Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Q: Are there any restrictions in the Shmitta year regarding the care of potted plants in one’s house or on the balcony?

A: The laws of Shmitta do not apply to a flowerpot situated inside the house or on a balcony that has a roof, since it is detached from the ground by the floor tiles through which no root can pass, and in addition, there is a roof above it. Thus, one may sow and plant in it, and one may trim its’ vegetation (Peninei Halakha: Shivi’it 2:13).

Even if the pot has a hole in it, and is on the first floor, since it is on a surface through which no root can pass, it is considered detached from the ground. Indeed, some poskim tend to be machmir (stringent) concerning a pot with a hole in it on a first floor (Minchat Shlomo Vol. 1, 41:2), and some are also machmir on higher floors as well (see, Shevet Halevi 6: 167).

However, the primary halakha is that all types of tiles and concrete used in houses are considered a separation, because no root passes through them (this is also what Chazon Ish Zeraim 22: 1 and Brit Olam Kutzar 15 have written; Peninei Halakha: Shivi’it 2:14).

Potted Plants on an Open Balcony

A flowerpot in a garden or on an exposed balcony, since it is in the open air, all the laws of Shmitta apply to it. Included in the prohibitions that apply to a flowerpot on an exposed balcony are not to plant seedlings in it, not to prune it, and not to do something that improves its growth. However, an action designed to keep it alive is permissible. Even when the flowerpot does not have a hole, all these prohibitions pertain to it (Peninei Halakha: Shvi’it 2:14).

Question Concerning Elevators on Shabbat

I received a question from a Rabbi with a congregation in New York:

“Rabbi Melamed, I hope this letter finds you in good health, and yasher koach on your illuminating halakhic answers! I would like to ask a question on a matter in which there are several, less-than-ideal, situations.

“As well-known, in our city of New York there are many tall buildings and a resident could live on a 20th, or even the 50th floor. Some of these people bought apartments in these buildings before they became Shomrei Shabbat, or before they realized there might be a problem, and obviously, there is no Shabbat elevator.

“In these buildings there is usually a non-Jewish employee (doorman) who can press the button to order the elevator, and go up with the residents (this, obviously, is not a halakhically ideal situation), however, when leaving their apartment, there is no non-Jew to press the button for them, and many of them do it themselves when going to synagogue.

“My question is: Is there any advice to minimize the prohibition for those who in any case would press the button? I also ask especially about those children, whose parents cherish Torah and mitzvoth, but do not know there is a prohibition involved, and ask their children to order the elevator. Consequently, when teaching the children laws of Shabbat, it is difficult to tell them this is simply forbidden. Of course this is highly less-than-ideal, and the question is whether there is any advice regarding minimizing the prohibition, and also, so as not to instruct people getting stronger in Torah and mitzvot an impossible instruction which they would certainly not keep – that they must remain in their apartment all Shabbat, and every Shabbat.”

Answer

The solution is to invent a way in which the elevator is operated by gramma (something that was indirectly caused by something else but the outcome of which is not guaranteed), in other words, under two conditions: 1) a change of operation, 2) delaying the operation for at least a quarter of a minute. This requires a technician to invent such a mechanism. Possibly, such a mechanism already exists, and I am not aware of it.

In a sha’at dachak (time of distress), when known that a Jew is not willing to walk up or down the stairs, he should be instructed to reduce the prohibition by using a shinuy (an unconventional method of performing an act), thereby reducing the prohibition from a Torah prohibition, to a d’Rabanan (rabbinical) prohibition.

And according to the poskim who are of the opinion that electricity is only a d’Rabanan prohibition, it turns the prohibition into ‘shvut di-shvut’ (shvut can be thought of as half a Torah prohibition, and a shvut di-shvut as a quarter of a Torah prohibition, since it is prohibited only by combining two rabbinic safeguards). Although shvut di-shvut generally is permitted for a great need or for the purpose of a mitzvah, nevertheless, this provision is only for those known to be unable to walk up and down by foot, because the heter (halakhic permit) of shvut di-shvut is a one-time heter, and Shabbat should not be based on such heters (see, Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 9:9; 17:2).