By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
We see the ads. We read about various lectures, concerts, and seminars on glatt kosher cruises that pretty much span the globe. Whether it is a Caribbean cruise in the winter, a trip to Alaska in the summer, exploring the Baltics, or touring the Greek isles while listening to a daf ha’yomi, the luxurious kosher cruises have taken over. No need to worry about kosher food or finding a minyan. No running to catch a flight. Rabbis, lecturers, and famous musicians are all on board. And, it would seem, everyone takes it as a given that these cruises are perfectly fine from a halachic perspective.
But are cruises leaving before Shabbos really permitted? Let’s take a look at the sources.
Sources In The Talmud
The Talmud (Shabbos 19a) cites the prohibition against boarding a ship for departure within three days before Shabbos. The Gemara qualifies that the prohibition concerns only pleasure trips, but if the person is traveling for a mitzvah then he may leave then, if he makes a condition with the captain that he will stop traveling on Shabbos. Even if the captain does not stop, he has not violated a prohibition. All this is the view of Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel rules that there is no need to make any condition at all.
The Rulings And
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 248) rules that one may board a ship even on a Friday if one is traveling for a mitzvah. When traveling not for the purpose of a mitzvah, one may not depart less than three days before Shabbos.
Eight reasons are put forth for this prohibition:
Oneg Shabbos. The first reason is that of the Rambam (chapter 30) and the Rif that alighting aboard a ship causes a negation of the mitzvah of oneg Shabbos. Adjusting to new circumstances takes three days. Why is it permitted to depart on a Friday if one travels for a mitzvah? Because of the concept of osek b’mitzvah patur min ha’mitzvah–one involved already in one mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah–namely, that of oneg Shabbos, taking delight in the Shabbos. According to the Rambam, rivers do not cause an adjustment in circumstances and the prohibition thus is only on the high seas. The Shulchan Aruch rules like the Rambam and Rif, but mentions other reasons too.
Seasickness. Some people try to draw a distinction between the ocean liners nowadays and the ships in the time of Chazal. Their rationale is that nowadays, where the modern cruise ship is equipped with stabilizers, people do not get seasick. Therefore, they say that current ocean liners are more analogous to riverboats. Indeed, they say that more people get sick on riverboats than on ocean liners.
The truth is that this is not so simple. Let’s take a closer look at these stabilizers. The stabilizers are stubby little fins or wings that extend out below the waterline on both sides of the ship. They help minimize the ship’s lateral motions to both the left and the right as the ship moves through the water, but they do not eliminate them. They are similar to airplane wing flaps, which pilots can adjust to reduce turbulence.
On most ships, the adjustment of the stabilizers is performed by an electronic control system that takes into account sea and wind conditions. But they are not perfect, as demonstrated by the fact that so many people still get seasick, especially women and children. That’s why there are so much medication, sea bands, acupuncture treatments, green apple cures, ginger cures, etc. In short, the stabilizer heter is not very stable.
Also, when the ocean is a bit more turbulent than usual, the stabilizers are only marginally effective. Weather predictions are not perfect. Who can guarantee completely calm seas? There is also the idea that once Chazal forbade an activity, it remains prohibited even if the apparent reason seems to be no longer applicable. While there are exceptions to this concept too, it is not applied indiscriminately to all circumstances.
Danger. The Baal HaMaor explains that the reason why it is forbidden is that there is always danger associated with travel on the high seas. This danger will often necessitate chillul Shabbos to be performed on behalf of the travelers. The chillul Shabbos is permitted, because it is of a life-threatening nature. But, explains the Baal HaMaor, the three days that immediately precede Shabbos are intrinsically connected to Shabbos and it is as if one is purposely placing himself in a position where Shabbos will have to be violated on account of the danger. This reason is also cited in the Shulchan Aruch and appears to be authoritative.
Techum Shabbos. Rabbeinu Chananel, the Rosh, and Tashbatz (Vol. I #21) are of the opinion that the prohibition only refers to ships that actually touch bottom, i.e., they are at port where the water can be as shallow as three feet (10 tefachim). These authorities are of the opinion that there is a Shabbos techum issue, but when the waters are more than three feet there are no issues. The Raavan, cited by the Chasam Sofer, is of the opinion that there is a concern even in more than three feet of water.
Lifesavers. Rav Hai Gaon (cited in the Tashbatz) and the Tosefos in Shabbos and in Eiruvin 43a all explain that the reason for the prohibition is that there is a concern that the sea traveler will construct a swimmer’s barrel (the Talmudic-era equivalent of a life jacket but perhaps more effective). According to this opinion, it doesn’t matter whether the ship is within the Techum Shabbos boundary or not.
Towing. According to another explanation in Tosefos (Eiruvin), the concern is that the person might actually tow the ship in what constitutes a karmalis, a rabbinically forbidden area where carrying is off-limits.
Amirah l’akum. The Ramban and Ran state that the prohibition deals with a case where the majority of the passengers are Jewish and the gentile crew is performing melachah for Jews. This view is also authoritative. The issue involves the possible violation of the laws of amirah l’akum, work being done by gentiles for Jews. Indeed, the Pri Megadim writes (Mishbetzes haZahav end of 248) that if there is a majority of Jewish passengers, the work is forbidden even before the three days. It could be, however, that because the course is now programmed into the computer on most occasions, the issue of amirah l’akum is no longer a problem.
Beis Shammai. Finally, the Rashbam rules that this entire section of the Talmud is only in accordance with the view of Beis Shammai, a view that has been dismissed in contemporary times. This is not, however, the manner in which the poskim have dealt with this halachah.
It would seem from all of the above that it is not such a simple matter to depart on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday when it is not a mitzvah trip.
What is a mitzvah trip? If one travels for purposes of business, the Mishnah Berurah rules that this is considered for a mitzvah (M.B. 248:34). Traveling to Eretz Yisrael is also considered for the purpose of a mitzvah–even just to visit (M.B. 248:28). If one is traveling in order to help strengthen a Torah institution or for some other charitable purpose, this too is considered a mitzvah. To greet a friend or to share in his simcha celebration is also considered a mitzvah (Rema, end of 248:10).
What about rest and relaxation? Does that constitute a mitzvah as well? Some rabbis are of the opinion that rest and relaxation would also be considered a mitzvah and this is why departure on a Friday is not generally considered to be a problem. One may perhaps ask on this view, when would the Talmudic prohibition actually apply? If travel for business is a mitzvah and to relax is also a mitzvah, then there would never be a situation where departing within three days of Shabbos would be forbidden!
One would have to suggest that there are two types of leisure–one type when one absolutely needs the trip, which would be permitted within three days of Shabbos, and one type of leisure trip where it is a take-it-or-leave-it affair.
Is there another permissive view to rely upon regarding a leisure trip that would not be considered a mitzvah? The Meiri writes (Shabbos 19a) that professional sailors and those who are used to traveling often on the high seas are permitted to travel even within the three days because there is no concern at all about negating the mitzvah of oneg Shabbos. The view is quoted by the responsa work Pesach HaDvir.
Is the Meiri’s more lenient view accepted? The Kaf HaChaim cites the Meiri authoritatively, as does the responsa Pesach HaDvir and the Mor UKetziah. We must bear in mind, however, that when there is no mitzvah involved in the cruise, the leniency of the Meiri would be limited to experienced sea travelers and not first-timers.
One should also bear in mind that there are additional issues to be careful of, which range the full gamut of halachic observance. For example: Most toilets on ships now flush with electric eyes. Like science-fiction shows of the past, doors are often opened also with electric eyes, and it is difficult for a religious Jew to make his way on a ship on Shabbos without coming across such electric difficulties. Most cruises also have a number of people that are not dressed appropriately, and they dress in this manner throughout the ship. One must also note that the prohibition of departing within three days applies equally to both Shabbos and yom tov.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact, however, that there is much positive on the glatt kosher cruises too. The sheer number of Torah shiurim, the spiritual inspiration, the newfound friendships, and the new shidduchim made for both old and young must all certainly be appreciated and have tremendous value.
Speaking of value, one final thought: On one recent cruise, a couple noticed that there was an older woman who had been on the cruise the last three times. The couple inquired as to whether she was the owner. The woman answered that actually she was in retirement and that the price of the cruise was some $65 per day cheaper than the cost of a nursing home. Something that we should perhaps keep in mind. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.