays, when ships are powered by engines, the melachah of maavir is being performed. The laws of amirah l’akum are complex but as a general rule, one is not allowed to benefit from melachah performed by a gentile on Shabbos for the sake of a Jew. This is a rabbinic law. Therefore, since a ship operates for the sake of its passengers, a cruise that extends over a Shabbos should be forbidden.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, ruled that if most of the passengers on a cruise are non-Jewish then this problem is alleviated. The forbidden Shabbos labor is being performed for the sake of the majority. Even if most of the passengers on a particular cruise are Jewish, he said that there is one scenario which would be permitted–if the cruise is part of a regularly scheduled route and would travel even if all the Jewish passengers canceled. In that case, the forbidden Shabbos labor is not being performed for the Jewish passengers but rather to keep up their schedule on behalf of attracting many customers, the majority of whom are usually not Jewish.

Of course, for practical guidance you should consult your rav, who will keep you on an even keel. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at


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