Which sounds must not be produced on Shabbos? Why is their production prohibited? Why is strumming a guitar, drumming a drum, or thumping on a table prohibited? What form of “work” is involved? Can people clap their hands, stamp their feet, or otherwise create noises to scare away animals? Is there any halachic difference if the noise is produced in the city or in the country? Can an adult shake a rattle at a baby to amuse him or lull him to sleep? Is whistling permitted on Shabbos? Simchas Torah is a holiday that involves dancing, clapping, and singing. Why is it permitted? Can one carry a Sefer Torah adorned with a crown with tiny bells attached? Can a door be opened if it causes wind chimes to ring? Of this and more in the coming article.
In this week’s parasha, the newly-freed Jewish nation begins its wandering in the desert. One of its first stops was in Mara where they were taught the halachos of Shabbos. In this week’s article we will focus on one of the lesser-known halachos of Shabbos – producing sounds.
Chazal forbade producing sounds on Shabbos’s through any means besides the human voice, regardless of the manner of production. Therefore, drumming on drums, strumming on a guitar, or blowing through a flute are all forbidden activities on Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch OC 338:1).
This prohibition is a decree imposed out of concern that should the instrument break one might repair it on Shabbos, transgressing a Torah prohibition.
Why would someone do so? Music creates a powerful experience, both for the listener and the player. In this trance-like experience, the singer or listener may forget the day, and then if the instrument breaks he might fix it – retie a torn guitar string or reconnect pieces of a recorder, for example. Chazal, therefore, issued a blanket prohibition against using musical instruments, even where fixing or breaking is of no concern. The prohibition includes drumming on a table or clapping one’s hands even without a musical instrument — any sound intended to accompany music or song is prohibited. Everyone is included in the prohibition — even people who don’t know how to fix instruments and would send them to be fixed by a professional.
This prohibition has one exception: Hand-clapping with a shinuy — a purposeful change in the manner of clapping — is permitted on Shabbos. The shinuy ensures Shabbos won’t be forgotten, permitting only this form of sound production. Producing sound via another means is always prohibited, even if it is not a musical instrument.
Clapping to Rhythm
The Shulchan Aruch prohibits (OC 339:3) all sound production, even with one’s body such as hand clapping, finger snapping, or slapping one’s thigh with a rhythm.
Producing sound as a display of distress or mourning is also forbidden, just as it is forbidden in expression of joy. Historically, mourning practices included wailing accompanied by drumming, to which listeners joined with clapping and finger snapping. [See Yirmiyahu 9:16: “Call for the (hired) women mourners that they may come; and send for the skillful women, and let them come.”] All music, whether soulful, sad, or joyous can bring its listeners to an ecstasy. Then, they might forget it’s Shabbos and use musical instruments, and fix them if they break.
The Mishna Brura (339:9) notes a dispute regarding sound production that serves as an unpleasant tool to awaken people, hurry up a crowd, quiet them down, or to serve as a reminder (of Ya’ale V’yavo for example). He rules that if the sound is not pleasant, producing it is not prohibited. Hence using a hammer to bang on the bima to remind a congregation of an addition to the Shemone Esrei is permitted.
Clapping with a shinuy (such as clapping with the back of the hand) is permitted as explained above. Therefore, when lulling a child to sleep, accompanying Shabbos zemiros, or applauding for a speech or antic clapping should be done on the back of the hand (Mishna Brura 338:1).
Clapping to Scare Away Animals
Making a noise to chase away animals is also forbidden. Clapping, stamping, or finger snapping to chase away a bird or cat is forbidden due to a different concern: should the animal not go away, one may accidently lift a small stone to throw at it in the public domain, transgressing the prohibition of carrying in the public domain on Shabbos.
The solution in this case is again the shinuy — clapping abnormally, such as with the back of the hand. The change will remind the clapper it is Shabbos. Here, though, the Mishna Brura adds (338:17) that since most halachic authorities agree that a Torah-prohibited public domain is quite rare today, one can be lenient. However, in metropolitan cities such as New York City, in which the public domain is a Torah prohibited one (according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s ruling), one must be stringent not to produce sounds (other than vocal ones) to scare away animals.
Additional Forbidden Sounds
Included in the prohibition to produce sound is knocking two walnuts together, shaking a rattle to calm a baby, or tapping a water glass to produce a high pitch tinkle (Shulchan Aruch OC 339:3). In these cases, the Mishna Brura prohibits doing so even with a shinuy. Only clapping with a shinuy is permitted.
Dancing on Shabbos
Dancing on Shabbos is prohibited for the same reason as clapping or otherwise producing music (Shulchan Aruch 339:3). This is one of the reasons Kiddush Levana is not recited on Shabbos. Dancing, like music, can easily bring one to an ecstasy in which he could forget it is Shabbos and use a musical instrument to accompany himself. However, Rabbi Shomo Zalman Auerbach (Shulchan Shlomo 524:3) writes that the shuffle-dance people do at celebrations on Shabbos is not considered dancing, but rather more of a walk.
On Simchas Torah, Chazal permit singing, dancing, and clapping, but don’t permit any musical accompaniment, even in honor of the Torah.
Since dancing and clapping on Simchas Torah is in honor of the Torah not just for the day, even residents of countries outside of Eretz Yisroel who celebrate Simchas Torah on a different day than their Israeli counterparts are permitted, when they are in Eretz Yisroel, to dance on the Israeli Simchas Torah (which is for them Shemini Atzeres) (Yom Tov Sheini Kehilchoaso, chapter 2:16).
An additional example of forbidden sound production appears in the Mishna Brura (338:1). Apparently, in the days before records, tapes, CDs, and MP3 players people used a water filled apparatus to create pleasant sounds. The contraption would let out the water one drop at a time and produce a calming sound. Using this on Shabbos is forbidden, but if it is used to assist an ill person in falling asleep it is permitted because rabbinically-prohibited actions are permitted when done for the ill.
When the rate of water dripping was hastened, the apparatus caused an unpleasant sound, which would rouse one who was sleeping and its use is permitted.
The Rama (OC 338:1) permits whistling, even to accompany a song or produce vocal imitations of musical instruments since using the mouth to produce sounds is permitted.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC V 22:7) opines that little children should not be given rattles to play with on Shabbos. Rattles must also not be moved because a sound is produced immediately upon moving. Squeaky toys, though, that require force to produce sound are considered muktze as a klei shemelachto le’issur- because they are tools for performing a prohibited action. This form of muktze can be moved if the space they are sitting on is necessary for something else.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo 60:1), though, opines that rattles (mechanical, non-electric) are not be forbidden for children because they don’t produce a musical sound. Since a rattle is clearly a child’s toy, not a weekday activity, children are permitted to play with them.
The Rama (OC 339:3) writes that some are lenient and permit clapping and dancing on Shabbos during a party to celebrate a mitzva such as a wedding. He writes that since those who do so won’t adhere to the prohibition anyway, it is better not to admonish them so they will be unintentional sinners rather than intentional ones. He adds an additional leniency to permit it: in his times it was uncommon for a musician to fix a broken musical instrument. Therefore, there was sufficient reason to permit dancing and clapping. The Mishna Brura (ibid) rules that although relying on the leniency is inappropriate, admonishing those who do is unnecessary. The Igros Moshe discusses dancing on Shabbos, ending that the G-d fearing should refrain from dancing on Shabbos, despite the above-noted Rama’s leniency.
Today, many Poskim maintain that whereas many musical instruments are electronic and fixing them – or plugging them in — is part of their normal use, this leniency is apparently not applicable anymore, and one should be stringent and refrain from dancing and clapping on Shabbos.