Shabbat's Work Prohibition

A discussion on prohibitions for the Jewish day of rest.

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Then What Can We Do?

For an activity to be considered as work forbidden on the Sabbath, the violation must be intentional. Therefore moving a chair from one place to another is permissible, even though it may produce an impression on the ground. Similarly, walking on the grass is allowed, even though this may result in some of it being crushed underfoot and thus technically constitute the prohibited activity mentioned above or the forbidden cutting of blades of grass.

One has not violated the Sabbath as long as the original purpose was solely to move the chair or to walk on the grass. In contrast, one is not permitted to engage in a task that always results in forbidden work. Thus washing oneself on a lawn is prohibited because it inevitably will result in watering the grass, which is forbidden on the Sabbath.

You Can't Even Touch Some Things

Any items that may not be used on the Sabbath may not even be handled on that day, lest one unintentionally perform one of the forbidden types of work. These objects are termed muktzeh, meaning to "set aside" or "store away." Among the many things considered muktzeh are money and checks; scissors, hammers, and saws; pencils and pens; battery-operated toys and flashlights; radios and CDs; telephones and computers; and religious objects such as shofar, t'fillin, and lulav. Even the Sabbath candlesticks are muktzeh and thus should not be touched on the Sabbath after the candles have been lit.

Even if not strictly classified as forbidden work, certain "mundane matters" should be avoided on the Sabbath. These include weekday chores (such as packing suitcases and rearranging furniture, which are not in keeping with enjoyment of the restful spirit of the Sabbath), opening mail, and discussing business issues or matters of everyday concern. One is forbidden to even think about or make plans for the week ahead, such as preparing equipment, mapping out a route, readying a briefcase for the next day, or setting the table for a party on Saturday night.

Based on Isaiah's exhortation that one "honor it (the Sabbath) by not doing your usual ways" (Isa. 58:13), the Rabbis recommended that a person should even walk differently on the Sabbath, avoiding the long strides and rushing about that characterize the pace of most people on weekdays.

The Rules on Fire!

In addition to the general forbidding of all manner of work on the Sabbath, there is a special prohibition against making a fire (Exod. 35:3). The Rabbis considered this to include everything that pertains to the kindling of light, even if no actual work is involved. In modern times, there is a controversy regarding whether the switching on of electric lights and appliances is equivalent to making a fire.

There are two reasons to think that switching on an electric light may not be considered kindling. First, switching on a light does not create electric power; the power exists already. Second, there is no combustion in the filament of an electric light. Nevertheless, Orthodox Jews do not use electric appliances on the Sabbath, believing that the prohibition against kindling a fire was not based on the physical effort involved in rubbing two stones together to produce a spark but rather on the thought and planning that resulted in its generation.
For the Hazon Ish, the activation of an electric current and its transmission to sources of power, heat, and light that is produced by turning on a switch is forbidden because it falls under the category of "building"--intentionally causing something to happen. An exception is the refrigerator, which may be opened and closed because any electric current that this produces is incidental and without conscious intent. However, many observant Jews unscrew the refrigerator bulb for the Sabbath.

Lights that have been kindled before the Sabbath, such as the Sabbath candles, are allowed, as are an oven for keeping previously cooked food warm and a burner to keep water warm for coffee or tea. Similarly, it is permitted to leave an electric appliance running during the Sabbath and to use a timer to automatically turn an appliance on or off, as long as the timer is set before the Sabbath begins.

One mechanism to ease the difficulty of complying with the prohibition against work on the Sabbath was the concept of the Shabbos goy--a non-Jew hired by an observant family to perform certain activities forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath, such as starting a fire and turning lights on and off. However, the proliferation of electronic timers has virtually eliminated the need for the Shabbos goy.

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.