Plunging Clogged Sinks or Stuffed Toilets on Shabbos
Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah
Shulchan Aruch rules that a home that may become water-damaged because of a clogged rooftop drain77 may be unclogged on Shabbos, but only discreetly and only via a shinui, such as by stamping one’s feet on the debris to loosen the blockage and allow the water to drain away from the home. Cleaning out a clogged drain in the normal manner is strictly forbidden78, since a clogged drain is considered broken and unclogging it is considered fixing it, a violation of Makkeh b’patish (Tikkun mana). Contemporary poskim debate whether plunging a modern-day clogged kitchen [or bathroom] sink or toilet is like cleaning a clogged rooftop drain and is strictly forbidden, or if there are fundamental differences between the two and may perhaps be permitted, at least under certain circumstances. There are several opinions:
- Some poskim see little halachic difference between the two. They consider a stuffed sink or toilet to be in a “state of disrepair” which is being “repaired” by the plunging, and that is forbidden. Thus, they permit unclogging a stuffed sink or toilet only discreetly and via a shinui [without a plunger] and only if otherwise the sink or toilet will overflow and cause damage to the home79.
- Other poskim maintain that a stuffed sink or toilet are completely different than a clogged drain. In their opinion, unclogging a stuffed sink or toilet is equivalent to cleaning a constricted spout of a bottle (e.g., a ketchup bottle), which is permitted under all circumstances80. When necessary, therefore, it is permitted to plunge a blocked sink or toilet, even without a shinui81.
- A third, middle-of-the-road opinion, suggests that not all stuffed sinks and toilets are the same. If the sink or toilet is totally blocked to the degree that nothing at all will go down the drain, then the sink or toilet is considered “completely broken” and unclogging it is considered as if one is “fashioning an opening,” which is forbidden under tikkun mana. Using any method to unclog such a sink or toilet is strictly forbidden82. But if the sink or toilet is only partially blocked, which means that some water will slowly drain from it, then we consider it to be only “partially broken,” and it is permitted to unclog it with a shinui, but without using a plunger. In the atypical case, where the sink or toilet is frequently and constantly becoming stuffed and unstuffed, then we do not view it as broken at all; it is, rather, its normal operation and use, and unclogging it is like washing a dirty dish before using it. In this case, it is permitted to unclog the sink or toilet even with a plunger83.
Question: Practically speaking, what may be done if a sink or toilet became clogged or stuffed on Shabbos?
Discussion: If there are other sinks or toilets available in the house and this facility is not needed for Shabbos, nothing should be done. If the sink or toilet is necessary for Shabbos use and it is only partially obstructed, or even if it totally blocked but it can be easily unclogged with a plunger using minimum force, then it may be plunged. If, however, the sink or toilet is totally clogged to the degree that it would require a concentrated effort to unclog, it may not be unclogged, unless it is a human dignity (kavod haberiyos84) situation, in which case one may use a plunger to unclog the toilet, with a shinui85. Pouring Drano down the sink, which loosens the blockage, may also be done along the same guidelines mentioned above86. A snake (a tool used by professionals to unclog toilets which are completely obstructed), may not be used on Shabbos87.
77. A rooftop drain was generally built into the rooftop itself, collecting rainwater and then draining it to the ground below. If the drain became clogged with leaves, grass or dirt, the water was no longer able to be drained. Having nowhere to go, the water remained on the roof and eventually leaked inside, causing damage to the interior of the home.
78. Some hold that it is forbidden min ha-Torah (Tehillah L’Dovid 307:5) while others maintain that it is forbidden miderabanan (Pri Megadim M.Z. 336:9). See Minchas Yitzchak 6:29 for an overview of this issue.
79. Rav Y.S. Elyashiv, quoted in Orchos Shabbos 8, note 38 and in Ashrei ha-Ish 18:9; Chut Shani 36:1. See also Yabia Omer 5:33.
80. An important distinction between a clogged drain and a stuffed toilet is in the way they become clogged. A drain generally becomes clogged over a prolonged period, as debris slowly piles on, attaches itself to the drain, and eventually “breaks down” the drain itself, unable to drain the water. A toilet (and sometimes a sink as well), by contrast, is merely a temporary stoppage caused by a one-time external obstruction; the toilet is not broken, it is merely temporarily stuffed, and easily unstuffed. See Binyan Shabbos, Boneh, pg. 303.
81. Rav S.Z. Auerbach, quoted in Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 12, note 52. See Minchas Shelomo 2:13-3. A similar ruling is given by Chelkas Yaakov 3:138 and Minchas Yitzchak 5:75.
82. Under extenuating circumstances, a non-Jew may be asked to unclog the sink.
83. Igros Moshe, O.C. 4:40-9. See similar ruling in Minchas Yitzchak 6:29.
84. Ashrei ha-Ish 18:10. See CHD to Chapter 212 for general details about kavod haberiyos.
85. If a non-Jew is available, he should be asked to plunge the toilet.
86. Orchos Shabbos 8, note 38.
87. Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 12:18.