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The Prohibition of Choresh (Plowing) on Shabbat

  • Rav Moshe Taragin




Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise,
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz. Y'hi Zikhro Barukh.


By Rav Moshe Taraginn


Shiur #22: The Prohibition of Choresh (Plowing) on Shabbat



Among the 11 activities necessary to process grains into baked goods (known as the “sidura de-pat”), the first forbidden activity is plowing, "charisha." Interestingly, the mishna in Shabbat (71) cites this prohibition AFTER that of sowing seeds. The gemara explains that the mishna was addressing the agricultural practices in Eretz Yisrael, where the land is often rocky and plowing is therefore often performed AGAIN, AFTER the sowing, to insure that the seeds are properly planted. Chronologically, however, plowing or charisha is the first melakha performed when planting.


The gemara in Pesachim (47b) discusses a scenario in which someone plows and thereby violates multiple issurim. The gemara concludes that if the plowing was performed on a rocky surface that is not conducive to planting, no charisha has been violated. The simple reading of this gemara suggests that charisha is purely a “zeriya-enabler.” Any act that facilitates subsequent planting violates charisha; if the area cannot be planted, no charisha has been perpetrated, even though one has plowed. ALTERNATIVELY, one might argue that the purpose of the melakha (and its forbidden aspect) is IMPROVING land not enabling planting. However, as the primary use for land is to plant, the improvement that results from plowing must be “planting-oriented.” Hence, plowing a rocky, untellable area would not be considered improvement. According to the latter explanation, the essence of the melakha is capital improvement, NOT planting enhancement.


The nafka mina between these perspectives is evident in situation in which the potential for planting exists (it is tillable land), but planting will not ensue for technical reasons. If choresh is defined as creation of capital improvement by enabling planting, even the ABSTRACT potential for planting would suffice to create an issur. If, however, choresh is forbidden because it actually enables planting and not because it enhances the land, the violation would only be realized if planting ACTUALLY follows the plowing.


There are at least three such scenarios of plowing that yield abstract, but not actual, planting potential.


The first concerns plowing in a cemetery. This issue arises in a fascinating context: If someone dies on chag, the halakha allows certain flexibilities to enable his timely burial. If the burial is on the first day of the holiday, gentiles can perform the forbidden activities; if the burial takes place on the second day, even Jews are allowed to perform most activities. A question arose among the authorities regarding filling in the hole with earth, as filling in holes generally constitutes charisha. The Rema permits filling in the grave with dirt if the Jews are tending to a second-day burial. The Terumat Ha-Deshen, however, claims that we are stringent and avoid performing any de-oraita issurim even for second day burials. Filling in the dirt should be therefore be forbidden – assuming it constitutes real charisha.


Some claim, however, that since this charisha is performed on land which will not be planted, perhaps it should be permitted to fill in the hole after a burial me-de-oraita. The Magen Avraham (526:10) cites different opinions, some of which allow Jews to fill in the dirt. Perhaps these authorities viewed charisha as a planting enabler; when planting will surely never occur since it is a grave – even though the potential for planting exists – charisha has not been violated (at least de-oraita).


A second scenario may concern digging a hole in afar tichoach, very loose dirt that will immediately return to its previous state. Although there are varying degrees of “immediate,” it appears that there is fundamental machloket about whether charisha is violated in the case of afar tichoach: the gemara in Shabbat (39a) implies that it is permitted, whereas the gemara in Beitza (8) seems to insinuate that it is forbidden. R. Hai Gaon states clearly that a violation exists, and he re-engineered the gemara in Shabbat to reflect that position. Most Rishonim, however (see, for example, Tosafot’s explanation of Rashi's position), claim that digging a hole in afar tichoach is permitted, as the simple reading of Shabbat 39a implies. According to these opinions, the gemara in Beitza was referring to unique circumstances in which the walls of the hole from which the loose ground was removed were formed from rigid earth. Namely plowing in ACTUAL loose earth is permitted.


In essence, the Rishonim debate whether charisha would be violated in a situation of loose ground that would immediately “fall in” on itself. Perhaps this reflects our original question. If charisha is essentially land enhancement measured by its enabling planting, perhaps this would be forbidden even in a situation of afar tichoach. Moving ground always improves it, and planting will be enabled, if only for a few seconds. However, since no actual planting will occur, perhaps we cannot consider this a direct planting facilitator and we cannot forbid this as charisha.


Yet a third scenario concerns someone who drives an object into the ground and does not remove it. Although a hole has been created by the object, the hole is still “filled” and no immediate planting can take place. Alternatively, the potential for planting has been introduced, and this has improved the quality (and price) of the land. Tosafot (Shabbat 39a) suggest that this may be a machloket between Tanna’im concerning sticking an egg into the ground. R. Yosef considered this choresh, but Rabba may have disagreed, since the egg would not be removed and no hole would remain. Once again, this would be a situation in which abstract potential for planting is created and land is improved, but immediate planting will not occur and choresh as planting facilitator is not performed.


An even more extreme case of choresh without direct planting enabling occurs in the gemara (Shabbat 73b, 103a) which forbids leveling land as a type of choresh. For example, if a hole is filled or a raised piece of land is removed, choresh is violated. If we assume that choresh is a direct planting enabler, it is logical that removing raised land would violate the prohibition, but why should filling in a hole? This would strongly suggest that choresh has LITTLE TO DO with direct planting, but rather entails capital improvement of land. Obviously if the land is completely un-tillable, no choresh has been violated. However, as long as the land is tillable, choresh constitutes any attempt to improve the land.


Perhaps in order to avoid this conclusion, Rashi, in his comments to Shabbat (73b), claims that planting has been enabled EVEN BY FILLING IN THE HOLE – the new dirt placed in the hole is softer and less rigid, and can thus facilitate planting. Additionally, now that the land is straight, it is easier to sow the land. Rashi may have maintained that choresh is not violated unless PLANTING is IMMEDIATELY enabled. Hence, he had to identify this effect in the gemara's forbidden scenario of filling in a hole.


An additional issue that may revolve around the essential definition of choresh concerns the shiur for the melakha. The mishna (Shabbat 103) declares that even by plowing a minimal amount of land, the melakha has been violated. The gemara wonders why this should be forbidden, as such minimal plowed space does not enable typical planting. The gemara responds that one seed of pumpkin can be planted even in a minimal space.


Rashi is troubled by this description of the minute shiur for plowing. A prior gemara describes the shiur for hotza'ah as carrying two seeds, since no one would plant one single seed. If people typically plant TWO seeds, and carrying ONE seed does not constitute hotza'ah, why should PLOWING ground to sow ONE seed constitute charisha? Based on this question, many Rishonim (see, for example, the Shitta La-Ran and the Meiri) assume that the forbidden situation of even minimal charisha for ONE seed concerns seeds that have already been planted; the person is digging around a planted seed to enable irrigation. INITIAL plowing to allow sowing ONLY ONE seed would not constitute choresh since it does not enable typical planting activities.


Rashi however, takes the gemara at face value: even though normal planting has not been enabled, charisha has been violated. According to some interpretations (see Iglei Tal), this may even be forbidden if the person does not continue to plow extra land, but rather stops at the amount of land necessary to plant ONE seed. Even though his plowing has not enabled normal planting, the issur has been violated. Does this suggest that according to Rashi, land-improving charisha is forbidden even though typical planting is not facilitated? How can we reconcile this view of Rashi with his statements (Shabbat 73b) that leveling is only forbidden BECAUSE IT ENABLES PLANTING? We will not attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction in Rashi in this context, but we will suffice by noting that this issue of minimal plowing that may not enable classic sowing may reflect the two different ways of defining the prohibition of charisha.


An interesting final consequence may emerge from an assumption of the Minchat Chinukh. In his section discussing the 39 melakhot, he asserts that plowing in an atzitz nakuv (a potted plant with holes) would be forbidden. After all, halakha views such a potted plant as “attached to the ground" (mechubar le-karka), in which sowing and harvesting are forbidden; charisha should therefore be forbidden as well. The Minchat Chinukh does not cite any prior sources, but simply assumes this conclusion. Perhaps our prior question would influence this issue as well. If charisha consists of actions that enable planting, the scope of objects forbidden to plow would be identical to scope of objects halakhically forbidden to plant in. If, however, plowing is forbidden because it improves LAND by rendering it more tillable, perhaps it only applies to actual LAND, and not items that are considered halakhically attached to land.