Performing a Melachah Indirectly on Shabbos (Grama)

Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

by Rabbi Meir Maryles

The Principles

Causing a melachah to occur indirectly — referred to as grama — is Biblically permitted.14 Thus, Shulchan Aruch (334:22) rules that one may cause a fire to be extinguished indirectly, for example, by placing jugs of water in the path of the fire such that when the fire reaches the jugs, they will burst, and the water will spill onto the fire and extinguish it.

However, although causing a melachah indirectly is Biblically permitted, the Poskim debate whether it is rabbinically prohibited. Did Chazal permit placing jugs in the path of a fire only because of the great financial loss involved, or in all instances? Rema (ibid.) rules that this allowance was provided only for a case of great financial loss.15

Determining Whether a Specific Act is Direct or Indirect

Determining whether an act is considered direct or indirect is complex. For instance, zoreh (winnowing) is one of the thirty-nine avos melachos. Winnowing involves throwing grains upward into the wind so that the wind will remove the chaff. This is presumably an indirect act — the person merely throws the grain up in the air, and the removal of the chaff then occurs by itself. Nonetheless, it is a bona fide av melachah. How is winnowing different in this sense from placing water jugs in a fire’s path to extinguish the flames? Why is winnowing an av melachah, while placing these jugs is merely considered grama? The Acharonim suggest various solutions to this problem. Achiezer (volume III:60) explains that an act can only be considered indirect if it is not the standard way of performing the melachah. Therefore, placing vessels filled with water is permitted, whereas winnowing is forbidden because it is classically done via the wind.16

(Chazon Ish [36:1] explains that it is for this reason that one is liable for cooking on Shabbos. The classic act of cooking is ostensibly an indirect one, since the person’s action does not actually cook the food; he merely places the food on the fire, exposing it to the heat which cooks. Nevertheless, since the standard way of cooking is through this causative act, it is considered a direct act of cooking.)

Some of the rules involved in determining whether an act is considered grama are as follows:17

  1. The Poskim discuss removing an obstruction that is preventing a melachah from taking place (הסרת בדקא דמיא). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 77b) rules that if a person opens a dam and the immediate rush of water (כח ראשון) kills someone, the one who opened it is held liable for a direct act of murder. With regard to Shabbos as well, therefore, if removing an obstruction immediately causes the occurrence of a melachah, the act is considered direct; the leniency of grama does not apply.18 To illustrate, although placing a jug of water in the path of a fire is considered indirect, were one to break the jug and cause the released water to extinguish the fire, one would be considered to have performed a direct act of extinguishing and be held liable.
  2. Some Poskim rule that one is liable for placing a leech on someone’s skin on Shabbos, even though it is the leech that draws blood. This, they explain, is similar to the melachah of zoreh (winnowing), mentioned above, where one is liable for throwing grain up into the wind so that the wind will separate it from the chaff.19 Orchestrating a situation which will immediately instigate a melachah is considered a direct act. For the same reason, placing kernels into an active mill is considered a direct act of grinding.20
  3. Some Acharonim prove that a person is liable for throwing one object at a second object and thereby triggering the second to perform a melachah [כח כחו [.21 For example, removing a date from a cluster of dates — even a cluster that is already detached from the tree — violates the melachah of mefareik. Thus, if throwing a rock at a cluster of dates causes the cluster to fall from the table and, subsequently, dates to separate from the cluster, one is liable. Since the full sequence leading up to the melachah is propelled by one’s force, the sequence’s ultimate consequence is regarded as one’s direct action. This is unlike placing jugs of water in a fire’s path, as the act merely facilitates a scenario in which a melachah may later occur on its own.22

Because the laws of direct and indirect causes are quite complicated, a knowledgeable Rav must be consulted before assuming that any act is permitted on account of grama.

14. See Shabbos 120a.

15. Cf. Sha’ar Hatziyun (514:31), citing Taz (514:7), who argues that most Poskim disagree with Rema and rule that grama is unequivocally permitted, at least on Yom Tov, and possibly even on Shabbos. The Poskim will factor in this approach, depending on the circumstances of each individual case, e.g., depending on the level of the need, whether there are other lenient factors involved, etc.

16. See Shevus Yitzchok (VI, Grama, p. 117 – 120) for other explanations.

17. Note: this is an incomprehensive list. Its purpose is not to provide guidelines for determining whether an act is grama but, rather, to familiarize the reader with some of the concepts involved.

18. See Nesivos Shalom p. 185-186. See, further, Chazon Ish (Bava Kama 14:12), who suggests that with respect to Shabbos, it is possible that one is liable even if the melachah was not caused by the initial rush of water, but from the subsequent flow (כח שני).

19. See Mishnah Berurah 328:147, and see Even Ha’ozer, end of 328.

20. See Beiur Halachah 252:5, ד»ה להשמעת.

21. See Nesivos Shalom 55:8; cf. Ohr Same’ach, Shabbos 9:2.

22. One is liable not only for the immediate effect of one’s initial throw, but also for its ripple effect. This is unlike the case of a person who opens a dam, where he will be liable only for the effects of the initial rush of water and not for the effects of the subsequent flow. Here, he did not actually propel the water, but simply removed the obstacle, which then allowed the water to flow of its own force. In such a case, he will be held responsible only for the effect of the immediate release of the water. In our case, however, it is the direct force of his act that propelled the second object. When the second object is directly propelled by his force, he is held liable for its effects as well.