Talmudic pages

Shabbat 124

Moving it.

Despite having what I consider to be a normal-sized couch (maybe even a big couch), I always seem to need to move something — a book, a toy, a small child — in order to sit down. What happens, today’s daf asks, if one of those items cluttering the couch is itself muktzeh?

Yesterday’s daf was mostly occupied with items whose primary use is asur (forbidden). Today, we are looking at items used primarily for tasks that are permitted on Shabbat. And so, unlike yesterday’s daf, where the central question lay in the primary purpose of the vessel or utensil, today’s daf wonders about the reason for using it.

Let’s start with the mishnah:

All vessels may be moved for a specific purpose (l’tzorech) and not for a specific purpose (lo l’tzorech). 

Rabbi Nehemya says: Vessels may only be moved for a specific purpose.

Here we see a disagreement among early sages about whether one may move these items on Shabbat. Rabbi Nehemya holds the more stringent position, namely, that they can only be moved if there is a “specific purpose” for moving the object. But what exactly constitutes a “specific purpose”? The Gemara explains:

Rabba said: For a “specific purpose” means: moving an object whose primary function is for a permitted use for the purpose of utilizing the object itself. “Not for a specific purpose” means: moving an object whose primary function is for a permitted use for the purpose of utilizing its place.

When we are talking about an object whose primary function is a permitted use on Shabbat, then moving it for a “specific purpose” means moving it in order to actually use it. However, moving it “not for a specific purpose” means moving it out of the way. Rava’s statement continues, and we learn that the rules change when we are talking about objects whose primary use is something not permitted on Shabbat. In that case, we can’t just clear the object out of our way.

Now something fascinating happens. Rabbi Nehemya, the Tanna quoted in our mishnah, who flourished in the mid-second century, is put in direct conversation with Rava, a third generation Amora, born in the late third century, in Babylonia! Such a conversation could never have actually taken place, but the Gemara imagines how it would have played out:

Rabbi Nehemya came to say: Even an object whose primary function is for a permitted use, moving it for the purpose of utilizing the object itself, yes; for the purpose of utilizing its place, no.

Rava said to him: Do you call for the purpose of utilizing its place not for a specific purpose?

Rabbi Nehemya defends his more stringent ruling, arguing that according to this principle of “specific purpose,” an object, even one generally used for a permitted action, may not be moved simply because it is in the way. But Rava gets the last word: moving an object out of the way, he declares, is moving it for a specific purpose.

Can I pick up an item that is muktzeh, just because I am interested in it, or because it looks like a cool toy, or because I think that maybe it would look better in a different corner of the room? No. But according to Rava, there are certain scenarios in which I can move, or use, such an object. First, because I want to use it. Second, because it is in my way. While the rabbis quibble over whether the latter qualifies as “not for a specific purpose,” the decision is fairly clear — use and movement is permissible.

But it is not a free-for-all, as the rest of today’s page makes clear. Is there another, non-muktzeh item that you could use instead? If so, you cannot move the item in question. Do you need to move it, or are you just inclined to? Without demonstrable need, it’s a no-go.

The rabbis are cautious by nature; their instinct and role is to be protective of Shabbat, to force us into making distinctions and choices, and to understand what we are doing and why. Intentionality, once again, is at the core of the conversation — even if it manifests as a mortar with garlic, or a cushion left out in the sun. I’m still not sure what to do about my couch, though.

Read all of Shabbat 124 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 8, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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