It’s Shabbat and I got mud on my foot. I’d like to remove it without violating Shabbat. What should I do?
Sorry that you got mud on your foot. You may be happy to know that the Gemara discusses your situation. Although it doesn’t provide a definitive answer about what to do, it will leave you with a lot to think about.
Four rabbis weigh in on how to clean mud off your foot on Shabbat:
Abaye (some say Rav Yehuda) said: If one has mud on one’s foot, one may wipe it on the ground on Shabbat, but may not wipe it on a wall.
Abaye is concerned that wiping mud on a wall is a subcategory of building as adding mud is like adding layers of plaster. Rava disagrees. He does not equate wiping mud on a wall with building and proposes an alternative: One may wipe it on a wall, but may not wipe it on the ground, lest one come to level holes in the ground — a prohibited action on Shabbat.
Mar, the son of Ravina said: Both (wiping the mud on a wall and on the ground) are prohibited. Since Mar has prohibited both forms of mud removal, the Gemara asks what Mar would have us do about our dirty feet and responds: one wipes it on a beam. Perhaps, explains Rashi, this means a stick that is on the ground.
The fourth view comes from Rav Pappa who said: Both wiping on a wall and on the ground are permitted. According to Rashi, Rav Pappa does not consider the act of wiping mud off of one’s foot in either of these manners to be impermissible labor and therefore permitted both.
To summarize: if you get mud on your foot on Shabbat you may be permitted to wipe it off on a wall but not on the ground, or perhaps the ground but not on a wall, or both, or maybe neither — in which case you should use a stick. That is, there is a rabbi to support pretty much every possible position. But thankfully, at least they all agree that there is some permissible way to remove the mud!
As is often the case, the Talmud gives us no resolution — no “right answer” — on this issue. It leaves individuals, communities, and future commentators to sort out the “correct” halachah, if one should even exist.
This kind of ambiguity is common in the Talmud. The Talmud is often mischaracterized as a law code, containing all the “rules” for Jewish life. The truth is, the Talmud is less a code than a collection of legal discussions that illustrate and teach legal argumentation. Though it of course takes strong positions on many halachot, it also (as it does in this case) sometimes merely presents a plethora of opinions without ranking them. The Talmud ultimately became the basis for Jewish law codes that attempted to create more thoroughgoing rulebooks, but that came much later.
So, ye of muddy feet, what should you do? Consider the options presented in the Talmud and find one that makes sense to you. If you want to learn more before you decide, ask friends who are invested in Shabbat what they would do, consult a rabbi, or study the commentaries and later codes to follow the conversation as it developed over the generations.
And a word to the wise: if it’s muddy, consider wearing boots — that will keep your feet clean. What’s the preferred method for cleaning mud off of your boots on Shabbat? That’s a conversation for another day.