Bringing Garbage to the Basement on Shabbat

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

22 Adar: R. Betzalel Stern on Bringing Garbage to the Basement on Shabbat

[Click for the audio version].

Halachah pervades the observant life, such that the most mundane of acts ask us to be aware of halachic ramifications. Shu”t Be-Tzel HaChochmah 4;62, dated 22 Adar 5736 (1976) applies itself to taking out the garbage on Shabbat. In an apartment building, dropping the garbage down the chute concerns us with possible amirah le-aku”m, asking non-Jews (implicitly or explicitly) to do for us on Shabbat that which we may not do ourselves, uvdin de-chol, acting on Shabbat in ways that make it look too much like an ordinary weekday, mar’it ha-ayin, giving the impression that we are violating halachah, and more.  

The question came out of Brooklyn, where the garbage chutes sent refuse down to the basement. There, the maintenance staff would put the garbage in a machine that bagged it, after which the city’s sanitation workers would bring those bags to incinerators. The questioner thought Jews should not send garbage down the chute on Shabbat since it was a) an uvdin de-chol (too much of a non-Shabbat activity), b) causes the bagging machinery to start, c) implicitly asks non-Jews to violate Shabbat on one’s behalf, and d) constitutes mar’it ayin, since many people assume chutes send garbage directly to an incinerator (as they once had done), so this Jew looks like s/he is burning garbage on Shabbat.

Complications of Amirah le-Aku”m

R. Stern starts with amirah le-aku”m. Rema, Orach Chayyim 307;22 makes clear that we may not hint to a non-Jew that we want them to violate Shabbat for us. As soon as garbage goes down the chute, the staff have a routine they are to follow, so the act of sending the garbage It’s true that the Jew does not care if the non-Jew deals with the garbage that day, but the building’s operating routine requires the maintenance staff to deal with it immediately.

As Magen Avraham and Taz point out, when a Jew’s actions force a non-Jew’s hand, that’s the same as telling the non-Jew to do something on Shabbat. Their example was asking the non-Jew to buy an item that only goes on sale on Shabbat [I’ve been asked, for example, whether a Jew can leave word with a non-Jew to place bids at an auction that takes place on Shabbat]. Here, too, placing the garbage in the basement requires the non-Jew to respond on Shabbat.

Instigating a Non-Jew’s Action, Not Asking for It

The opening to a more lenient view comes from a story about Ra’ana”ch, a 16th century Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi of Israel), told in Shiyurei Kenesset HaGedolah. Ra’ana”ch wanted a book from a dark room, so he asked his housekeeper to bring him some other item from that room. To find it, she lit a candle, and he went in after her to retrieve the sefer he needed. 

R. Ya’akov Emden (in his responsa, Mor U-Ketziah) rejected this trick. He saw it as no different than hinting, where the rule is that the Jew may not then benefit from the action the non-Jew performed (if a non-Jew turns on lights for a Jew, the Jew may not use those lights).

Peri Megadim agreed with Ra’ana”ch and Shiyurei Kenesset HaGedolah, however, and R. Stern thinks these three are too formidable to casually rule against, especially since Ra’ana”ch acted on his view himself (showing this was not a leniency he allowed others in trouble, he himself felt comfortable acting on it).

R. Stern also believes he can explain Ra’ana”ch’s view. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 276;3 prohibits asking a non-Jewish servant to walk with oneself, since the non-Jew will light the way (theoretically for him/herself, but obviously benefitting the Jew as well). But Mishnah Berurah points out that that’s because the Jew’s walking with the non-Jew.

Were the Jewish employer to send the non-Jew into a room or down a hall for some reason, and the non-Jew turned on a light (and left it on), the Jew would be allowed to benefit from that light, since at the time of its lighting, there was no connection to the Jew. (Taz has a similar idea regarding a non-Jewish servant who lights a candle by which to wash dishes).

Ra’ana”ch’s story must be slightly different from those cases, since it’s quoted in chapter 307 of Orach Chayyim, not 276. R. Stern thinks that’s because Ra’ana”ch was allowing asking the non-Jew to do this, where the other cases were about the permissibility of benefitting.

Ra’ana”ch’s case had the additional leniency factor that what he asked of the non-Jew was itself permitted on Shabbat, retrieving an item. That might reduce its amirah le-aku”m aspect, since the technical truth is that the Jew is asking the non-Jew to do something the Jew could do him/ herself. (R. Stern raises the possibility that it might have been merely difficult to find the item without a light, rather than impossible, which further reduces the extent to which the request implies a request to light a candle in that room).

The One Reason It’s Not Allowed, the Reasons That Would Not Have Been a Problem

The garbage chute does not fit in that rubric, however. Once garbage lands in the basement, the non-Jew’s job requires him/her to act in Shabbat-prohibited ways (R. Stern dismisses the claim that the Jew is not responsible for rules that the building’s management made with its employees; it’s the Jew who throws down the garbage, knowing the necessary outcome for this employee).

Other of the questioning rabbi’s worries did not convince R. Stern. Magen Avraham 315;11 and Machatzit ha-Shekel cited a letter of Rambam’s which limited uvdin de-chol issues to where an action was both one done during the week and might lead to violating Shabbat. Tiferet Yisrael expanded that a bit; he held that if an action was a) too similar to one of the 39 categories of prohibited creative labor, b) too likely to lead to a Biblical violation, or c) involved too much effort, Chazal declared it an uvdin de-chol.

Orchot Chayyim held that that whole category did not apply to private actions in one’s own home, a view R. Stern was willing to accept here, where the action only touched on Shabbat issues in terms of amirah le-aku”m.

The questioner thought this was also gerama, causing a Shabbat violation (because the Jew is causing the machine to go on). R. Stern rejects that, because gerama means the Jew’s action directly leads to the violation; here, another person intervenes, the non-Jew who actually turns on the machine.

The last concern was mar’it ha-ayin, that others will see the way this Jew acts and think s/he is violating Shabbat. Ta”z Orach Chayyim 336;9 and Magen Avraham 301;56 both accept the view of Tosafot that if the action of which one will be suspected is itself “only” Rabbinic, Chaza”l did not prohibit a mar’it ha-ayin act in private. Here, where the act necessarily occurs only in one’s home (so it’s always in private, what’s halachically referred to as chadrei chadarim, within one’s rooms), mar’it ha-ayin is not a concern.

Maharsha held that we should not add examples of mar’it ha-ayin on our own (he treated mar’it ha-ayin as a list of cases in the Gemara rather than a principle to be applied wherever it arose), another reason not to worry about it here.

R. Stern did not find a way to allow throwing the garbage down the chute on Shabbat. He was willing to allow asking non-Jews to do permitted acts for us even though we are confident they will then perform some act that would be a violation of Shabbat for a Jew.

In the case of the garbage, sending it down the chute sent the clear message that the bagging machine should be started up, so it could not be done on Shabbat.

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