Why does the Torah explain why resting on Shabbos is necessary — isn’t it self-understood? How can we access the peace of knowing all our duties are done? Is muktza simply a halachic mechanism to make work impossible, or a tool for accessing genuine spiritual pleasure? How are the halachos of muktza implemented in real life? While the halachos of muktza appear intricate and detailed, they do have general rules to make learning and applying easier. What are they? At what point in history was muktza decreed?
In this week’s parasha we read: “Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed” (Shemos 23:12). This pasuk is repeated six more times with slight variations: “Six days may you work and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Shabbos to the Lord, your G-d; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities” (Shemos 20: 9-10); “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Shabbos of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever performs work on the Shabbos day shall be put to death” (Shemos 31:15); “Six days you may work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest you shall rest” (Shemos 34:21); “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death” (Shemos 35:2); “For six days work may be performed, but on the seventh day, it is a complete rest day, a holy occasion; you shall not perform any work. It is a Shabbos to the Lord in all your dwelling places” (Vayikra 23:3); “Six days may you work, and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Shabbos to the Lord your G-d; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you” (Devarim 5:13-14).
As we know, every word — even letter — in the Torah has a reason. Nothing is merely a literary device – every letter is meant to teach a lesson. If the rules of Shabbos are repeated so many times and at such length, there must be a reason and lesson to be learned. Rashi (Shemos 20:9) quotes the Mechilta: “On Shabbos one must feel as if all his work is done. One shouldn’t even think about work-related topics.” [While obviously there is no transgression involved in thinking about work, we must attempt to access the sense of peace linked to not having anything more to do in the world, to the extent that there is nothing to think about at all.]
To quote Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin (Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin: The True Story, Israel Bookshops Publication): “During the six days, we work—and we work hard… Then, every Shabbos, he demonstrated where our livelihood actually comes from… It comes from Hashem. Talking or even thinking about the details or aggravations of our workweek on Shabbos, when we’re connecting directly to Him, is getting that backward.”
The Mechilta adds the goal, or reward, for observing Shabbos: “If you restrain your foot because of the Shabbos from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you call the Shabbos a delight, the holy of the Lord honored, and you honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words. Then, you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Yaakov your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Yeshayahu 58:13-14). If, beyond refraining from forbidden activities and performing the mitzvos of Shabbos, we behave in Shabbos-appropriate behavior — in which muktza plays a leading role — we will merit finding pleasure in Hashem – the ultimate, essential, and most eternal pleasure possible.
While the halachos of muktza seem complicated to master, in truth they can be summarized easily into several categories which, when properly studied, can be mastered quite easily. Following these guidelines on Shabbos enables us to access the peace and serenity of Shabbos so sorely needed for our emotional and spiritual health and stability. As a friend pithily remarked: “I have done the most powerful meditations in the world to restore body-soul harmony, but none match the power of muktza. Muktza is the most effective meditation around.”
The halachos of muktza on Shabbos are the key leading to the tranquilly and pleasure that is Shabbos, enabling us to reach the level of “as if all the work is done.” It drives home the message that we don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders and Hashem takes care of everything for us.
Before delving into the details of the laws, we must first understand the logic behind them. Why did Chazal deem them necessary? Aren’t there enough laws in the Torah as it is?
The Rambam (Shabbos 24:12-13) explains the reasons for the halachos of muktza:
- Our Sages said: If the prophets require a different manner in walking and talking as it is written: “…refraining from… speaking about mundane matters” (Yeshayahu 58:13) surely the manner in which one carries on the Shabbos should not resemble the manner in which he carries during the week.
- Muktza differentiates Shabbos from an ordinary weekday.
These restrictions are necessary because when one is idle and sitting at home, he is likely to seek something with which to occupy himself. If he occupies himself with these items and activities, he will not have ceased activity and will have negated the motivating principle for the Torah’s commandment [Devarim 5:14], “Thus… will rest.” (Some see this as part of the first reason, while others understand it is a separate one).
- Furthermore, when one searches for and carries articles that are used for forbidden activity he might accidently use it or be motivated to perform a forbidden labor. One who lifts up a hammer to put it away might accidently hammer something into the wall or perform another forbidden activity. One who sees a nice piece of firewood outside and lifts it up might come to transporting it in the public domain.
- Another reason: there are some people who are not craftsmen and don’t work during the week. These individuals never perform labor. Were they allowed to walk, talk, and carry as they do during the week their cessation of activity on Shabbos would not be discernible. For this reason, our Sages instituted the halachos of muktza.
- Another reason appears in the Raavad in his notes on the Rambam: during Nechemia’s times, Shabbos desecration was rampant, and people were not careful to refrain from carrying objects out to the public domain. To remedy that, the rabbis of the time instituted the rules of muktza so people would refrain from touching unnecessary objects on Shabbos and not come to transport them from one domain to another.
- Another reason is deduced from the pasuk: “And it shall be on the sixth day that when they prepare what they will bring, it will be double of what they gather every day” (Shemos 16:5). Chazal learn from this pasuk (Pesachim 47b; Beitza 2b) that everything must be prepared for Shabbos beforehand. While the halachos of muktza are rabbinic, this pasuk serves as an asmachta — a biblical allusion to the rabbinic prohibition of muktza: things that were not prepared before Shabbos are forbidden to be moved on Shabbos. On Shabbos there is nothing more to prepare or worry about (Chayei Adam, Shabbos 66:1).
The halachos of muktza can be divided into two categories:
- Raw material: Raw material is any object that is not a tool and has no intended use — for example a stone, twig, or blade of grass. This category of items is called Essential Muktza – its very essence cannot be used on Shabbos. In contrast, a stone that is used to hold a door open or for hopscotch is no longer a raw object. That stone is now considered a tool.
- Tools used for forbidden activities. While moving them on Shabbos is prohibited, the severity of the prohibition is lesser than the one for moving raw material.
Shulchan Aruch Harav (OC 308:16-17) explains that the two categories are actually two different decrees issued at different points in history. Moving raw material on Shabbos was forbidden during King David’s times or earlier (Shabbos 30b) while moving tools became forbidden during Ezra and Nechemia’s period, nearly five hundred years later (Shabbos 123b).
While halachic literature lists a great many categories for muktza, many are not considered halachically forbidden. While in-depth study of all of them is admirable, the initial stages of learning the halachos must focus on the mainstream, applicable halachos. Only after those are mastered can we advance to more nuanced definitions.
Raw material is every object with an undefined purpose or one which was useless before Shabbos. This category can include factory or hand-made objects, provided they were created for an undefined or useless purpose. Here, money is a prime example. While coins and bills are produced in a factory to facilitate financial transactions, the coins and bills are actually useless (you would never consider blowing your nose into a 100$ bill). Therefore, money is not considered a tool but rather a raw or useless object, which is muktza.
Additional examples for this category are stones, sticks, broken trees, dirt, bricks, mortar, animals, raw meat, and a cadaver.
A tool is defined as an item designed for specific use. A book, for example is used for reading; an article of clothing is used for wearing.
Raw material has no permissible uses and cannot be moved on Shabbos at all. By contrast, a tool may be moved under certain circumstances.
The prohibition of muktza for tools mainly involve interacting with them. Therefore, a tool mainly used for Shabbos-prohibited activities even though it is muktza, it can be moved from the side, with the back of the hand or with something else, provided it is being moved for a legitimate reason.
Levels of Muktza
Tools can be divided into four categories:
- Tools for everyday use in permitted activities, e.g. dishes, clothing, food, books. These tools have no Shabbos restrictions and the laws of muktza don’t apply to them.
- A tool chiefly used for permitted activities, but which can be used for forbidden ones too. These, too, don’t have muktza restrictions. They can be moved when the place they take up is needed and also when the tool is necessary for a permitted use or for preserving it. The only restriction here applies to purposeless moving: moving these tools is forbidden if there is no reason at all for doing so.
- A tool mainly used for prohibited actions – this category includes most tools we see naturally as muktza – hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, matches, pens, etc.
Tools in this category can be moved if the place they take up is needed (e.g. the screwdriver was left on the dining room table) or if it necessary for a permissible use (e.g. to hold down papers in the wind).
Since using these utensils is only permitted for a permissible activity, they cannot be moved for the sake of preserving them (the hammer was left out in the rain and will get rusty), and only if particularly necessary can it be pushed with another body limb besides the hand.
- Another category is “muktza due to value” – a tool that has monetary or sentimental value and is only used for one specific use. For example, an antique cuckoo clock is never used as a child’s toy; a photographer’s camera isn’t used as a stepping stool. These tools cannot be used or moved for any reason at all, not even if their space is necessary.
This category is personal, and the same items may be included or excluded from it for different people, in different countries, and different cultures. While some may use their A.T. Cross pen only for special occasions, others may make everyday use of it, occasionally using it to scratch their head or point something out to a friend. The former’s pen is muktza by this definition, while for the latter – it falls under the second category, allowing it to be moved for a permitted use or if the place it takes up is needed.
The reasons for the halachos of muktza appear in the Rambam not as an introduction to the topic but as the ending of the chapter discussing Shabbos-appropriate behavior. Here we learn that muktza has two parts: one is the mindset allowing us to access the serenity of knowing that everything is done — a 25-hour reprieve from the weekday rat race and the constant distractions of our physical life. The other part is the practical application in real life – the halachos of muktza which guide us how to access this disconnect.
While muktza makes moving weekday tools prohibited, it isn’t intended as a burden. Rather, it is a tool for clearing our lives to make room for the spiritual, enabling us to focus fully on our connection to Hashem.
Muktza includes two basic prohibitions: One relates to useless objects, which are defined as raw materials. These cannot be moved under any circumstances. The second is utensils that were designated for prohibited use. They may not be moved in order to preserve them. However, items that people are careful to only use for a specific (prohibited) use, are prohibited altogether.
The next installment in this series will expound on this topic with more details and examples.