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Driving Under the Influence of Coffee

Questions of kosher status sometimes mask larger dilemmas that, when uncovered, demonstrate the

complexity of applying straightforward laws. Principles are easy. Life is messy.

The rabbis of Kosharot, an Israeli kosher supervision agency associated with Mechon Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-

Aretz, were asked a complex question that is unique to Israel: Is it religiously problematic to buy coffee at

a gas station that remains open on Shabbos? Across the globe, Jews can safely assume that gas

stations, tankers and convenience stores are operated by gentiles, who are not bound by Shabbos

regulations. However, in Israel, Jews often perform the gas station work. If you buy gas or goods at a gas

station, particularly Saturday night, are you benefiting from or encouraging Shabbos desecration?

The rabbis of Kosharot broke down the question into its different parts and concluded that it is best to buy

at a Shomer Shabbos gas station. However, if there is a great need and no better option, you are

permitted to buy from a gas station that is open on Shabbos. One example they gave is a driver who is

tired and needs a cup of coffee to stay awake. This need overrides any of the other concerns discussed

(Emunas Itecha, no. 98 p. 35).

In a letter to the editor (ibid., no. 100, p. 183), Uriel Banner takes issue with the “permission” to buy

coffee. He argues that it is an obligation. You should not be strict in one area of halachah (possible

benefit from or support of Shabbos violation) if it will led to a greater violation (endangering oneself and

others). Driving while tired is a life-threatening danger. He quotes a responsum by Rav Shmuel Wosner

(Shevet Ha-Levi 8:301) about some who fell asleep in the middle of a long drive from New York to

Montreal and got in an accident. Rav Wosner ruled that the driver was negligent for driving without

sufficient sleep beforehand.

R. Mordechai Walnow of Kosharot responded with an even stronger stance (ibid., p. 185). Coffee will not

help someone who is too tired to drive. Its effect is temporary and otherwise limited. If you feel so tired

that you might fall asleep at the wheel, you must pull over to the side of the road and rest, and perhaps

splash cold water on your face. If, after this, you still feel like you need coffee, then you may buy it from a

gas station even if it is not Shomer Shabbos.

All this raises the question of how tired is too tired to drive? Many of us are constantly on the move and

always tired. It is easy to say “Don’t drive when you are too tired” but much harder to define the

parameters. Especially when you have young children in the car, it is difficult to make the decision to pull

over to the side of the road and rest your eyes. You usually do not know you are so tired that your eyes

are closing until they are closing, at which point it might be too late. I don’t have an answer to the

dilemma other than recommending resting in advance (often impractical), opening your window (weather

permitting) and drinking coffee.

One thing this issue makes clear is that even if a state is subjective, it is still real. We may not know the

precise boundary, but it is clear that you can be too tired to drive. Some people argue that if a boundary

cannot be defined, the state is meaningless. For example, if you can dispute the precise definition of

heresy, show examples of rabbis who stepped over various lines, then nothing is heresy. Exhaustion is

one of many examples that demonstrate that gray borders do not undermine the state. Some people

really are too tired to drive.