Is There a Difference Between a Melacha and a Transaction?
As discussed in last week's issue, it is generally permissible to arrange for a melacha to occur on Shabbat if it is planned prior to Shabbat. As such, it should ostensibly be permissible to arrange for a transaction to come to fruition on Shabbat. This in fact is the opinion of R. Shneur Z Pradkin, Torat Chesed, Orach Chaim no. 13.
One can further prove this point from a ruling of R. Yisrael Isserlin, Terumat HaDeshen 1:169. Terumat HaDeshen discusses a situation where the proper date for a pidyon haben (redemption of the first born) occurs on Shabbat. He rules that it is not permissible to perform the redemption on Shabbat (based on the comments of Teshuvot HaRivash no. 156). He then discusses the possibility of performing the redemption prior to Shabbat and delay the execution of the redemption until Shabbat. He objects to this possibility because a time-delayed pidyon haben will create confusion regarding when one should recite the berachot and eat the festive meal. Terumat HaDeshen's ruling implies that there is no prohibition to perform a transaction prior to Shabbat that will come to fruition on Shabbat. The only objection to doing so regarding a pidyon haben is the confusion regarding the berachot and the meal.
R. Akiva Eger, in his responsa (1:159), notes the opinion of Terumat HaDeshen, but rules that one may not set up a transaction prior to Shabbat that will come to fruition on Shabbat. R. Avraham S. Sofer, (grandson of R. Eger) Ketav Sofer, Orach Chaim no. 46, explains that there is actually no dispute between Terumat HaDeshen and R. Eger. Rashi, Betizah 37a, s.v. Mishum Mekach UMemkar, notes that there are two reasons why a transaction is prohibited on Shabbat. First, there is a concern that the parties may document the transaction on Shabbat and violate the melacha of kotev (writing). Second, there is an inherent prohibition against performing business transactions on Shabbat based on the verse (Yeshaya 58:13) "mimtzo cheftz'cha" (one should refrain from personal business dealings on Shabbat). The Gemara, Shabbat 113a, states that the prohibition of mimtzo cheftz'cha does not apply to business activities that relate to performance of a mitzvah. As such, R. Sofer notes that mimtzo cheftz'cha does not apply to performing a pidyon haben on Shabbat. R. Sofer further notes that the concern that one may document a transaction only applies if the actual sale happens on Shabbat. If the sale takes place before Shabbat but merely comes to fruition on Shabbat, there is no concern that the parties may document the sale on Shabbat. Therefore, the pidyon haben may be set up before Shabbat in order to come to fruition on Shabbat (notwithstanding the concern for confusion regarding the berachot and the meal). However, one may not set up an ordinary transaction prior to Shabbat and allow it to come to fruition on Shabbat because of the concern of mimtzo cheftz'cha. [R. Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:44, also explains that there is no dispute between Terumat HaDeshen and R. Eger based on the assertion that a pidyon haben is not a bona fide transaction.]
According to R. Eger, there is a distinction between planning for a melacha to occur on Shabbat and planning for a transaction to occur on Shabbat. R. Avraham Borenstein, Avnei Nezer, Orach Chaim no 51, explains that regarding melachot, the individual is not necessary for the completion of the melacha. If, for example, a person were to set up a system that would complete a melacha on Shabbat and the person dies prior to the completion of the melacha, the melacha would still occur. However, if a sale was set up before Shabbat in order to come to fruition on Shabbat and one of the parties dies prior to the completion of the sale, the sale is null and void. Therefore, a person involved in a time-delayed sale is considered a participant in the sale, albeit passively, at the time when the sale comes to fruition. This is prohibited on Shabbat.
In the late nineteenth century, the first vending machines were available for public use. The question was posed to a number of Poskim whether it is permissible to own a vending machine if it is possible that someone (presumably a non-Jew) may purchase an item on Shabbat. It is arguable that the question revolves around the dispute between R. Pradkin and R. Eger. According to R. Pradkin, one cannot violate the prohibition against performing a business transaction on Shabbat if he is dormant at the time of the transaction. According to R. Eger, being involved in a transaction on Shabbat, even if one is dormant, is prohibited. R. Shimon Greenfeld Teshuvot Maharshag 1:117, rules leniently on the matter and notes that even R. Eger would concur that it is permissible. R. Eger rules stringently in a case where the person is involved in an activity prior to Shabbat that comes to fruition on Shabbat. Regarding a vending machine, the seller is not even aware when a transaction takes place. R. Naftali Bombach, Givat HaLevonah, Orach Chaim no. 28, rules stringently on the matter. He asserts that even those who disagree with R. Eger would agree that it is prohibited. They only permit setting up a transaction that will come to fruition on Shabbat. If the entire process takes place on Shabbat, everyone agrees that it is prohibited.
R. Ya'akov Breisch, Chelkat Ya'akov, Orach Chaim no. 67, notes an important difference between different types of vending machines. If the vending machine is selling items or a service that requires replenishing the machine (e.g., an ATM machine), there are a limited number of sales that can be executed until the machine is replenished. If the owner of the machine is not planning on replenishing the machine on Shabbat (which would certainly be prohibited), it makes no difference to the owner if the items or services are purchased before Shabbat or on Shabbat itself. Therefore, as long as the possibility exists that the items or services can be sold before Shabbat, the purchaser is acting on his own in deciding to make the purchase on Shabbat. However, some vending machines sell a service that does not require replenishing the machine (e.g., a video arcade game). The owner of the machine benefits most if the machine is in use for as many hours as possible. In this situation, we don't assume that the user is acting on his own by deciding to use the machine on Shabbat instead of before Shabbat because the owner would prefer if the machine were used both before Shabbat and on Shabbat. Therefore, one should take a more stringent position regarding machines that provide a service and do not need to be replenished.
One can apply much of the discussion regarding vending machines to the question of whether it is permissible to own a website that sells items on Shabbat. However, there is one important difference. When a transaction occurs via a vending machine, the buyer walks away with the item that he purchased and the seller is in possession of the buyer's money. Regarding a website, the buyer generally does not possess the item of purchase upon completion of the sale, nor does the seller charge the credit card until the item is shipped. [Currently, one can only charge a credit card from Monday to Friday. However, this discussion is still relevant to Yom Tov.] Therefore, no transaction actually takes place on Shabbat. The one exception is a case where the website sells a service that is provided immediately (e.g., an online video game). In this situation, the buyer owes money to the seller upon receipt of the service. Even if the seller does not execute the charge until Monday, the sale is complete. In such a situation, the question is similar to that of the vending machine. [Regarding placing a bid in an online auction that ends on Shabbat, see Maharam Schick, Orach Chaim no. 131, who rules leniently regarding an auction style similar to that of the standard EBay auction.]