Which tools can never be moved and which can be transported, but only for a specific reason? Has the laws of Muktza undergone a change in recent times, and if so — what? Are the laws of muktza applied everywhere in the same manner or do they depend upon other factors? What category of muktza does wall clocks, paintings, or firearms belong to? Is paper considered muktza today, and if so – which? Can a store owner use his inventory on Shabbos for a last-minute guest?
This instalment will complete our series on Hilchos Muktza. In the first article we defined the reason for the prohibition of muktza – separating ourselves from anything non-Shabbos related. There are two main categories of muktza – raw materials, which include anything which has not been designated for a specific purpose or use, and tools — which include all objects prepared for forbidden use. Halacha rules more leniently regarding moving tools than for raw materials.
The foremost forbidden interaction with muktza is transporting it with one’s hands. Therefore, moving it with a foot or other body part is permitted, but moving it via another object is only permitted if done for a valid halachic reason. This week’s installment will outline the halachos of moving tools on Shabbos.
Halachic Definition of Tools
All tools can belong to one of the following four categories:
- Mealtime utensils – utensils that are used regularly on Shabbos: flatware, cups, plates, and bowls, as well as chairs and tables, edible food items, and books.
- A tool for a permitted action. A tool whose chief use is for permitted actions on Shabbos, albeit not usually used on Shabbos. In this category we can find a suitcase, travel bag, or shopping wagon.
- A tool for forbidden actions. Tools that serve primarily for activities which are forbidden on Shabbos. In this category falls a hammer, nail, scissors, telephone, or calculator.
- An expensive object. Any object used only for one specific use due to its value. This includes an expensive musical instrument, appliance, gadget, etc.
Tools of the first category (1) can be moved all the time, even for no reason at all.
Tools for permitted actions (2) can be moved and used on Shabbos, to make room for something else, and to save it from getting damaged, lost, or stolen. The only prohibition related to these tools is moving them unnecessarily. Therefore, when not necessary for Shabbos, arranging a storage closet is forbidden on Shabbos.
A tool for forbidden actions (3) can be moved when its place is needed for something else, or to use the tool for a permitted action. A pen, for example, can be used as a backscratcher or pointer, and scissors can be used to tear wrappers. And if a ruler was left on a dining room table it can be moved before mealtime. However if the wrench was left out in the rain it cannot be brought inside to prevent it from getting rusty or stolen.
Moving expensive objects (4) that are only used for forbidden activities is always forbidden.
Before moving on to contemporary definitions we must understand that defining what category of mutkza object belongs to depends greatly on cultures and countries. Due to mass production, as well as our Western disposable culture, many objects have changed categories over the decades. Definitions are fluid and depend on many factors and the halacha depends upon people’s behavior.
Therefore, when trying to categorize objects we may find some vastly different opinions – while one may see one use as absolutely impossible, another may not understand why it would be a problem.
Tableware or Tool
A simple example to illustrate the difference between the first two categories of tools is the nutcracker. While some end every meal with dessert of nuts with a nutcracker, fulfilling the mitzva of Oneg Shabbos and reciting 100 brachos, others use the nutcracker only on Erev Pesach to make charoses. In the first home the nutcracker is a full-fledged mealtime utensil, but in the other, while serving for uses permitted on Shabbos, it makes its appearance only rarely. In the first house the nutcracker belongs to category 1, while in the second it belongs to category number 2, allowing it only to be moved for a Shabbos-related need (but not to re-arrange the closet.)
The most prohibited kind of tool-muktza is expensive objects. What is the criterion for objects to be classified in this manner? The Gemara provides two criteria for this muktza:
1) The object serves for no other use, due to its value and fear of damaging it.
The most common use for random objects in the times of the Gemara was to cover pots. While any other tool could (and was) used to cover a container, an expensive object was not used due to its value.
2) It has a defined place due to its value and fear of damaging or losing.
The Achronim are divided regarding the definition of expensive objects. The Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha 308:1) apparently follows the Beis Meir in his definition: the object serves for no other purpose besides its designated function, which is forbidden on Shabbos, and – it should have a regular storage spot, from which it is only removed for its designated function.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC V: 22, footnote 12) sees the designated spot as an indicator of an expensive object and not an additional criterion. In his opinion the main criterion is what one does with the object.
As stated above, today we don’t use random objects as pot covers, while we do use random objects to hold down papers from flying away in the wind. Most people wouldn’t think twice before placing their cell phone on a paper or to hold their place in a sefer, to help draw a straight line in a notebook, etc. Therefore, defining an object today as muktza due to its value is quite uncommon.
An expensive object with a permitted function
Does muktza due to value only apply to tools used for forbidden Shabbos activiites, or can this form of muktza also apply to other expensive objects? How is a piece of artwork defined – is it a tool for a forbidden activity or perhaps muktza due to its value?
This matter came up for practical ruling during the Covid lockdowns, when we had minyanim in our building’s hallways. Every family stood in their landing and that’s how we were able to join for minyanim. One of the neighbors had a sefer Torah which he brought out to his landing where he’d set up a makeshift bima and read from the Torah.
On Shabbos chol Hamoed Pesach we wanted to read Shir Hashirim. One of our neighbors has a Kosher Shir Hashirim hanging on his living room wall mounted in an elegant frame from which he reads Shir Hashirim every Friday afternoon, without moving it. The question was if it would be permitted to remove the frame from the wall to bring it out to the makeshift bima, or perhaps, because the owner was careful not to move it from its spot, ever, due to its value, it is considered muktza due to its value.
Another example is a clock. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 308:51) debates if a clock is considered a tool for forbidden use. The Rama writes that customarily it is considered muktza, but the Mishna Brura (footnote 168) writes that this custom only applies to large clocks that have a designated spot from which they are not moved, whether they are wall mounted or free-standing.
The Mishna Brura explains the prohibition: watches are a tool for measuring the passage of time, and the only measuring permitted on Shabbos is measuring for a mitzva. However wristwatches or pocket watches are customarily permitted on Shabbos. He ruless that where the place the watch takes up is necessary for something else, moving it is certainly permitted. Therefore, we see that he maintains that clocks do not fall into this category.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC V, 21) also writes that moving a clock or picture hanging on a wall as a decoration is certainly permitted, since it only serves to beautify the place. Therefore, today, whereas a clock does not necessarily serve to measure the passage of time as it did in the past but rather to tell us the hour, and – a wall mounted clock is a decoration, and although it is not usually removed from its spot, it is not considered muktza due to its value.
Examples of Expensive Muktza
The Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Burra (OC 308:1) cite the following examples of items that are muktza due to their value: a schechita knife (chalef), a bris scalpel, a shoemaker’s knife, a barber’s scissors, a scribe’s knife, weaving tools, a saw for cutting wood, a ploughshare, writing paper, a press for perfume, as well as store inventory.
The most notable change that occurred since then is the change in status of writing paper. In the past, paper was an expensive commodity to be cherished and used with care. Today, paper is used thoughtlessly, and every kind of paper is used for any kind of use.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC IV 72) maintains that even today blank paper is considered muktza due to its value, despite its minute monetary value since people use it for writing and no sane person would ruin it for no good reason.
Practically, it depends upon the reality. If one would take a clean piece of paper to wrap up a plate or food , paper would not be considered muktza due to its value, while if it is only be used rarely for anything other than writing – it would be muktza due to its value.
On the other hand, a store’s inventory is a relevant example of this form of muktza. One who has a store, is usually careful not to use his inventory for any purpose. Since on Erev Shabbos he decided not to make any use for these objects, they are considered muktza on Shabbos and cannot be moved.
Therefore, a host cannot use items from his store for surprise Shabbos guests who need clothing, towels or dishes, and when one is missing these items he has to find another solution.
A pistol is also considered muktza due to value since it is only used for protection or fighting, and not for any other purpose. Therefore, unless it needs to be moved or used to save a life, moving a pistol (to protect it from dampness, for example) is prohibited. Obviously, transporting it to a protected place where others can’t touch it is also necessary for saving lives and is permitted.