Moral Culpability for Unintentional Actions on Shabbat

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: My coordination, balance, and eyesight have deteriorated. Despite my best efforts, not infrequently on Shabbat I bump into and move muktzeh items in my small apartment. Are my accidental movements of muktzeh violations of Shabbat? If they are, I wonder about the following sad scene. A person who passionately kept Shabbat all his life suffers a fatal heart attack on Shabbat and, in the process, falls and breaks something. Was his last action a desecration of Shabbat?

Answer: We wish you good and improved health and suggest contemplating happier things. Regarding these questions, halacha is totally “on your side” for several reasons. We take the opportunity to investigate various categories of unintentional “violations” in general terms.

Even if one purposely moves a muktzeh object with parts of the body people do not usually use to move things (i.e., everything but the hands), most say that the standard (Rabbinic) prohibitions of muktzeh, such as moving something to protect it, do not apply (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 311:8; Mishna Berura 311:30). Although some are stringent if one directly moves muktzeh with any part of the body, especially for no good reason (see Chazon Ish, OC 47:12; Dirshu 311:33), all agree there is no problem if one incidentally moves it as he walks (Chazon Ish ibid.).

Let us now imagine one accidentally banging into something that activates a Shabbat violation. Did he mistakenly violate Shabbat? The most severe category of unintentional Shabbat violation is shogeg – one intends to, for example, light a candle, just that he forgot it was Shabbat or that lighting a candle is forbidden on Shabbat. This person requires the atonement of a korban chatot (sometimes multiple korbanot – see Rambam, Shegagot 7:2-4).

A significantly lower level of blame exists regarding cases of mitasek – a person who did not intend to do the forbidden action/result. This comes in different forms. A) He did not mean to do the action that ended up; B) He intended to do the action to an object in a manner that would have been permitted. Mitasek is exempt from a korban in various prohibitions, except those involving physical enjoyment (Kritot 19b). There is an additional level of exemption for Shabbat (melechet machashevet – one planned to do the melacha, but it came out differently than planned (Rambam, Shabbat 1:9)).

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shut I:8) posits that there is a qualitative difference between the exemption of mitasek for Shabbat as opposed to other non-enjoyment prohibitions. Regarding the latter, there is a violation, just that it is insufficient to obligate a korban. One ramification is that if one is aware that his friend is about to violate one of these aveirot as a mitasek, he must act to stop the violation. However, a mitasek does not violate Shabbat and a friend does not have to stop him (at least from the fundamental, Torah-level perspective). The Oneg Yom Tov (20) assumes that even a mitasek of Shabbat is considered violating Shabbat and needs to be told to stop. Some level of regret also explains the halacha that one should check his pockets before Shabbat to make sure he does not have muktzeh and/or will not carry in a place that does not have an eiruv (Shabbat 12a).

The above, though, is likely when one has some idea of what he is doing, even if not all the details. After all, if one is planning to do permitted action A and knows that unintended forbidden result B might possibly occur, he may do action A because of “davar she’eino mitkaven.” It cannot be that after acting with permission, if it came out that result B occurred, that he needs to have regrets for what he did, given that the rabbis knew it was likely and still permitted it (see He’arot of Rav Elyashiv, Ketubot 5b). Since we would definitely let a wobbly person walk in a crowded room, we will not say he violated Shabbat by banging into something.

In the sad case of the heart attack, it is not even considered that he did an action. When someone falls down, it is gravity that is acting upon him (see Tosafot, Sanhedrin 74b).

לעילוי נשמת יואל אפרים בן אברהם עוזיאל זלצמן ז”ל

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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