Celebrity Selfies on Shabbos

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This article originally appeared on Torah Musings

I. Celebrity Selfies
This past Motza’ei Shabbos, Jewish social media was buzzing because a famous non-Jewish comedian posted a selfie with Jewish students walking in Manhattan, with a note that they could not take the picture themselves because of the Sabbath. We later learned that the picture was taken after Shabbos but we can still ask whether in theory they could have posed for the picture on Shabbos.
(An earlier version of this essay asserted that the picture was taken on Shabbos. I later learned that I was mistaken and prematurely jumped to an incorrect conclusion. The picture was taken after Shabbos.)

We will accept as a given here that taking a picture on a phone constitutes at least a rabbinic violation of Shabbos. However, what if the person who takes the picture isn’t Jewish? If the Jews do not ask him to take the picture, can they pose for it?

II. Posing
Before immersing in the mikveh, a woman must clean herself completely. Because dirt under the fingernails is often hard to remove, it is a longstanding custom for women to cut their nails before immersing. The Taz (Yoreh De’ah 198:21) says that he heard of rabbis instructing women who have to immerse in a holiday but forgot to cut their nails in advance, to have a gentile cut their nails. The Taz objects because the Jewish woman is assisting in the nail cutting by holding out her hands. The Gemara (Makkos 20b) says that a man may not allow a gentile barber to cut off his pei’os (roughly, sideburns) because the prohibition against doing so applies both to the hair cutter and the one whose hair is being cut and assists by holding his head straight. Similarly, argues the Taz, a woman may not assist in having her nails cut. According to this logic, you would not be able to pose for a picture either because doing so counts as assisting.

However, the Shakh (Nekudos Ha-Kesef, ad loc.) disagrees with the Taz. He argues that the rule against assisting applies solely to the prohibition against cutting your pei’os. Therefore, since both cutting your nails (for the mikveh) and asking a gentile to do the work are rabbinically prohibited, and this is for the purpose of immersing in the mikvah which is a mitzvah, it constitutes a double rabbinic prohibition for a mitzvah (shevus di-shvus bi-mkom mitzvah) which is allowed. In itself, posing is not a problem according to the Shakh.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 80:54) goes further. He suggests that even the Taz would agree that posing for a picture is not a problem. If a gentile cuts a Jew’s hair or nails, he is acting on the Jew’s body. In contrast, when taking a picture, he stands far away from the Jew. The assistance is of a lesser degree and perhaps even the Taz would permit it.

III. Asking and Permitting
Rav Braun then quotes a responsum on the subject sent to him by Rav Yonasan Steif. Rav Steif points to the rule in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 252:2) that even in cases where you arrange with a gentile before Shabbos to do work for you on or after Shabbos, so it is up to him whether to do it on Shabbos, if you see him doing it on Shabbos then you have to ask him to stop. The reason is that it looks like he is doing it for you specifically on Shabbos.

Rav Steif concludes that any time a photographer needs your permission to take your picture, and even more so if you pose for him, effectively you are asking him to do that work for you on Shabbos. Posing constitutes asking, which is rabbinically forbidden. Rav Steif only permits posing for a picture in those special cases when you can outright ask a gentile to do work for you on Shabbos.
We live in a world full of security cameras and satellites capturing images. Those are not a problem because we do not pose for the cameras or satellites. We go about our business without asking for our pictures to be taken. However, we may not look into a security camera and wave, because that is posing and forbidden.1

IV. Using the Selfie
The general rule is that if you ask a gentile to do work for you on Shabbos improperly (i.e. not in special cases when it is allowed), then you cannot benefit from the work until sufficiently after Shabbos to do that work (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 307:20). You cannot gain any time advantage by asking a gentile on Shabbos. Perhaps a picture taken by a gentile may be shared after Shabbos ends and a sufficient amount of time passes.

However, the Mishnah (Shabbos 151a) says that a Jew should not be buried in a grave dug, or a coffin made, on Shabbos. The Gemara (ibid.) explains that these were done in public and therefore may never be used. While some commentaries believe that burial is unique, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 6:5) seems to hold that any public work done on Shabbos by a gentile for a Jew may never be used. Mishnah Berurah (307:72; 325:73) and Arukh Ha-Shulchan (307:30; 325:31) rule that if a gentile did the work for you in public, even without being asked, you never may benefit from it (although in extenuating circumstances there is room for leniency).

Additionally, taking a picture is different from most other work. If there is no future opportunity for the picture, then there is no sufficient amount of time to wait — the picture is always forbidden to look at and share. Orechos Shabbos (23:37) quotes Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv as ruling this way. Piskei Teshuvos (276 n. 34) rules similarly, although leaves room for leniency in cases of need.2

V. For Whom?

Perhaps one could argue that the people in the picture may not enjoy it but others may feel free to do so. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (325:31) explicitly says that a gentile’s public work on Shabbos for a Jew may never be used by that Jew, but others may use it. The conclusion all depends on the target audience for the picture.

I think that, while Jews in the picture are the celebrity’s primary audience, his millions of followers are also the audience. A celebrity doesn’t post a selfie to his social media account merely to please the people with whom he posed. He posts it to show his entire audience. He is being generous to his fans and wants other fans to see that. Effectively, it is a free, reusable promotional item to give away to fans. I don’t see that as morally problematic. However, for our purposes, that means that the Shabbos work was done for the entire audience but particularly for Jews (see Mishnah Berurah 325:27). Therefore, no Jew may benefit from it. We may not look at it nor share it with friends. I admit this is debatable but even without this assumption, there is room for concern.

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (Me’ah She’arim, no. 56) was asked about a bar mitzvah held in a hospital for a sick boy. Services were held in the hospital’s chapel and the bar mitzvah boy was called to the Torah. Security cameras recorded the whole service. Can they print out pictures from the recording to create a commemorative album?

Rav Zilberstein replied that if people posed for the security cameras, this poses a problem. Even if they did not, and only realized afterward that everything was filmed, they still may not use the footage because it constitutes a Chillul Hashem. It gives the impression that the bar mitzvah was intentionally filmed on Shabbos. Similarly, sharing a selfie taken on Shabbos with a celebrity is a Chillul Hashem because it gives the impression that we may pose for selfies on Shabbos.

1. Rav Gersion Appel writes in his The Concise Code of Jewish Law, vol. 2, revised edition II:32 n. 5: “You may not have a non-Jew take your photograph unless it is an emergency and cannot be delayed until after Shabbat. However, you do not need to avoid being photographed in cases when you are a passerby or otherwise disinterested in the non-Jew’s picture. Similarly, you may walk in places that have surveillance cameras working on Shabbat.” ↩

2. A similar logic is used by some authorities to permit taking pictures on Chol Ha-Mo’ed of trips and family gatherings because the opportunity will not present itself again. See Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 67:29. ↩

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.