How to Clean the Floor on Shabbos

 Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

Question: We have established that nowadays it is permitted to sweep the floor indoors. Is there a permissible method of washing an indoor floor on Shabbos?

Note: The normal method of washing a dirty floor—using a mop, rag or sponge—is strictly forbidden on Shabbos because one will transgress the Shabbos Labor of Sechitah, squeezing the mop or the rag. There are, however, some other methods of washing a floor which do not entail “Squeezing.” Pouring a pail of water on the floor and then pushing the water down the drain or out the door with a plastic or nylon squeegee or turning on a hose and spraying the dirty area (in commercial or institutional kitchens), are some of the methods where Sechitah is not a factor.

Discussion: The same halachic concerns that restrict sweeping a dirt floor on Shabbos apply to washing it as well. Filling the cracks and grooves, dislodging some loose dirt, or moving muktzeh are issues that apply to both sweeping and washing a dirt floor. But the similarity ends there. Although we previously mentioned that some rishonim are lenient and permit sweeping stone or wood floors [even in times past when many homes still had dirt floors], those same rishonim were unwilling to extend that leniency to floor washing as well. Apparently, sweeping and removing crumbs and garbage from the floor is considered a greater and more pressing Shabbos necessity than rinsing and washing the floor area105, and the Rabbis felt that there is insufficient need to be lenient in that regard. It follows, therefore, that even nowadays when all our homes are floored, it is still forbidden to wash floors on Shabbos106. This is the accepted custom in normative situations. There are, however, several exceptions to the basic halachah, as follows:

  1. It is only forbidden to “wash the floor” which means to pour water on the floor and then clean it up. But if water accidentally spilled to the floor, it is permitted to clean it up107. See above Note as to avoid the sechitah issue.
  2. It is only forbidden to wash an entire room or a large floor area. If a specific smaller area of a room became dirty, it is permitted to wash the specific area with water and then clean it up108.
  3. Only washing the floor is restricted. Washing counters or toilets, even though they are connected to the floor, is permitted109, if sechitah is avoided.
  4. If there is a great need for the floor to be washed, e.g. the floor is very dirty and it would be a lack of kavod Shabbos if it were to remain so; company is expected and the host would be embarrassed by the appearance of the floor, it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to wash the floor, instructing him to use a rubber squeegee [or any other means where sechitah would be avoided]. If the non-Jew chooses on his own to use a mop and squeeze out the water, we are not concerned with that, since the non-Jew is doing that for his convenience and not per the instruction of a Jew110.
  5. If oil or other slicky material spilled and there is danger of slipping on it, and a non-Jew is not available, it is permitted to wash the floor111, if sechitah is avoided.

In the atypical case that the floor became unusually dirty to the degree that it would be extremely unpleasant if it were to remain that way for the rest of Shabbos, or in a situation where cleanliness is important such as at a hospital, summer camp or a hotel, some contemporary poskim permit washing the floor on Shabbos112, if sechitah is avoided. As this leniency is not agreed upon113 and remains controversial, it should only be relied upon under extenuating circumstances.

105. Perhaps this is because, in general, floors can be washed before Shabbos and remain relatively clean for the rest of Shabbos. Sweeping crumbs etc., however, is necessary after each Shabbos meal, even if the floor was swept spotless before Shabbos.

106. Mishnah Berurah 337:17; Ketzos ha-Shulchan 146, note 59, followed by all contemporary poskim.

107. Rav S.Z. Auerbach, quoted in Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 23, note 30; Chut Shani (vol. 1, Chapter 11).

108. Ohr Letziyon (vol. 2, 43:8); Rav S.Z. Auerbach, quoted in Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 23, note 30. See, however, Chut Shani (vol. 1, Chapter 11) who is somewhat more stringent about this.

109. Rav N. Karelitz, quoted in Orchos Shabbos, 18, note 80.

110. Birkei Yosef 337:2, quoted by Kaf ha-Chayim 337:21; Machazei Eliyahu 1:73.

111. Based on O.C. 308:6; 334:27.

112. Ohr Letziyon (vol. 2, 43:8); Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 23:6; Orchos Shabbos 18, note 76.

113. See Machazei Eliyahu 1:70-73.