17 Jan Postal Service in Halachah
I. Sending Mail
The way we deliver mail has changed over the years. We now send letters primarily through e-mail and have major and minor purchases delivered. I thought it would be interesting to discuss various ways in which the halachic system treats and is affected by the modern postal service. The first and most obvious point of contact is the receipt of mail on Shabbos. That requires lengthy treatment, some other time.
Somewhat related is sending mail right before Shabbos. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 3 no. 46) notes that many Jews work in the New York post office, including on Shabbos. When you put something in the mailbox on Friday, you are essentially giving it to Jews to transport on Shabbos. Therefore, Rav Feinstein forbids sending mail late on Friday. Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halachah 73:5) disagrees. Because at least some gentiles work in the post office, we can assume that they, rather the Jews, will handle your letter. I once heard Rav Mordechai Willig say that this entire debate no longer applies today, now that so few Jews work in the post office.
Somewhat related is sending express mail to arrive on Shabbos. You are asking a gentile (presumably) to deliver your package on specifically Shabbos. This is amirah le-nochri, asking a gentile to perform labor on Shabbos for you. Therefore, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilchasah 31:20) forbids sending express mail to arrive on Shabbos except in urgent situations. Rav Braun (ibid.) and Rav Gedaliah Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun vol. 3 p. 63) similarly permit sending express mail in urgent situations. Their logic is that you give the package to a gentile who gives it to another gentile to deliver. This additional layer of distance from the labor renders it permissible.
II. Sending Wheat
Before baking matzah for Pesach, we watch the wheat to ensure that it does not come into contact with water before the baking process begins. The Mishnah Berurah (453:4, Bi’ur Halachah sv. u-lefachos) quotes a discussion of the Sedei Chemed about whether wheat can be sent by train, unguarded. R. Simcha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvos 453:13) describes the Sedei Chemed and others as concluding that wheat may be sent if it is in a container that is doubly sealed. But if for seem reason the container is not sealed, and there is no reason to believe the container was tampered with, we can rely on the professionalism of the postal service.
III. Declaring Death
The case of a husband disappearing in a tragedy is often difficult to resolve because he may have have fled. Among the many considerations is whether advances in communications allows us to assume that were he still alive. These issues are thoroughly addressed in the 2011 book, Contending With Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th (p. 55f.). It is noteworthy that leading scholars such as the early nineteenth century Rav Moshe Sofer were willing to consider this within their deliberations based on improvements in mail service (see Pischei Teshuvah, Even Ha-Ezer 17:34).
While contemporary practice forbids polygamy, even when it was allowed it was guided by certain restrictions. The Gemara (Yoma 18b) forbids a man to marry two wives in two different cities. If siblings in different cities do not know each other, they may end up meeting later in life and marrying. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch Ha-Shulchan, Even Ha-Ezer 1:24) asks why a man may divorce and marry in another city. Does not the same concern apply? He explains that the entire worry is no longer an issue. Because of the reliability of the modern postal service, people are in more frequent contact with relatives. They will know who moves where and remarries, and the names of relatives. There is little realistic probability that siblings will marry each other due solely to living in different cities.
V. Delivering Mail
Halachah recognizes the importance of mail delivery. The timely arrival of mail is not only important for business but also a distinct pleasure for personal recipients. People are normally forbidden to work at their jobs on chol ha-mo’ed, the intermediate days of the festivals. While there are leniencies for many cases, I suspect that people today widely abuse them and neglect the holiness of the days. However, the compendium Chol Ha-Mo’ed Ke-Hilchaso (9:10) convincingly rules that a mailman may freely work on chol ha-mo’ed. His delivery of the mail is a source of holiday joy and, therefore, his job constitutes permitted public work for community needs.
Jewish law recognizes the importance of regular delivery of mail, allowing for leniencies in urgent cases and delivery on some special days. However, the US Postal Service is not the only source of mail. UPS, FedEx and other carriers share similar status. All of these methods are equally important in the eyes of Jewish law.