Fine Tuning the Sabbath Experience

    June 2008            
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The Shabbat

By Larry Fine

The concept of the Shabbat is not merely a national day of rest, but more important a fundamental element in demonstrating our belief in G-d. Jews are living testimony to G-d's creation of the world and the eternal truth of the Torah. By refraining from work and celebrating His holy day of rest, we give demonstrate to the world that the world did not simply evolve, but came about through active involvement and desire of a Creator who designed every facet of the world.

The observance of the Shabbat is so great that we are promised that if all Jews were to observe properly only one Shabbat, the righteous messiah would come and redeem the exiles from the diaspora and bring them to the land of Israel. The fulfillment of no other commandment can match this statement. Even learning Torah which is equated to all the other commandments can not promise such a reward!

As the observance of eating kosher food and learning Torah has increased through out the world, there has been a noticeable growth in the observance of the Shabbat, not just in Israel, but also world-wide. Now more than ever, it has become popular to make Kiddush on Friday night and to refrain from working on the Shabbat. Shabbat is no longer the total possession of the Orthodox; other Jewish groups have been introducing more and more Shabbat observance in their communities.

There remains one part of Shabbat observance that is clouded in a black cloud of mystery. This is the concept of mukzeh which needs some explanation.

The concepts of work which are forbidden by the Torah are explained in the Talmud. Since these prohibitions are from the Torah, most people are careful not to commit a transgression since it is very serious sin.

The Shabbat was given for man to rest from the week day work activities as well as being a spiritual day to reconnect with our Maker. Whilst people do refrain from doing work on the Shabbat, their minds are sometimes tied to their worldly needs. The early sages saw that many people who have no work and much time on their hands begin to handle tools that are used for week day work – some even come to do work. For this reason, these early sages made a new category of Shabbat prohibition and called it mukzeh; from the Hebrew word "mikatseh m'da'ato" simply meaning "to put something out of one's mind".

By limiting what we are able to handle on the Shabbat, we are effectively limited in what we can do, i.e. we will find it difficult to actually come to do forbidden work and also we will not come to carry in the streets. The word muktzah has come to refer to those items which we are not to handle on the Shabbat. There are several categories of mukzeh which forbids its use on the Shabbat.

The first category is comprised of tools or work items which are used for an activity that is forbidden to do on the Shabbat. A classic example of this is a hammer, which is used for building. However since a hammer can be used to open a coconut on the Shabbat, if there is no other means for opening the coconut, a hammer may be used. The hammer may also be moved if the area in which it is resting is need for a Shabbat activity such as eating on a table. But since it is muktza, handling a hammer for a purpose other than mentioned is forbidden.

The next category contains items which have been set aside not to be used since they are very expensive or delicate. These may not be handled or moved on the Shabbat since the owner had put them out of his thoughts just before the beginning of the Shabbat due to their intrinsic value. An example is a special knife such as the one that a mohel uses to perform the brit milah or that of a shochet (ritual slaughter of animals). Since these knifes are expensive and may loose their sharpness, the owner normally does not handle them on the Shabbat, unless of course he is going to perform a brit.

The third group is mukzeh because it is not a tool or a vessel or something that has been used as a container or instrument of some sort. For example, a rock or a piece of a tree which was never used for any purpose and therefore does not fall into the category of a tool or vessel. Items in this category are not to be handled or moved.

In the fourth group are items which can not be handled or moved with out violating a prohibition. An example is bread on Shabbat during Passover. The bread is forbidden to a Jew, therefore it is mukzeh.

The fifth group is items that are set aside to be used for a mitzvah. An etrog on the Shabbat of Sukkot may not be handled since it was set aside to be used for the mitzvah and this mitzvah may not be preformed on Shabbat.

The seventh group is called nolad, meaning "just now born." This group is composed of things that did not exist before the Shabbat and only came into existence on the Shabbat. An example would be an apple that was attached to a tree on Friday night and fell off on the day of Shabbat. Items of this nature are mukzeh since they were not available as the Shabbat began.

Another form of mukzeh is a base (such as a table) on which mukzeh was placed before the onset of the Shabbat. If the owner of the item had intention that the mukzeh item should be on this base, such as a placing a cell phone on a table for the duration of the Shabbat, then even if the item (the cell phone) is moved, the table being set aside to be a base for the mukzeh can not be moved on that Shabbat. However if the Challah was on the table when the Shabbat began, the importance of the Challah bread negates the mukzeh from prohibiting moving the table.

In most cases enumerated above the mukzeh item may not be moved in the normal manner with the hand. It may, however, be moved in a non typical manner such as using an elbow or a foot. If the mukzeh presents a danger, such as broken glass it may be picked up with even with the hands in order that no one should come to be hurt from it.

The concepts of mukzeh can be challenging. There are so many varied possibilities and categories that studying mukzeh is really obligatory on anyone who wishes to ensure that his Shabbat observance is done properly to organize a study group to study these laws.


from the June 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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