Trampling on ants while walking on Shabbos

  1. Question: [Thursday, 10th Shevat 5781]

Dear Rabbi, this past Shabbos our city got attacked by a swarm of flying ants and they are literally all over the place. I stared at the ground when walking home from shul and saw hundreds of dead ants which were stepped on by people. My question is as follows: How careful must one be to not step on the ants while walking, and if it is not possible to avoid stepping on them is it forbidden to walk around on such a Shabbos?


Indeed, this is a serious halachic problem, and if in truth it is not possible to walk around without stepping on them then it is forbidden to walk outside on such a Shabbos. The same would apply in any case that there is an army of ants outside, of which it is not possible to bypass them without killing them, that it would be forbidden for one to cross that area with the ants even on the expense of staying home all Shabbos, and not going to shul. Thus, although one is not generally required to look on the ground when he walks outside on Shabbos to make sure he doesn’t step on any bugs, in the above case that one is aware of a proliferation of ants on the ground, he is required to look where he is walking and not step on any of the ants, and if one fears it will not be possible for him to do so then he should not walk outside this Shabbos. In the event that one already walked outside and is now surrounded by these insects and his only choice is either to stay put the entire Shabbos in that spot or walk forward and step on them, then the Poskim rule that one may be lenient to walk to his destination even if he will inevitably kill some of the insects although trying to make sure as much as possible to sidestep them and to walk on one’s tippy toes.

Explanation: Although it is a very clear ruling that is forbidden to kill any creature on Shabbos including ants, the question is raised regarding if this applies even if one kills it incidentally while walking and if therefore one must be careful in this matter. Now, while there is certainly room to argue that there should never be a prohibition involved in simply walking outside even if ants are killed in the process, so long as one does not intentionally step on them, and so rule some Poskim [due to it being considered a Shinuiy which is only rabbinical, and Eino Miskavein, and Eino Nicha Lei, and Derech Halicha], this is not the ruling of the Alter Rebbe, Mishneh Berurah, and that of other Poskim who rule that he must walk in a way that will avoid stepping on any insects, and they would thus rule that it is forbidden to walk outside in an area that one will inevitably step on insects and kill them. Nonetheless, there is still room to argue even according to the opinion of the Alter Rebbe that perhaps a prohibition only applies if by the very next step that one takes it is inevitable that one will step on an insect, in which case one may not take that next step and must go back or take a different route. However, if it is possible by one’s next step that he will sidestep the insect, then he is not required to look where he’s going even if he ends up truly stepping on insects and killing them as the matter was not a Pesik Reishei, as it was possible for him to step to the side of the insect and not kill it. [So indeed seems to understand the Piskeiy Teshuvos] However, there are two halachic pushback’s to this argument, 1) perhaps we take into account all the walking that one will do that day and if it is not possible for one to walk the entire day without stepping on an insect due to the infestation then it is considered a Pesik Reishei even though by each step that one takes, it is possible that one won’t step on the insect. 2) the Alter Rebbe rules that Safek Pesik Reishei is also forbidden and hence by every step that one takes in an area in which he sees that there is infestation, if he indeed ends up stepping on an ant, it is not considered a case of non-Pesik Reshei but rather of Safek Pesik Reishei which is still forbidden. This would be similar to the opinion who rules that one may not cover a vessel in which he sees that there is infestation in until he does a search and rescue mission to get rid of all of those bugs to avoid a trapping prohibition. Now, why do we not say according to all opinions that as soon as you got rid of all the visible bugs is no longer inevitable that you will end up trapping as perhaps there are no more bugs inside, and therefore it should be permitted? The answer is due to the fact that we rule that even a questionable Pesik Reishei is forbidden to be done. This is likewise the implied ruling of the Alter Rebbe who writes, “Species of crawling creatures which do not cause injury such as ants and the like, is forbidden to trample them even if one does not intend to kill them [in doing so] but it is inevitable. [Thus] one must beware of [stepping on] them in areas where they are commonly found.”  This last statement implies that in areas that ants are commonly found one must intentionally beware to sidestep them even though it is possible that one will anyways end up sidestepping them while walking, and is thus not an actual Pesik Reishei. Thus, in conclusion, according to the Alter Rebbe, whenever one sees infestation on the ground he must be careful by each step that he takes that he does not end of stepping on an insect and he cannot simply avoid looking at the ground and claim that ignorance is bliss and that perhaps he walked in between the bugs. While I am aware that there are opinions who are lenient as already stated above, this would not be the ruling of the Alter Rebbe which all those who have accepted his ruling should follow. Nonetheless, in the event that one is already outside and is now surrounded by these ants we would be lenient to allow him to walk forward in the way explained above [side step, tippy toe etc] and not require him to stay put the entire Shabbos due to a great need of Kavod Shabbos and Kavod Haberiyos! Now, although there are other cases in which we forgive the person from moving from his area due to transgressing a Shabbos prohibition [i.e. walked past Techum], nonetheless, since this is a case of Eino Miskavein and Eino Nicha Lei of a rabbinical prohibition, therefore one may be lenient for Kavod Haberiyos.

Sources: See regarding the prohibition to step on ants while walking if will be inevitable: Admur 316:22; M”B 316:48; Elya Zuta 316:18 in name of Issur Viheter 58; Taz 326:2; Maor Hashabbos 4:14 footnote 136 in name of Rav Elyashiv Piskei Teshuvos 316:20; Sefer 39 Melachos by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat, page 892; ;See regarding the subject of Safek Pesik Reishei: Admur 316:4; Kuntrus Achron 277:1; ; Taz 316:4; M”B 316:16; Biur Halacha 316:3 “Vilachen.” See regarding a cumulative Pesik Reishei: Admur 336:8; SSH”k 26 footnote 67 and 69; Piskei Teshuvos 336:7; See regarding the subject of Lo Nicha Lei: Admur 316:3 regarding bees; 316:4 and 320:24; 1st opinion in Michaber 320:18; Aruch Erech Sever, brought in Tosafus 103a; P”M 321 M”Z 7 and 511 M”Z 8; Chemed Moshe; Nehar Shalom; Shaar Hatziyon 658:6; Terumos Hadeshen, brought in M”A 314:5; Shaar Hatziyon 316:21; See Beis Yosef brought in Taz 316:3; see regarding that stepping casually is considered a Shinuiy: Admur 316:13; M”B 316:48

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