> Judaism 101 > Jewish Law > Laws of Shabbat (Adv.)

4. Sowing: So What?

April 13, 2015 | by

Helping trees, seeds and flowers grow better.

In our previous lesson, we learned about plowing (Choresh), the first of the labor categories relevant to Shabbat. As we mentioned, Choresh is also the first labor category in the group of melachot known as the 'Order of Bread'. This group includes, in logical order, each of the activities in the agricultural process. So, in this lesson, we turn to planting (or sowing) seeds, which would be the next thing to do once you've plowed a field.

Fundamentals of Zoreya

The classic case of the melacha of sowing (known in Hebrew as 'Zoreya'1) is planting a seed in a place where it is able to grow. If you place the seed in an area where it is unlikely to grow, you have not done this melacha. An example would be planting in sand or a desert area (or on some other type of non-arable land).2 A less obvious example is planting in a place that has good soil but is frequently used by people or animals. Even though the conditions would seem to be good for growing, the constant traffic will prevent the seed from developing.

Zoreya goes beyond just planting, though. It includes anything that will enhance the growth of plant life. This includes agricultural activities such as

  • watering (e.g., a lawn)
  • pruning a plant or tree
  • grafting two plants3 together
  • placing a covering over a tree to protect it from the cold

This appears to be pretty straightforward: if we leave our gardening work for days other than Shabbat, we should be able to avoid this melacha. That's true to some extent. But there are also other applications of Zoreya which we need to learn about.

Outdoor Issues

Many homes have outdoor areas that contain grass and other growing things. So, on Shabbat, we need to be careful about depositing water (or other liquids) onto such areas. This is especially true during the holiday of Sukkot, when our eating and other activities take place outside.

Let's return to our friend Joshua. In the course of his Shabbat meal in the backyard, he and his guests will need to wash their hands (i.e., perform the ritual netilat yadayim) before eating bread. Based on what we've learned, they should not wash their hands over the grass, nor pour any excess water onto the grass or soil.4 This would be Zoreya, since it helps the grass grow better.

Somewhat less obviously, we will also tell Joshua and company to be careful when eating their juicy watermelon for dessert. Those seeds are slippery, and allowing them to fall into the ground would be a rabbinic prohibition of Zoreya.5

If it rained on Friday night, Joshua might find that his lawn chairs have collected water. Before using the chairs, he'll want to pour the water off. Pouring it onto the grass would clearly be Zoreya, based on what we've learned.6

A similar issue comes up on the holiday of Sukkot. Some people keep their Sukkot dry by spreading a tarpaulin over the top when the Sukkah is not in use. If it rains, the tarp will collect water, and when you remove it, the water will obviously run off.

So, how do we act in these situations?

The halacha distinguishes between

  1. a case where water will flow directly onto the grass; and
  2. a case where water will first spill onto a solid surface (for example, a deck) and then flow onto the grass.

In (A), you may not pour the water out, while in (B) you may. (The result is different because there is a lesser degree of directness in case B).7

Also, you may pour the water out if the ground is completely saturated (which it would be immediately after a rain). This is because any additional water won't help the grass grow – since it's already soaked – and, as we said, Zoreya applies only when your action will enhance a plant's growth.8

Indoor Issues

(i) Care of Indoor Plants

Everything we've discussed so far has been about plant forms that are rooted in the soil. But, maybe surprisingly, Zoreya and the other melachot of Shabbat also apply to houseplants. (This is a complex halachic issue; see the footnote for sources).9

Okay, then. We won't water our indoor plants on Shabbat.

Remember, though, that any enhancement to growth is considered Zoreya. So we also cannot bring light into the room (by opening the shades, for example) for the sake of our houseplants.10 After all, this would improve its growth. This does not mean (thankfully!) that we have to sit in the dark on Shabbat. We can open the shades if we want light in the room, or fresh air. We just can't do it for the purpose of having the light benefit the plants.11

But wait. If we open the shades to get light, and we have plants in the room, it is almost certain that the plants will benefit from the light coming in. So how does the halacha allow us to bring in the light at all?

Again, we go back to lesson #2 and the conditions we discussed there. On Shabbat, the purpose of our actions makes all the difference (combined with the factor of the benefit being "indirect"). So here, when we bring additional light into the room for our own purposes, we need not be concerned that the light will also shine onto the plants.

(ii) Flowers

Often, people have cut flowers at home on Shabbat. Assuming that the flowers are already in bloom, they are obviously not growing anymore, so most Zoreya questions don't apply to them. If they aren't yet in bloom, then doing anything that will help them bloom would be Zoreya.12

An issue that comes up is whether we are allowed to place flowers in water on Shabbat or replace them once they've been removed.

The halacha decided that putting flowers in water for the first time is considered a tircha – that is, effort not in the spirit of Shabbat, and which should not be done on Shabbat. (Some also say that it appears too much like actual Zoreya).13 In practice, then, we do not do this on Shabbat. And, for the same reason, we do not refill the water in a vase containing flowers on Shabbat.

What about putting fully opened flowers that were already in water back in the water if they've been removed? This is permitted in case of need, i.e. to save the flowers from withering. Here, there is no tircha factor, and the flowers can't grow any more, so there is no reason to prohibit this action.14

(iii) Growing items in water (hydroponics)

Since the principle behind Zoreya is enhancing the growth of any plant life, it also applies to plants that are not growing in soil. Thus, for example, taking an avocado pit and germinating it in water is considered an act of Zoreya. The same goes for placing bean sprouts, lima beans, or similar items in water or in moistened material. We do these activities to make the plants grow, and so they are covered by this labor category.15

Summary and Review

We've learned that any action that is intended to enhance the growth of a plant (or the like) is considered 'sowing a seed' (Zoreya) on Shabbat.

Zoreya is relevant to things growing outdoors or indoors.

Common Zoreya-related examples include

  • watering a plant
  • pouring water onto the grass
  • dropping seeds on the ground
  • opening curtains to let in sunlight for the benefit of a houseplant
  • putting unopened flowers into water
  • sprouting something in water (even without soil)

Finally, we should mention that moving any part of an attached plant is problematic on Shabbat, due to the prohibition of 'uprooting' (Kotzer) and/or Muktzeh. These categories will be explained in detail later in the course.

  1. Pronounced zo-RAY-ah.
  2. Recall a similar condition regarding the melacha of Choresh. See lesson #3.
  3. When we use the term plants in this lesson, we mean any form of plant life. Sometimes, we will use the word ‘tree’ when it seems more appropriate; there, too, all forms of plant life are meant.
  4. Orach Chaim 336:3, with Mishnah Berurah 26; Halachos of Shabbos, V:C.1 (p. 57).
  5. Orach Chaim 336:4, with Mishnah Berurah 31-2.
  6. Orach Chaim 357:1, with Mishnah Berurah 8; Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato 12:18 (51).
  7. This is based on several of the conditions we discussed in lesson #2. See 39 Melochos, p. 270 and footnotes cited there.
  8. Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 336:3, 29).
  9. Halachos of Shabbos V:F.1 (p. 62).
  10. This reasoning would also apply to any changes in the room’s air or temperature for the benefit of the plants.
  11. We would have a problem opening the shades if the houseplants are actually touching the curtains. This is because, in this situation, the plants will get a direct hit from the sunlight. See 39 Melochos, p. 274.
  12. Orach Chaim 336:11.
  13. 39 Melochos, p. 276.
  14. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato 26:26 (91); 39 Melochos, p. 276.
  15. Orach Chaim 336:11


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