Let’s “listen” to Rabbi Ribiat’s rendition of this fundamental halachic issue related to Shabbos law:
Excerpted (mostly) from The 39 Melachos, by Rabbi Ribiat, Vol. I, pp. 175-184 and Vol. II, pp. 255-257. There is a concept in Hilchos Shabbos called ‘M’leches Machsheves’. The term may be defined as “calculated labor”, “skilled labor” or “prominent labor”, and it describes a broad range of conditions under which a melacha must be done to be considered a melacha d’Oraisa (Torah violation). If not met, the act may be prohibited Rabbinically or entirely permissible. One aspect and application of ‘M’leches Machsheves’ that is relevant to our siman is in the realm of ‘machshava’ (thought/intent/calculation). An absence of thought, intent or awareness in a melacha act may identify it under one of the following ‘M’leches Machsheves’ principles:
- ‘Davar sh’aino miskavein’ (possible consequence)
- ‘P’sik reisha’ (inevitable consequence)
To explain: Any situation in which a melacha may possibly occur as a result of a non-melacha act is classified as a ‘davar sh’aino miskavein’. This means, literally, “unintentional act”, referring to the melacha act that may unintentionally occur. ‘Davar sh’aino miskavein’ is the most lenient of all the M’leches Machsheves principles. It is the only one that actually exempts a melacha entirely. Thus, under conditions of ‘davar sh’aino miskavein’, an act would actually be permitted, even though it is known beforehand that a melacha could possibly occur. Example: One may drag a relatively lightweight lawn chair over firm soil even though there is a possibility that the legs of the chair will scrape the soil. (Note: Leveling the land surface, or making a bumpy ground surface even – in an outside garden or field - is a form of landscaping (called ‘mashveh gumos’ / “leveling the terrain”) and is forbidden under the melacha of ‘choraish’/plowing.
On the other hand… Any situation in which a melacha will unintentionally, but inevitably, occur as a direct result of a non-melacha act, is classified as a ‘P’sik reisha’ and is utterly prohibited. The term ‘psik reisha’ literally means “severing the head”, referring to the case in the Talmud of one who requires the detached head of a chicken (not prohibited per se), although he does not need the animal to die (causing death is prohibited under the melacha of ‘shechitah’/slaughtering)! Of course, this cannot be accomplished without killing the chicken, a fact that might prompt the incredulous remark that encapsulates the Talmudic maxim: ‘P’sik reish v’lo yamus?!’ (“Can one sever its head without it dying?!”) Example: Dragging a heavy chair on moist soil, whereby a scrape mark will inevitably occur; the sole act of dragging the chair is not of itself any form of melacha, while the inevitable secondary act of scraping the soil is ‘choraish’, as mentioned above. Dragging such a chair is absolutely prohibited on Shabbos!
Did you understand and enjoy this “little” introduction? Please review it before moving on. When you are ready, we can return to the topic of our siman – sweeping floors!
Let us first review and clarify the difference between the leveling of earth in an outdoor field, which is related to the melacha of ‘choraish’/plowing, and the leveling of the ground indoors (e.g. inside a house with an earthen floor), which is related to the melacha of ‘boneh’/building, because it improves the physical structure of the house. Dwellers of these homes would occasionally feel the need to scrape and flatten the soil of the ground so as to maintain a smooth and level floor surface… Based upon the principles of ‘Davar sh’aino miskavein’ and ‘P’sik reisha’, sweeping these earthen floors on Shabbos (even merely to remove litter and debris – i.e. not prohibited per se) was problematic, because the sweeping action also had the inevitable effect of smoothing and leveling the earthen floor, thereby improving it. The Shulchan Aruch states that sweeping an earthen floor is forbidden on Shabbos for this reason!
Sweeping floors today
According to some views, sweeping the floor is problematic even in today’s modern homes. The Rama quotes the opinion of many poskim that there is a Rabbinic injunction on the sweeping of all floorings (even wood or tiled floors) on Shabbos, as a safeguard to prevent confusion. However, it is generally agreed that this Rabbinic extension applies only to localities where many of the homes have earthen floors (as was the case in many towns and villages of prewar Europe.) Sweeping wood, tile or concrete floors is permitted in districts where most or all of the homes are built with wood or concrete flooring (as is the case in virtually all of the homes in the US and other advanced countries.
What kind of brooms may be used?
It is questionable whether sweeping with an old-fashioned straw or twig broom on Shabbos can be permitted, because the sweeping action often causes some of the bristles to snap and break off. The breaking of any part of the broom in this manner involves the melacha of sossair/demolishing. Use of such brooms on Shabbos should therefore be avoided. (See above the ‘P’sik reisha’ category.) Most contemporary style brooms, however, are perfectly permissible to be used because they are made of flexible and durable bristles that rarely become detached during use. [Ed. Even if a bristle were to break, use of such brooms would be classified as ‘davar sh’aino miskavein’ (possible consequence) and not ‘p’sik reisha’ (inevitable consequence) as would the old-fashioned ones.]