Zoreia (Part 1) The First Melakha

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon


By Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon



Shiur #27:

Zoreia, Part I



I) The First Melakha


Is one allowed to throw seeds or pits into the yard?  May one put flowers in water?  Is it permitted to wash one’s hand over plants or dirt?  Is one allowed to raise or move a flowerpot?  May one open a window or blinds next to flowerpots? 


What Does Zoreia Encompass?


The first in the list of the thirty-nine melakhot is zoreia.[1]  The Gemara (73b) determines that this melakha includes not only the action of sowing (zeria — not to be confused with zeriya, winnowing) per se, i.e., putting in the ground so that they will sprout, but also other similar actions: planting (a sapling in the ground), pruning (cutting off pieces of a plant[2] so that it will grow better), grafting (attaching a piece of one plant to another plant so that they will grow together), and sinking (bending a branch or vine so that it enters the ground and a new shoot grows from it):[3]


We have learnt in a beraita: “Sowing, pruning, planting, sinking and grafting — they are all one and the same melakha.”


Logically, it is understandable why sowing, planting, sinking and grafting are all one melakha, because all of them cause a new growth to sprout.  However, pruning seems out of place on this list, as one does not bring about any new growth through this action!


Rashi (s.v. Kulan) in fact writes that we must differentiate between the primary melakha (av, plural: avot) and its subcategories (tolada, plural: toladot).  Sowing, planting, sinking and grafting are have the status of avot (akin to cooking and baking), while pruning is a tolada.  According to him, pruning is a tolada of zoreia, because it also improves the growth of the tree.  Any act which brings about growth is thus included in the category of the melakha of zoreia, even if it does not involve the creation of a new plant.[4]  


There are additional acts which improve the plant and are considered to be toladot of zoreia — such as watering (Rambam 8:2).[5]  Furthermore, acts which prevent damage to the plant, such as weeding,[6] are forbidden because of zoreia, as are other acts which help to improve the produce.[7]


The Acharonim raise some fundamental questions regarding the principles of the unique melakha of zoreia.  The discussion is based on the fact that the person who plants does not create the plant; he simply puts a seed in the ground.  The subsequent growth of the plant will take place without his involvement, and will take place mostly after Shabbat.  Nevertheless, the person who puts the seed in is liable.  This matter prompts the Acharonim to investigate: what is the law of a person who sows on Shabbat, but removes the seed from the ground after Shabbat?  What renders one liable: putting the seed in the ground or its taking root?[8]  We will not elaborate on these questions, but we will relate to the conceptual significance of the matters.


The Conceptual Significance of the Melakha of Zoreia


The Gemara in Ta’anit (4a) quotes the following statement from Rava: “A Talmudic scholar is like a seed beneath the ground; once it sprouts, it sprouts.”  In other words, a seed in the ground, once it has begun to sprout, continually rises higher and higher.  This is analogous to Torah study: once one begins to grasp the concepts, continuous growth is only natural.  The seed in the ground is thus characterized by a minor act on the part of humans, from which God naturally develops a much greater creation.


Zoreia, despite its seeming insignificance, is considered one of the thirty-nine melakhot.  This teaches us that sowing is creation!  The things which seem to be small, undeveloped, superficially simple and perhaps not so impressive are in fact the very focus of creation.  Through this, it becomes clear that we human beings are able to reach far beyond that which is readily apparent in the natural form.  The action of zoreia is relatively small compared to the result of the growth which comes from it.


One who knows how to start from the basics, who knows how to sow the fundamentals of the Torah, the fundamentals of ethics, the fundamentals of kindness and the fundamentals of love will in the end see growth, will in the end harvest good and significant produce.  Our role is not to worry; instead, we must believe in zeria — believe in the powers that God gives us to sow and to create even things which seem at first glance to be far beyond our natural powers. 


II) Putting Seeds on the Ground or in Water




It is clear that zeria on Shabbat is forbidden.  However, what is the halakhic status of throwing seeds or pits into the yard, without any intention of zeria?  Is this allowed?


The Yere’im (Ch. 274, 131b) writes:


This bit of wisdom I have received from the elders: one must be careful not to cast seeds into the courtyard in a place where it may rain, because they will eventually sprout.


According to this, even if a person does not intend to perform zeria, there is a prohibition in this, “because they will eventually sprout.”  If the ground is wet, there is concern for the violation of a Torah prohibition.  If the ground is dry, but it will be watered or rain may fall on it, it is still forbidden at least rabbinically (see Shevitat ha-Shabbat, Zoreia, 5, and in Be’er Rechovot, 3).  The Shulchan Arukh (336:4) rules in accordance with this view: 


One must be careful to avoid throwing seeds in a place where it may rain, because they will eventually sprout…  But if it is in a place where people [walk and are likely to] trample [them], this is permitted, because they will presumably not sprout.


The Shulchan Arukh adds that if it is likely that the seeds will not take root, one may throw them (because then it is not a pesik reisha, an inevitable result, but merely an unintentional act which may have the result of a melakha, which is permitted).  Therefore, if the ground is hard and it is at a time in which no precipitation is expected (such as the summer in Israel), there is no prohibition in throwing away seeds on the ground. 


In conclusion, it is forbidden to throw pits or seeds into the backyard or garden, unless the ground is so hard and rainfall so unlikely that it is logical to assume that they will never sprout. 




It is common for people to soak seeds in water in order to make them sprout.  Generally, the aim is to eat them as sprouts (these are occasionally planted).  Is it permissible to do this on Shabbat?


The Rambam (8:2) writes: “One who soaks wheat or barley and the like, this is a subcategory of zoreia, and one is liable for any amount.”  It is clear from his formulation that there is a Torah prohibition to soak seeds in water.[9]  The Shulchan Arukh (336:11) rules accordingly.  What is the reason for liability in this case?


Preparation for Zeria


In the Radbaz’s Responsa (Ch. 1611), he deals with the following question:


You asked about what the master wrote in Chapter 8 of Hilkhot Shabbat: “Similarly, one who soaks wheat or barley and the like, this is a subcategory of zoreia, and one is liable for any amount.”  And you asked: “What is his source for this law and what is its reasoning?  Even if they will stand there for many days, they will not sprout, because there is no dirt!”


Answer: What case is he addressing? One who soaks them for a long time so that they will be susceptible to zeria and will sprout quickly, making this a subcategory of zoreia.


According to this approach, the basis of the prohibition is that the soaking of seeds in water prepares them for zeria.  According to this, the melakha of zoreia applies not only to actions applied to the ground, but also when one prepares the seeds for future zeria in the ground.  It should be noted, however, that according to this explanation of the Radbaz, this prohibition would presumably apply only when the person indeed intends to perform zeria.  When one has no such intent, one may not regard the activity as a preparation for zeria, and the melakha of zoreia is not applicable in such a case.


Prohibition of the Actual Sprouting


Another view is brought by the Mishna Berura (336:51) in the name of the Chayei Adam (11:2):


The same applies to one who soaks grain to make malt for beer: one is liable, because it is known that his intent is to make it sprout.


According to the Chayei Adam, there is a Torah prohibition to cause seeds to sprout in water even where there is no intention to sow and one’s sole intent is to eat them.  The very sprouting of the seeds is considered a process of growth, and thus putting the seeds in water in order to make them sprout is considered an act of zeria which causes growth.  According to this, it is prohibited to put an avocado pit in water in order to make it sprout, even though there is no intention to sow it afterwards in the ground. 


Indeed, the Mishna Berura (ibid.) adds in the name of the Chayei Adam (ibid.) that putting the seeds in water for a short time, when one does not intend to make them sprout, but only to soften them, is permitted:


One may soak grain for his animal, because his intent is not to make it sprout but to soften the seeds; in addition, it will not lead to growth, because before they will grow, the animals will eat them. 


Therefore, it is permitted to put pits and seeds in water for a short time in order to soften them for the sake of eating.   




In conclusion, according to the ruling of the Mishna Berura, the melakha of zoreia is applicable to causing seeds to sprout, not merely to an act of zeria which leads an actual plant.  Therefore, it is forbidden to soak seeds or legumes in water in order to make them sprout, even if one intends to eat them and not to sow them afterwards.  If one’s aim is only to soften them, this is permissible, on the condition that one puts them in water only for a short time. 


III) Putting Flowers in Water


The Mishna in Sukka (42a) states:


A woman may receive [the lulav] from the hand of her son or the hand of her husband, and she may return it to water on Shabbat.  Rabbi Yehuda says: “On Shabbat, one may return [it to water from which it was removed]; on Yom Tov, one may add…”


The mishna makes clear that one is permitted to return a lulav to water on Shabbat.  In other words, there is no prohibition of zoreia for putting detached branches in water.  On the other hand, one may not add new water on Shabbat (but only on Yom Tov).  Why do we not add water?  Rashi explains (ad loc.) that there is an issue of tircha, exertion: “one toils to improve something.”[10]


May one put flowers that have never been in water into a water-filled vase on Shabbat?  Presumably, this case cannot be defined as “returning,” since the flowers have never been in water, but it also cannot be defined as “adding”, since one does not add water, but rather only utilizes a vase which already has water in it.  The Mishna Berura (336:54) brings a dispute of the Acharonim in the matter:


According to the Tosefet ha-Shabbat and the Chayei Adam, the allowance only extends to returning flowers to the water they had been in, but for any plant which was not in water, putting it in water is defined as “adding” and is forbidden.


On the other hand, according to the Peri Megadim and the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav, the prohibition is limited to filling an empty vessel with water or adding water to a vessel which has water in it, since there is tircha in the matter.  However, as long as one does not add water, there is no prohibition to put flowers in a water-filled vessel, even if they were not in the vessel earlier, and even if before this they were not in water at all.


In practice, the Mishna Berura rules (Shaar ha-Tziyun, ibid., 48) that in a case in which one forgets to put the flowers in water before Shabbat, there is adequate basis to rely on the lenient view and to put the flowers on Shabbat into a vase which has water in it, since the issue is one of doubt regarding a rabbinic prohibition.


Blooming Flowers


The Maharil (Hilkhot Shabbat, 19) puts forth an innovative view that the allowance of the mishna is meant to be only for branches or sticks of spices that do not have flowers which are going to open in the future.  However, if there are flowers which are going to open in the future, one may not put them in water or even put them back in water.  The Rema rules accordingly (336:11):


One may place tree branches in water on Shabbat, as long as there will not be flowers and roses which open up from the moisture of the water. 


What is the reason for prohibiting this? We have seen above that, in the view of the Rambam, one who causes seeds to sprout in water is liable because of zoreia.  The Maharil and the Rema apparently believe that if the water will cause the flowers to open, the act is similar to causing seeds to sprout, and therefore this is prohibited.[11]  The Mishna Berura (ibid.) stresses that in this case it is forbidden even to put the flowers back into the same water in which they had previously been placed.


In conclusion, branches which do not have buds or blossoms that are going to open may be returned to the same water in which they had previously been placed.  In a case of great need, it is permissible to put them in a water-filled vessel even if they were not in water previously; however, one should not add water to the vessel or put water in an empty vessel because of tircha.  On the other hand, flowers which have yet to open cannot be put in water, and it is forbidden even to put them back in the vase in which they sat previously, due to a concern of violating the melakha of zoreia.

[1] This is the order of the Mishna (73a); the Rambam (8:1-2) reverses it and puts choresh (plowing) before zoreia.  This is not the place to elaborate.

[2] Translator’s note: We use “plant” here for any living item from that kingdom, be it wheat, roses or sycamores, etc.

[3] For more on the nature of these activities, see my book, Shemitta: From the Sources to Practical Halakha, pp. 201-203, 533-535 (English edition).

[4] The Rambam (8:2) argues with Rashi and understands that pruning is part of the primary melakha of zoreia.

[5] Actually, there is a dispute in the Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 2b) as to whether watering is a subcategory of choresh or of zoreia. We will deal with this issue in a later shiur.

[6]     The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan ibid.) cites a three-way dispute as to the status of weeding.  One view (Rabba) is that weeding is a subcategory of choresh, since when one weeds, the dirt crumbles.  A second view (Rav Yosef) is that it is a subcategory of zoreia, since removing the weeds causes the plants to grow better.  A third view (Abbayei) asserts that one is liable on both counts: choresh and zoreia.

[7]     An exploration and explication of the various subcategories of the melakha of zoreia appear in my book, Shemitta — From the Sources to Practical Halakha, pp. 182-216 (English edition).  In this context, we will not expand on this issue, as it has limited practical application regarding the laws of Shabbat.

[8]     See, regarding this topic: the Rashash (73a); Eglei Tal (Zoreia, 8); Minchat Chinukh (298:14); Shevitat Ha-Shabbat (Zoreia, Be’er Rechovot, 9); Halakhot Ketanot (responsa of Rav Yaakov Hagiz, Vol. II, Ch. 36).

[9]     What is the Rambam’s source here? The Maggid Mishneh and the Kesef Mishneh (ibid.) write that the source is the Gemara in Zevachim (94b).  However, the Magen Avraham (336:12) and others challenge this, claiming that the passage there indicates the opposite, that one is liable only for soaking flax in water, since the flaxseeds cling to each other and become an agglomerated mass, so that one is liable for lash (as we discussed in our series on that melakha), while for soaking wheat and barley in water one is not liable.  The Magen Avraham answers that the intent of the Gemara is to say that for flaxseeds one is liable immediately by throwing them into the water because of lash.  However, lisha is not applicable to wheat and barley; they fall under zeria only, so that the liability is only if one soaks them for some time.  It should be noted that the Magen Avraham is left with an unanswered question; for even if the Gemara does not contradict the Rambam’s view, there is still not a proof from there.  The Chida (Machazik Berakha 336:9) writes in the name of the Mahari Corcos that the Rambam has a different explanation for the Gemara there, according to which there is a proof from the Gemara there.  See there for further elaboration. 

In any case, the Peirush Kadmon mi-Mitzrayim (on the Rambam ibid.) notes that Rabbeinu Shemuel Rosh ha-Yeshiva argues with the Rambam on this point.

[10] Indeed, in the Responsa of the Rashba (Vol. IV, Ch. 73), it is explained that only with a lulav is it forbidden to add water, since the lulav is muktzeh, set aside as unfit for Shabbat use; when it comes to things which are not muktzeh, one is allowed even to add water.  The Menuchat Ahava (Vol. II, Ch. 3, 6) rules leniently in accordance with this view.  However, most Acharonim rule stringently in this case, allowing this only with prepared water, and this is the ruling of the Mishna Berura (336:54).

[11]    Note that one could differentiate between these two cases: when it comes to sprouting seeds, there is a new thing which emerges, while here the flower exists and it only opens.  Indeed, the Birkei Yosef (336:7) cites the Maharikash, who allows putting water into flowers which are in the process of opening, since there is not anything truly new being introduced.  In any case, the Rema forbids this, and the Mishna Berura rules accordingly; thus, this is the halakha in practice.