Is it permissible to ask a gentile to turn off the air conditioner in the synagogue if it is too cold in the room? Many synagogues set the air conditioner on a timer, so that it goes on during the day for the Shabbat morning service. It occasionally happens that the air conditioning is set on a timer, but the weather turns sharply colder, such that the air conditioning makes it very uncomfortable in the synagogue. In such a case, would it be permissible to ask a gentile to turn off the air conditioning?
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Russia-New York, 1895-1986) addresses this question and rules that one may, indeed, ask a gentile to turn off the air conditioning if it is too cold in the synagogue. Rav Feinstein notes the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch that people are at risk of taking ill due to exposure to the cold, and this concern overrides the prohibition of Amira Le’nochri (asking a gentile to perform an activity forbidden for Jews). Moreover, he writes, uncomfortable conditions in the synagogue may likely cause people to leave, and they will miss the Torah reading, Kaddish, Kedusha and so on. Rav Moshe cites a ruling of the Mishna Berura (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) that one may ask a gentile to fix a dismantled Erub on Shabbat, as this is necessary to prevent Jews from violating Shabbat. Similarly, Rav Moshe writes, it would be permissible to ask a gentile to deactivate the air conditioning in the synagogue to prevent people from leaving.
In one’s home, there is even greater reason to permit asking a gentile to deactivate the air conditioning in such a case, since one has nowhere else to go. When the air conditioning causes discomfort in the synagogue, one might have claimed, we should perhaps instruct people to return home, rather than ask a gentile to turn off the air conditioning. If this happens in one’s home, however, Halacha would certainly not require him to go somewhere else. Therefore, if Halacha allows asking a gentile to deactivate the air conditioning in the synagogue, then certainly one may ask a gentile to turn off the air conditioning in one’s home if it causes uncomfortably cold conditions.
Is it permissible to ask a gentile to turn on the air conditioning if it is uncomfortably hot in the synagogue, or in one’s home? The Shulhan Aruch allows asking a gentile to turn on the heat due to the fact that people are sensitive to exposure to the cold and may become sick. Would this also apply to turning on the air conditioning under uncomfortably warm conditions?
The Minhat Yishak (Rav Yishak Weiss, 1902-1989) addresses this question and notes an interesting story told in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi relates that Antoninus, the Roman emperor, once embarked on a trip, and before he left he asked his friend, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, to pray on his behalf. Rabbi Yehuda prayed that God should protect the emperor from cold weather.
"I don’t need a prayer for protection against the cold," Antoninus said, "because if it gets cold I can put on a warm coat!"
Rabbi Yehuda then prayed that God should protect the emperor from the heat. Antoninus thanked him for the prayer, noting the verse in Tehillim (19:7), "Nobody can hide from His heat" ("Ve’en Nistar Me’hamato"). There is no method of protecting oneself from heat, as opposed to cold, from which one can shield himself by wearing layers of clothing.
This story, the Minhat Yishak comments, demonstrates that heat poses an even greater risk than cold. Therefore, if Halacha allows asking a gentile to turn on the heat under cold conditions, then certainly one may ask a gentile to turn on the air conditioning under hot conditions. The Minhat Yishak further notes that activating an air conditioner might constitute a Rabbinic prohibition (as opposed to a Torah violation), and Halacha allows asking a gentile to perform an act which the Sages forbade if this is necessary to alleviate discomfort. Therefore, under uncomfortably hot conditions, one may ask a gentile to activate the air conditioner. This applies both at home and in the synagogue. This is also the ruling of the Yalkut Yosef.
Of course, if the home or synagogue can be made comfortable by opening a window, this should be done instead of requesting the services of a gentile. Our discussion here relates to especially hot weather, under which conditions open windows will not alleviate the discomfort.
Summary: It is permissible on Shabbat to ask a gentile to turn on the heat or turn off an air conditioner if the home or synagogue is uncomfortably cold. Likewise, it is permissible to ask a gentile to turn on an air conditioner under uncomfortably hot conditions, if opening a window would not alleviate the discomfort.