Draining the Swamp

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Very often, the Gemara pairs together totally unrelated topics because they have one common denominator. Recently on the daf, we had a collection of unrelated beraisos. The only reason they were listed together is that in each case Rav Yosef said to follow the opinion espoused in the beraisa. A beraisa discusses a situation where someone’s gutter on his roof becomes clogged (Kesuvos 60a). Rain is threatening to flood his house. Nochum Ish Galya says that one may clear the gutter on Shabbos provided he complies with two conditions. The first is that he must employ a shinui, a deviation from how the gutter is usually cleared. In this scenario, he should clear the blockage with his foot. The second condition is that he should clear the blockage when no one is looking. Rav Yosef says the halacha is in accordance with Nochum Ish Galya, and so it is codified in the Shulchan Aruch. The reason a shinui, deviation, must be employed is that clearing the gutter on Shabbos involves a biblical Shabbos prohibition of Tikun Maneh or Makeh B’Patish.

The clogged gutter was not functioning. Clearing the gutter makes it operational. The upshot is that repairing a broken utensil on Shabbos involves a Torah prohibition. Chazal do not have the authority to waive a Torah prohibition even due to great loss. However, in this case, clearing the gutter on Shabbos with one’s foot, a shinui, turns the Torah prohibition into a rabbinic one. Due to the impending loss from flood, Chazal waived their rabbinic prohibition. A related issue is clearing a sink drain or toilet that became clogged on Shabbos. The Kovetz Halachos (32:12) rules unequivocally that one may even use a plunger to unclog a drain or toilet on Shabbos. The Be’er Moshe likewise rules that it is permitted lechatchila. Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, suggests that a pipe that has a clog is still a functional pipe; it’s just dirty. It is similar to a bottle that has something in its neck that prevents the contents from emptying. We don’t view the bottle as broken; there is merely something preventing it from being used. Nevertheless, Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, was only willing to permit unclogging a sink or toilet in a time of great need. The Minchas Yitzchak likewise permitted unclogging a toilet on Shabbos in a time of great need. However, he recommended that it would be preferable to find a gentile to do it. If none are available, one should employ a shinui.

He suggested that a plunger that is usually used with two hands should be used with one’s weaker hand only. If this is not possible, one can use his stronger hand instead of both hands. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, has a more nuanced approach. If the toilet or sink clogs often, then it can be cleared in the usual manner. If they only clog occasionally, then a shinui should be used. If a clog only rarely occurs, then one should not clear the drain at all. One can ask a gentile to clear the drain if there is a great need. The upshot is that the Kovetz Halachos, the Be’er Moshe, Rav Shlomo Zalman, the Minchas Yitzchak, and Rav Moshe Feinstein all permit unclogging a drain or toilet on Shabbos in some circumstances. (It is the halachic equivalent of a royal flush.) Yet, the Gemara cited above discussed a very similar situation of a clogged gutter. There, it was only permitted to unclog it with a shinui to prevent a great loss! Why would unstuffing a toilet be permitted even without a great loss? Some suggest that in situations involving kavod habriyos, human dignity, there is no need to differentiate between the two cases. Kavod Habriyos is so important that in limited scenarios it even overrides a Torah precept. Not being able to use a toilet can be equivalent to a great loss. However, typically this would only come into play regarding a toilet and not a sink. Several suggestions have been offered to differentiate between the two scenarios that would explain the unclogging of a sink as well. Typically, a house gutter does not become clogged overnight. It is a slow and steady process. Therefore, the homeowner should have been proactive and taken care of it before Shabbos. Consequently, we are only lenient regarding a gutter in the event of a great loss. (In insurance terminology, there is a difference between wear and tear and a sudden loss.) Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, suggested that the gutter being discussed had an opening on a roof. It became clogged to the point that the opening is level with the roof. With such a clog, where the opening of the gutter is somewhat hidden, we view the gutter as virtually non-existent. Therefore, unclogging it is tantamount to creating a new gutter, a Torah prohibition. Typical home clogs, though, are just something stuck somewhere in the middle of a pipe.

The pipe is still a pipe but with dirt in the middle. The Minchas Yitzchak suggested that the difference lies in the quality of the clog. A severe clog can render a pipe or gutter virtually non-existent. However, typical home clogs are not severe. The Gemara was discussing a severe clog in the gutter. Hence, to be lenient, a threat of major loss was required. Still, others suggest that the Gemara is discussing a gutter that was clogged because plants were growing in the gutter! The roots of the plants managed to find purchase on the gutter walls. Since the clog is coming from the body of the gutter itself, we view the gutter as totally broken. However, if dead plant material would have found its way into the gutter, the rabbanim would have been lenient even without a great loss. A clog in the home is equivalent to dead plant material in a gutter and has the same halacha. For a clear ruling, speak to your Rav.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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