Rabbi Gil Student
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 lead 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.
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, then nothing is heresy. In truth, even if you can’t always define the line, you can point to things that definitely are over the line. Exhaustion is one of many examples that demonstrate that gray borders do not undermine the state. Even if we can’t define exactly when someone becomes too tired to drive, some people clearly reach that state and must take appropriate precautions.