April 12, 2024
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April 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“He Who gives snow like fleece, He scatters frost like ashes. He hurls His ice like crumbs. Before his cold who can stand? He issues His command and it melts them…

—Psalm 147: 16 – 18

As reflected in this quotation—recited each morning in the Shacharit service—handling a snowstorm and its icy aftermath is far easier for Divine Hands than for our own. The challenges of dealing with accumulations of the frozen stuff may be especially problematic when they occur on the Sabbath: what issues involving halakha may need to be considered by Shomer Shabbat Jews in shoveling and de-icing one’s property, or hiring someone else to do it for them?

A brief survey of several Bergen County Orthodox rabbis indicates that many halakhic authorities and commentators allow for such activity on the Sabbath, for valid reasons and under appropriate conditions.

Is snow muktsa? According to Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck’s Cong. Netivot Shalom, while the noted posek (halakhic decisor), R. Moshe Feinstein, believed that snow had the status of muktsa on Shabbat, most halakhic authorities maintain that snow is not in this prohibited category, and so there is no problem in moving it. Rabbi Helfgot cautions that this ruling applies in an area surrounded by an eruv (a form of Sabbath enclosure rendering the surrounded area a private domain); if there is no eruv, the problem of carrying in a public domain might apply.

A further concern regarding shoveling heavy snow (or a large area, or for a lengthy period) might relate to tircha, a rabbinic-law concept restricting excessive physical strain on Shabbat. However, this concern could be overridden in a situation where it might be dangerous to leave the snow or ice unshoveled, leading to potential injury, or financial loss due to fines or lawsuits.

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck emphasized the importance of the consideration of action (or inaction) that may lead to endangering others, or oneself, especially when “the danger is greater than the issur (prohibition).”

The following Talmudic statement (Tractate Yoma 84b) may be applicable: “An uncertainty whether a situation is life-threatening supersedes Shabbat. [This applies] not only if the uncertain situation is immediately dangerous, but even if there is no danger now and the situation may create a danger for the future, it still supersedes Shabbat.”

Yet another factor that may allow for disregarding the tircha issue might be that of causing a chillul Ha’Shem (literally, desecration of God’s Name) —would failing to clear the snow give others a negative impression of Jewish observance?

The practice of using salt or chemicals to melt the snow or ice (rather than moving it), or chopping hardened ice, also may at first seem to pose halakhic issues relating to Sabbath rules against changing the form of a substance, or the dismantling or destruction [soter] of a formed or constructed object.

“To the best of my knowledge,” Rabbi Helfgot notes, “there is no problem in putting down salt, sand or other chemicals to melt the snow or ice on Shabbat.” He adds that although some commentators such as the Magen Avraham view chopping ice as a violation of soter, most recent authorities, including Mishnah Berurah, are more lenient about this, especially if there is a Sabbath-related need; the factor of preventing danger, again, may also be determinative.

Can one hire or request a non-Jew (amirah l’nochri) to clear the snow on one’s property on the Sabbath? Rabbi Zierler points out that it would be best to make such arrangements before Shabbat, but potential concerns about asking for the work to be done on the Sabbath may fall away in circumstances of tzorech gadol (great and /or extenuating need), danger to life or of serious injury, or of tzarchei rabim—the needs of the many, or the community (such as clearing a path to the synagogue). The factor of amirah l’nochri does not pertain in a situation of great overriding need. In other words, hezek d’rabim, a public menace, bears a significant relevance to having pre-arranged services for snow removal. In view of these considerations, he adds, one also need not be constrained by concern about ma’arit ayin (i.e., the chance that others will mistake your actions as halakhic violations).

This brief presentation represents only some of the situations and halakhic challenges presented to Sabbath observance by snowstorms and frigid weather and is not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the subject. It is advisable to seek experienced halakhic guidance— preemptively, if possible. While we may no longer have the gift of prophecy, meteorology and ice-melt can still help us to be prepared, even before we have to call the rabbi.

By Alan Schwartz

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