You may remember me as the borer (sorting) fundamentalist. In that discussion, we saw that behind a debate about ritual practice stood a values-driven conversation about the nature of Shabbat. On today’s daf, we see a similar dynamic at play in a discussion cleaning one’s house:
Ameimar permitted sprinkling the floors in Mehoza. He said: What is the reason that the rabbis said that it is forbidden? It is lest one come to level out depressions in the earthen floor. But here there are no depressions.
Ameimar claims that the rabbis were concerned one might level out a dirt floor by sprinkling water on it, a problem categorized under the prohibition of digging furrows on Shabbat. But, Ameimar goes on to say, because floors in Mehoza are not made of dirt, but of stone, leveling them with water is impossible and sprinkling on Shabbat is therefore permitted.
The permission granted by Ameimar plays an important role in later conversations about cleaning one’s house on Shabbat. The same source that forbids sprinkling water also forbids sweeping, and commentators connect these two actions through Ameimar’s reasoning: both are liable to level depressions. But if we don’t worry about leveling depressions anymore, sweeping must also be permitted. In fact, some later halachic authorities (the Ran, for instance) do in fact permit sweeping for this reason. Others (Tosafot) still limit the permission to sprinkling; sweeping, a more serious form of cleaning, is for them a step too far for Shabbat.
A middle ground gives us even more insight into the debate: Rashba allows sweeping only if one had swept before Shabbat. Why? A thorough sweep on Shabbat means that one is using sacred time to complete chores that should have been part of one’s preparations for a day of rest. On the other hand, even a previously well-cleaned house can quickly succumb to mess, and delicious Shabbat meals can cause crumbs. Minimal maintenance tidying on Shabbat is therefore permitted.
The underlying discussion here is, at least in part, about how to make Shabbat truly a day of rest, free of laborious chores. Another related aspect is how much one should avoid attempting to change the world on Shabbat. If one wishes to leave the world relatively untouched, a small bubble of time free from human attempts to exert control, then one should refrain from cleaning and organizing.
Once again, the minute and seemingly picayune details of Shabbat prohibitions point to much larger philosophical conversations about rest, replenishment, and control. The rabbis’ incredible insight is that our small actions can actually deeply impact our outlook and experience of the world.