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Thought for the Day: אוושא מילתא Debases Yours Shabbos

My granddaughter came home with a list the girls and phone numbers in her first grade class.  It was cute because they had made it an arts and crafts project by pasting the list to piece of construction paper cut out to look like an old desk phone and a receiver attached by a pipe cleaner.  I realized, though, that the cuteness was entirely lost on her.  She, of course, has never seen a desk phone with a receiver.  When they pretend to talk on the phone, it is on any relatively flat, rectangular object they find.  (In fact, her 18 month old brother turns every relatively flat, rectangular object into a phone and walks around babbling into it.  Not much different than the rest of us, except his train of thought is not interrupted by someone else babbling into his ear.)

I was reminded of that when my chavrusa (who has children my grandchildrens age) and I were learning about אוושא מילתא.  It came up because of a quote from the Shulchan Aruch HaRav that referred to the noise of תקתוק.  Neither of us had seen the word before and puzzled over it for a few moments.  Then, mostly from context, I realized it was referring to the tick-tock of a clock.  I then realized that my realization preceded that of my chavrusa only because I grew up with clocks as things that actually tick tock.  He has only knows that word from nursery rhymes.  Some of my grandchildren have actually heard a clock tick tock because I have a pendulum clock with chimes that runs on a spring that needs to be wound weekly.  Advantage of having a retro-zeidy.

The point of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav was that the tick tock and chiming of a clock is not a problem with אוושא מילתא because clocks are always wound (or weights drawn) on the day before, therefore no one would think about a forbidden Shabbos activity being done on Shabbos.  The Shulchan Shlomo uses this Shulchan Aruch HaRav (among other quotes form earlier sages from Chazal till today, but this quote really encapsulates the sentiments of all) to show:

  1. אוושא מילתא doesn't have to be very loud; if it can be heard outside the room then it is a candidate for אוושא מילתא.
  2. אוושא מילתא doesn't depend on when the action was performed, but on when the action is generally performed.  That is, if the action is always performed on the preceding day, no problem.  If the action is sometimes performed on the same day and sometimes on the preceding day, then big problem.
  3. That (ie, point #2) is true even though everyone knows you aren't allowed to perform the action on Shabbos and even though everyone knows that you certainly did perform the action before Shabbos; it is still forbidden by אוושא מילתא.
We don't make up new decrees.  The decree of אוושא מילתא is, however, not limited to pouring grain into a water mill before Shabbos.  We know that from looking at the long and unbroken trail of responsa written by our sages from Mt Sinai till today.  Taking everything together, the bottom line is this: אוושא מילתא is about making a noise on Shabbos with an action that is forbidden on Shabbos but actually performed before Shabbos.  Turning on a radio before Shabbos is, therefore, also included in אוושא מילתא.  Setting a timer that will flash lights or loft tennis balls across the parking lot are not included.

What is the reason for the decree?  That is a question fraught with danger.  The Shulchan Shlomo, though, does offer logical basis: it debases Shabbos.  My chavrusa and I spent several days going over this Shulchan Shlomo and discussing best how to express it in English.  We finally come up with the best technical term: yuch.  (Sometimes spelled "eyuch", sometimes "yich".)  When you are out for an anniversary dinner with your wife, you don't take her to a sports bar where you can track your teams progress out of the corner of your eye (even if it is the seventh game of the World Series involving the losingest team in the history of any sport).  When you are davening, you turn off your phone ringer, you certainly don't answer calls, and you don't check your email.  And when Shabbos is coming, you don't set up something that will loudly proclaim you have more important things to be doing, but you carefully navigated the loopholes to get it done in spite of it being Shabbos.

Yuch.

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