18 Jul 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.