The principle of muktzeh, which we explored extensively in Tractate Shabbat, is that certain items may not be touched on Shabbat for various reasons (often because their normal use is for a kind of labor that violates Shabbat’s work prohibitions). Today’s daf reminds us that the rules of muktzeh apply not only to Shabbat, but to festivals as well. (Festivals days which are sacred, like Shabbat, include the first and last days of Passover, first and last days of Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)
How did we get to this discussion? The Gemara is engaged in a conversation about violations of biblical law on festivals. Specifically, which violations incur the punishment of flogging. The question is raised whether muktzeh is one such violation. To prove that muktzeh is forbidden on festivals and also establish that touching set-aside items violates a negative biblical commandment (the punishment for which is flogging), takes some work. Let’s see how they do it.
First, the rabbis prove that muktzeh is forbidden on festivals:
Is the prohibition against utilizing set-aside material prohibited by Torah law, such that a person is flogged for violating this prohibition? Yes, as it is written: And it shall come to pass on the sixth day that they shall prepare that which they bring in. (Exodus 16:5)
As the verse indicates, one should prepare items that will be used on the sacred day in advance. The implication, according to this creative reading, is that anything that has not been prepared in advance is considered to be muktzeh and one may not use it.
However, you may have noticed, this verse is not written as a negative commandment. As such, it does not successfully establish muktzeh as a negative commandment. To do so, the Gemara looks elsewhere:
The warning indicating that it is a negative commandment is from here: You shall not perform any labor. (Exodus 20:10)
The Gemara understands the prohibition on using objects that were not set aside for use as being included in the general prohibition on labor. Since this verse is formulated as a negative commandment, the laws of muktzeh are also a negative commandment. And voilà, the punishment for violating muktzeh on festivals is flogging. Case closed.
But wait, you might be asking, not only are these readings a fairly creative twist on the literal meaning of the respective verses, but I looked at both of these verses in their original context and they are clearly talking about Shabbat and not festivals! So how do we know that the laws of muktzeh also apply to festivals?
Great question! The answer lies in the fact that, from the rabbis’ perspective, the rules of festivals are nearly the same as the rules of Shabbat except when it comes to the preparation of food (which is permitted on festivals, as per Exodus 12:16). As such, once the rules of muktzeh are established for Shabbat, they automatically apply to festivals as well.
If all of this seems like a great deal of exegetical work to prove that the Torah thinks muktzeh is forbidden on festivals and incurs a punishment of flogging — none of which is actually conveyed directly or plainly in the Torah — that’s because it is. One of the remarkable, beautiful and puzzling things about the rabbinic method is the seemingly endless energy for connecting religious practice to biblical sources. While, at times, the connections may seem precarious to a modern reader, the rabbis’ erudition, creativity and stamina to justify each and every piece is nonetheless impressive.