09 – The Principles of the Melakhot

01. The Torah’s Commandment

Cessation from all melakha[1] on Shabbat is a positive commandment, as the Torah states: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease” (Shemot 23:12). One who performs melakha on Shabbat not only neglects this positive commandment, but also violates a negative one, as it states: “But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Lord your God; you shall not do any melakha” (Shemot 20:9). If one was warned by witnesses not to desecrate Shabbat, yet did so anyway, he is subject to the punishment of stoning. If he desecrated Shabbat intentionally, but was not warned by witnesses, he is subject to karet (extirpation), as is written: “You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. Those who profane it shall be put to death, for whoever does melakha on it shall be extirpated (nikhreta) from among his people” (Shemot 31:14). If he desecrates Shabbat unintentionally, he is liable to bring a sin offering (MT 1:1; above 1:14).

Although it is a mitzva to desist from all melakha, the Torah mentions four melakhot explicitly: Ĥoresh, Kotzer, Mav’ir, and Hotza’ah. Ĥoresh and Kotzer are mentioned in Shemot 34:21: “For six days, work, but on the seventh day, cease. At the plowing (ĥarish) and reaping (katzir), cease.” This teaches that even activities upon which human life depends, through which man produces food, are forbidden on Shabbat (Ibn Ezra and Ramban ad loc.). Kindling a fire is also mentioned explicitly: “You shall kindle no fire (teva’aru) throughout your settlements on Shabbat” (Shemot 35:3). The Sages state that this melakha is singled out to teach us that one is subject to punishment for each individual melakha he performs on Shabbat. Thus, if one performs two melakhot unintentionally, he is obligated to bring two sin offerings (Shabbat 70a, following R. Natan; see also below 16:1). The melakha of Hotza’ah is mentioned explicitly as well: “Let everyone remain where he is; let no man leave (yetzei) his place on the seventh day” (Shemot 16:29). Hotza’ah is singled out to make it clear that even though it seems to be an insignificant activity – one merely moves an object but does not change it in any way – it is nevertheless considered a melakha (see below 21:1).

When the Torah prohibits doing melakha, it means creative work, like the melakhot performed when erecting the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Activities that do not create anything new, even if they are physically strenuous, are not prohibited. For example, carrying a needle from a reshut ha-yaĥid (private domain) to a reshut ha-rabim (public domain) is considered a melakha, while moving chairs and tables within the same domain is not (below 21:1); reheating cooked food on Shabbat is not a melakha, whereas cooking raw food on Shabbat is (below 10:2); attaching a window to its hinges is considered a melakha even if it is easy to do, whereas opening and shutting a window is not a melakha (below 15:3); reattaching a broken table leg is considered a melakha, but lengthening a table by adding a leaf designated for such use is not (below 15:7).

We derive a fundamental principle from the Mishkan. Just as the Mishkan was built with intent and planning – “to work with every skilled craft (melekhet maĥshevet)” (Shemot 35:33), so too on Shabbat, the Torah prohibits only melekhet maĥshevet. One who performs a melakha with a shinui (in an irregular manner), unintentionally, lo le-tzorekh gufah (for a different purpose; see below), non-constructively, or without meaning for it to last – has not transgressed a Torah prohibition. In all of these cases, he has not performed melekhet maĥshevet. Nevertheless, most of the above cases are rabbinically prohibited (see sections 3-8 below). The Sages state in the Mishna: “The laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging by a hair, with few scriptural sources and numerous laws” (m. Ĥagiga 1:8). Indeed, countless laws of Shabbat are based on the melakhot of the Mishkan.

There are numerous further discussions about the shi’urim (measures) that constitute a transgression of a melakha. For example, when it comes to melakhot that relate to food preparation, if one makes a quantity of food the size of a dried fig, he is liable (if the transgression was unintentional, he is liable to bring a sin offering; if intentional, the punishment is death). If the quantity was less than that, even though he has transgressed a Torah prohibition, he is exempt from punishment. In contrast, when it comes to Ĥoresh, Zore’a, Kotzer, and Boneh, even the smallest act renders one liable. In order to keep our subject matter manageable, we will limit our discussion of what one may and may not do to matters of practical relevance.


[1]. Editor’s note: Though earlier in this volume we translated “melakha” as “work” for simplicity’s sake, now that the technical parameters of melakha will be addressed, we have retained the Hebrew term that connotes the halakhic concept.

02. The 39 Melakhot That Were Performed in the Mishkan, and Their Derivatives

The melakhot that are prohibited on Shabbat are those that were performed in erecting the Mishkan. Almost immediately following the section dealing with erecting the Mishkan, the Torah states: “Nevertheless, you must keep My Shabbatot” (Shemot 31:13). This teaches us that even though the melakha of the Mishkan was a great mitzva, it had to stop for Shabbat as well. Thus the Sages state: “One is liable only for a melakha similar to one that was done in the Mishkan” (Shabbat 49b). Similarly the Torah states: “You shall keep My Shabbatot and venerate My Mikdash (sanctuary); I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:30). Rashi explains: “Even though I have commanded you to build the Mikdash, nevertheless you must keep My Shabbat, for the building of the Mikdash does not override Shabbat observance.”

The implication is that the primary purpose of humanity, created in God’s image, is to be a partner with God in improving the world. The primary way to improve the world is by erecting the Mishkan, where the Shekhina dwells. Light spreads from the Mishkan throughout the world, revealing that the whole world deserves to be a receptacle for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina dwells wherever one works for the sake of heaven, with honesty and kindness, in order to increase goodness in the world – it is there that the holiness of the Mishkan spreads. Thus, the essence of melakha in this world is to build an abode for the Shekhina. Yet, despite its value, we are commanded to desist from melakha on Shabbat. Just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, thus imbuing the six days of creation with deep meaning, so too we are commanded to rest on Shabbat. By doing so, we are able to reveal the deeper value of all melakhot (see above 1:10).

Moshe Rabbeinu was told at Sinai that there are 39 melakhot (Shabbat 70a). These are:

  1. Zore’a (sowing)
  2. Ĥoresh (plowing)
  3. Kotzer (reaping)
  4. Me’amer (gathering)
  5. Dash (threshing)
  6. Zoreh (winnowing)
  7. Borer (separating)
  8. Toĥen (grinding)
  9. Meraked (sifting)
  10. Lash (kneading)
  11. Ofeh (cooking/baking)
  12. Gozez Tzemer (shearing wool)
  13. Melaben (laundering)
  14. Menapetz (combing wool)
  15. Tzove’a (dyeing)
  16. Toveh (spinning)
  17. Meisekh (warping)
  18. Oseh Shtei Batei Nirin (making two loops)
  19. Oreg Shnei Ĥutin (weaving two threads)
  20. Potze’a Shnei Ĥutin (separating two threads)
  21. Kosheir (tying a knot)
  22. Matir (untying a knot)
  23. Tofer Shtei Tefirot (sewing two stitches)
  24. Kore’a al Menat Litfor Shtei Tefirot (tearing in order to sew two stitches)
  25. Tzad Tzvi (trapping)
  26. Shoĥet (slaughtering)
  27. Mafshit (skinning)
  28. Mole’aĥ/Me’abed (tanning)
  29. Mesartet (marking)
  30. Memaĥek (smoothing)
  31. Meĥatekh (cutting)
  32. Kotev Shtei Otiyot (writing two letters)
  33. Moĥek al Menat Likhtov Shtei Otiyot (erasing two letters in order to overwrite them)
  34. Boneh (building)
  35. Soter (demolishing)
  36. Mekhabeh (extinguishing a fire)
  37. Mav’ir (lighting a fire)
  38. Makeh Be-fatish (applying the finishing touch)
  39. Motzi Me-reshut Li-reshut (carrying from one domain to another)

(Shabbat 73b)

These 39 activities are called avot melakha (primary categories of melakha), or simply avot, as are activities that are very similar to them. Activities that are largely, but not entirely, similar to avot are called toladot. In practice there is no difference between an av melakha and a tolada. They both are prohibited by the Torah, and they carry the same punishment. It is simply a semantic distinction: A melakha that is very similar to an activity that was performed while erecting the Mishkan is called an av, while one that is not as similar is called a tolada (Rambam, Peirush Ha-Mishnayot on m. Shabbat 7:2).

The halakhic significance of the division of the forbidden activities on Shabbat into 39 categories relates to the realm of punishment. If one unknowingly performs all 39 melakhot, he is required to bring 39 sin offerings. If he performs five different melakhot, he is required to bring five sin offerings. However, if he performs several melakhot that are all part of the same av melakha and its toladot, he is only liable to bring one sin offering (MT 7:7-9).

03. The Rabbinic Prohibition of Performing Melakha with a Shinui or Together with Another Person

As we saw (section 1), the Torah prohibits doing melakha on Shabbat in a normal manner as the craftsmen did in the Mishkan, as it is written: “to work with every melekhet maĥshevet” (Shemot 35:33). However, if one performs the activity ki-le’aĥar yad (backhandedly), that is, with a shinui, he has not transgressed a Torah prohibition and he is therefore not subject to the punishment that the Torah prescribed for a Shabbat desecrator. Accordingly, it would seem that one may perform all the melakhot on Shabbat with a shinui. However, the Sages instituted a safeguard around the Torah and prohibited performing melakhot even with a shinui. For example, if one removes an object from a private domain to a public one in a normal manner – by carrying it in his hand or under his arm – he has transgressed a Torah commandment. However, if he carries it with a shinui – for example, with his leg, in his mouth, or on his elbow, ear, or hair – he has transgressed a rabbinic prohibition only (Shabbat 92a). Similarly, if one normally writes with his right hand only, and uses that hand to write on Shabbat, he has transgressed a Torah prohibition, whereas if he writes with his left hand, he has transgressed a rabbinic prohibition only (Shabbat 103a; below 18:2). One who cuts his nails with a pair of scissors transgresses a Torah prohibition, while if he trims them with his fingers or teeth he transgresses a rabbinic prohibition only (Shabbat 94b; below 14:2).

If two people acted in concert to perform one melakha that either one of them could have done on his own (such as holding a pen together and writing), neither person has transgressed a Torah prohibition, for it is written: “If any person from among the populace unknowingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things that by God’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt” (Vayikra 4:27). The Sages explain that “doing any of the things” refers only to doing the entire deed by oneself, not to doing only a part of it (Shabbat 92b). When two people perform a melakha jointly, each one is doing only part of the action. However, if they performed a melakha that neither one could have done on his own, such as moving heavy furniture from one domain to another, then they have each transgressed a Torah prohibition. If one of them is able to lift the furniture by himself but the other is unable to do so, the one who is able to carry it on his own has transgressed a Torah prohibition, while the one who helped but would not have been able to carry it on his own has transgressed a rabbinic prohibition only (MT 1:16).[2]

The practical difference between a Torah prohibition and a rabbinic prohibition is that when in doubt about a Torah prohibition one must be stringent, while when in doubt about a rabbinic prohibition one may be lenient. Furthermore, in cases of need, when one is uncertain whether he may perform a certain action, he may perform it with a shinui. By doing so, the doubt now relates to a rabbinic prohibition, and therefore one may be lenient. (See sections 11-12 below, about the case of a shvut di-shvut [double rabbinic prohibition] when a mitzva is at stake or under pressing circumstances.)


[2]. Some maintain that if two people performed a melakha together, they are exempt from bringing a sin offering, but they are nevertheless guilty of transgressing a Torah prohibition (Mekor Ĥayim; Be’er Yitzĥak, OĤ 14). However, most poskim maintain that it is a rabbinic prohibition (Avnei Nezer, YD 393:9-10; Yabi’a Omer, OĤ 5:32:7. Also see SSK ch. 1 n. 86).

04. The Principles Underlying Rabbinic Enactments and Decrees Regarding Shabbat

The Sages instituted numerous enactments concerning Shabbat in order to erect a protective fence around the Torah. They prohibited taking medication lest one grind up ingredients to produce them (below 28:4); they prohibited riding on animals and using trees so that none would come to break off a branch (below 19:7; 20:1); they prohibited setting aside terumot (priestly gifts) and ma’aser (tithes) because this resembles allocating the teruma and making the fruits usable (below 22:5); they prohibited playing musical instruments so that people would not come to fix their instruments (below 22:17); and they prohibited asking a non-Jew to do melakha for Jews (below 25:1). They also ruled that one may not benefit from a melakha that was performed on Shabbat in a forbidden manner (below 26:1).

The Sages also enacted other ordinances whose purpose is to preserve the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest and holiness. They ordained that on Shabbat, one should not speak of mundane business matters, nor inspect one’s fields or factories. They established that one should not prepare for the upcoming weekdays on Shabbat (below 22:9-10; 22:15). They instituted that one should not walk quickly on Shabbat, as one does during the week (22:7), and that one refrain from measuring things in the way that one does during the week (22:6). They further decreed that all objects that have not been designated for Shabbat use are considered muktzeh and may not be moved. This is to prevent one from spending his time on Shabbat organizing his home or garage, thus rendering Shabbat like a weekday (below 23:1).

The rabbinic prohibitions of doing melakha with a shinui or together with another person are also based on these same two reasons: to ensure that people not mistakenly violate the melakha in the normal fashion and to preserve the spirit of Shabbat.

The Sages did not add prohibitions to those of the Torah on their own. The Torah itself commands us to institute safeguards, in the verse: “You shall keep My injunctions (u-shmartem et mishmarti)” (Vayikra 18:30), upon which the Sages comment: “Make a safeguard for My injunctions” (asu mishmeret le-mishmarti) (Yevamot 21a). The Torah also instructs the Sages to enact ordinances for the Jews in order to give expression to the Torah’s goals, as is written: “Ask your father, he will inform you; your elders, they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7). Furthermore, we are commanded to obey these ordinances, as is written: “You must not deviate from the verdict that they tell to you, either to the right or to the left” (ibid. 17:11; see Shabbat 23a). The reason for this is that the written Torah is eternal; it is meant only to delineate general principles. In order for us to be able to observe the Torah in practice, the Sages were commanded to establish a framework for its mitzvot by instituting safeguards and decrees based on the principles laid down in the written Torah.

So it is with regard to Shabbat. We are prohibited from doing melakha so that we rest and stop working, as it is written: “but on the seventh day, cease” (Shemot 34:21), and “You shall not do any melakha – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of you cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.” (Devarim 5:14). If one were allowed to do all his work with a shinui, he would never “cease from labor,” and if he were allowed to move muktzeh items, he would never rest. In order to prevent this scenario, the Sages prohibited performing melakhot with a shinui and moving muktzeh items (See Ramban to Vayikra 23:24; MT 21:1 and 24:12).

The mandate to enact decrees was given to the Beit Din Ha-gadol (the high Jewish court that functioned in earlier times; the Sanhedrin), which was made up of 71 sages and held court near the Mishkan or Temple. This court was established by Moshe and continued to function until after the destruction of the Second Temple. All its members were ordained in an unbroken chain that stretched back to Moshe. The entire Jewish people is bound by the ordinances of this Beit Din, as the Torah states: “You shall act in accordance with what they tell you from the place that God shall choose, and scrupulously carry out whatever they instruct; you shall act in accordance with the Torah they instruct you and the sentence handed to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they tell you either to the right or to the left” (Devarim 17:10-11).

05. Davar She-eino Mitkaven and Psik Reisha

If one wishes to engage in a permissible activity, but in the course of doing so might also perform a prohibited action, he may undertake the permitted action on two conditions: that he does not intend to perform the action, and that the permitted action will not inevitably result on the prohibited action. Thus, one may drag a bed or couch on the ground on Shabbat even though the legs will probably create furrows in the ground (an act of Ĥoresh), since the furrows are made unintentionally and it is not certain that furrows will be created at all. Similarly, one may walk on the grass even if grass will likely be uprooted, because he does not intend for this to happen, and it will not necessarily happen at all. This type of situation is called davar she-eino mitkaven (an unintended act).

However, if it is clear that by dragging the bench a furrow will definitely be made in the ground, then one may not drag the bench (below 19:2). Similarly, if it is clear that by walking in a particular area, grass will definitely be uprooted, one may not walk there (below 19:8). As long as it is clear that during the performance of a permitted action, a prohibited one will definitely be performed, one cannot maintain that he did not intend for it to happen. Rather, it is as if he intentionally performed the prohibited action. However, it is only a Torah prohibition if one is interested in the result of the forbidden action; if he is not interested in the result, the prohibition is rabbinic.

The Sages tell further us that one may not close the door to his home when there is a deer inside (Shabbat 106b). He cannot claim that he wished only to close the door but not to trap the deer, since it is clear that by closing the door he has trapped the deer. Thus, it is as if he intentionally trapped it. This scenario is akin to one who cuts off the head of a bird so a child can play with it claiming that he did not intend to kill the bird but only cut off its head. This claim is insubstantial; it is clear that he meant to kill the bird, an act that is prohibited by the Torah. About this paradigmatic example the Talmud asks rhetorically: “psik reisha ve-lo yamut?” – “Its head is detached – will it not die?” (Shabbat 75a; MT 1:5-6; Kesef Mishneh ad loc.). This principle has thus come to be known as “psik reisha.”

These principles are not exclusive to Shabbat. Rather, regarding all Torah prohibitions, the rule is that davar she-eino mitkaven is permitted, while psik reisha is forbidden.[3]


[3]. In R. Yehuda’s opinion, davar she-eino mitkaven is rabbinically prohibited, which means that even if it is not certain that a melakha will be performed, and the person’s intent is to perform a permitted action, it is still forbidden if the person would benefit from the unintentional melakha. In R. Shimon’s opinion, since he intends to perform a permitted action, and it is not certain that a melakha will accompany this action, it is permitted (Beitza 23a). In the Gemara, Rav follows the opinion of R. Yehuda while Shmuel follows R. Shimon. Abaye states in Rabba’s name that the halakha follows R. Shimon, and a davar she-eino mitkaven is permitted (Shabbat 22a), even in the case of a Torah prohibition (Shabbat 46b). This principle – that we follow R. Shimon’s opinion – applies to all Torah prohibitions. This is also the opinion of Tosafot (Shabbat 75a, s.v. “mitasek”), Rashba, Rosh 14:9, and Ran. However, She’iltot maintains that the halakha follows R. Shimon only in the case of Shabbat, because on Shabbat only melekhet maĥshevet is prohibited by Torah law (quoted in Tosafot to Shabbat 110b, s.v. “Talmud”).When it is almost certain that the prohibited action will take place, some still permit performing the permitted action because the forbidden result still falls under the category of davar she-eino mitkaven (Me’ iri, Ritva, Rivash); others maintain that in such a case it is rabbinically prohibited (Terumat Ha-deshen §64, Maharsha quoted in BHL 277:1, s.v. “shema”). If it is clear that the prohibited action will occur barring unforeseen circumstances, all agrees that it is forbidden by Torah law.

Psik reisha on a rabbinic prohibition is forbidden according to most poskim. Thus one may not drag a bench that would definitely make a furrow, even though the furrow is being made with a shinui, which means the prohibition is intrinsically rabbinic (MA 314:5, and also implied by Tosafot, Ramban, Ritva, Rosh, and SA 337:1; this is also the opinion of Eliya Rabba, Tosefet Shabbat, Gra, SAH 337:1 and 3, Ĥayei Adam 30:2, R. Akiva Eger, Ben Ish Ĥai, Year 2, Va’era 6, MB 314:11 and 316:18, and SHT ad loc. 21). However, some rule leniently in such a case (Terumat Ha-deshen, Me’ iri, Maharsham). Their opinion is sometimes taken into account when there are other reasons to be permissive as well (see Yabi’a Omer 4:34; Menuĥat Ahava 2:1:6).

Psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei – where the unintentional result is not desired: According to Arukh and several other Rishonim, davar she-eino mitkaven includes performing a permitted action that will inevitably result in a melakha, if one is unhappy with (or indifferent about) the result of the melakha. However, we do not entertain this possibility in the case of cutting off a bird’s head. Even if he claims that he is not pleased with the bird’s death, either we do not believe him, or we regard his outlook as null given how most people think. But when the result is really unwanted, according to Arukh it is considered a davar she-eino mitkaven and is permitted. The vast majority of poskim maintain that such an act is still rabbinically prohibited, but Arukh’s position can be used to justify ruling leniently when there are additional reasons to be lenient as well.

Psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei on a rabbinic prohibition: In such a case, there is a difference of opinion among the poskim, and as a result, we are lenient in times of need (MB 316:5, 321:57; see Yabi’a Omer 5:27:1, which maintains that the majority of poskim permit this). In any case, this is an example of shvut di-shvut, and we are lenient in such a case for the sake of a mitzva or a great need (see sections 11-12 below). Psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei in a case of a double rabbinic prohibition is permitted le-khatĥila according to most poskim (Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 316:7; Dagul Mei-rvava §340; below 18:3:2; however, it seems that MB 340:17 is stringent).

Safek psik reisha: May one shut the door to his house when he is unsure if there is a deer inside? May one open a refrigerator when he is unsure whether the refrigerator light was disabled before Shabbat? Some poskim permit such actions, categorizing them as davar she-eino mitkaven (Taz 316:3); others forbid them, as the safek concerns an already-existing situation, and one must be stringent in the case of a safek de-Oraita (R. Akiva Eger). However, when necessary we are lenient. If the prohibition is rabbinic, one may certainly be lenient, as we are with rabbinic prohibitions in cases of uncertainty (see BHL 316:3, s.v. “ve-lakhen”).

There are certain actions whose permitted or forbidden nature is determined solely by the intention of the person performing the action. If he intends to perform a forbidden action it is forbidden, while if he intends to perform a permitted action it is permitted. See below 15:10 for the case of aromatic branches, and see Harĥavot 9:5:9 regarding filling a hot pot with cold water.

06. Melakha She-eina Tzerikha Le-gufah

As we have learned, there is a special principle that applies on Shabbat prohibiting only melekhet maĥshevet, a melakha done intentionally and thoughtfully. In this context, a disagreement arose among the Tanna’im concerning a case in which one intends to perform a certain act, but not for the sake of the object (le-gufo) upon which the melakha is performed. For example, extinguishing a fire le-gufo means extinguishing a fire in order to produce coals or so that the wick ignites more readily the next time. In both cases, the extinguishing itself achieves the desired effect. In contrast, if one extinguishes a candle in order to save oil, or because the light disturbs him, he has not done the melakha because he wants to extinguish the fire, but rather because he does not want the flame to continue burning. Thus, the melakha is she-lo le-tzorekh gufah (not for its own sake). R. Shimon maintains that since this melakha was not undertaken for its own sake, it is only prohibited rabbinically. According to R. Yehuda, however, even when one’s goal is not the melakha itself, since in fact he intended to put out the flame, he performed the melakha and transgressed a Torah prohibition (Shabbat 31b; 93b; below 16:5).

Another case: One who digs a hole in order to lay the foundation of a house has performed the melakha of Boneh, and one who digs a hole to plant a tree has performed the melakha of Ĥoresh. Yet if one digs a hole because he needs the dirt, he has performed the melakha by digging, but not for the sake of the digging itself. In R. Shimon’s opinion, since his intention was to remove dirt and not to dig a hole, he has transgressed a rabbinic prohibition but not a Torah prohibition; according to R. Yehuda, since he did intend to dig, he has transgressed a Torah prohibition.

Although all agree that one may not perform a melakha even if it is she-eina le-tzorekh gufah, there is an important ramification of this difference of opinion. If melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is forbidden rabbinically, then there are instances when it would be permitted, whereas if it is prohibited by Torah law, there would be no grounds for leniency.

The vast majority of poskim rule that a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is rabbinically prohibited (R. Hai Gaon, Rabbeinu Ĥananel, Ramban, Rashba, and Rosh). However, since some are stringent (Rambam, MT 1:7), and since the only difference between this action and an action that is prohibited by Torah law is the intent that informs it, melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is considered more serious than other rabbinic prohibitions.[4]


[4]. SA 316:8 and 334:27 cite the opinion of most poskim anonymously, and then cite Rambam’s opinion by name, indicating that the ruling is in accordance with the majority of the poskim (MB 334:85 and Yabi’a Omer, 4:23:1 rule similarly). However, we are more stringent when it comes to a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah than with other rabbinic prohibitions, since the performance of such an action is identical to the performance of a Torah prohibition. The only difference is in one’s intention (Tosafot, Shabbat 46b, s.v. “de-khol”; SHT 278:4).The difference between psik reisha and melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is that in the former, the person is interested in the prohibited result, and therefore it is forbidden by Torah law, while in the case of a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah he is not interested in the forbidden result. This is why according to most poskim, a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah is only rabbinically prohibited. Therefore, in all cases of psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei, the prohibition is only rabbinic. However, if one cuts off the head of a bird, he cannot claim that he is unhappy with the bird’s death, as that would be disingenuous. This is the position of Tosafot (Shabbat 103a, s.v. “be-ar’a”) and Rambam (as quoted in the commentary of Rabbeinu Peraĥya on Shabbat 42a). One can further explain that in the case of psik reisha the permitted activity is secondary to the forbidden one and therefore nullified, while a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah there is not nullified. Therefore, R. Shimon rules that the prohibition is rabbinic. One can further explain that a melakha she-eina tzerikha le-gufah consists entirely of one action, so when performed for permitted ends, his objectives cancel the intention to do something prohibited. However, a psik reisha produces two distinct results, so one’s intent to achieve the permitted result does not cancel out the prohibited second result. See Harĥavot 9:6:6.

07. Kilkul

The Torah only prohibits melakhot whose purposes are constructive, like the “melekhet maĥshevet” of the Mishkan. Accordingly, one who performs a melakha in a destructive or ruinous manner (derekh kilkul) has not transgressed a Torah prohibition, but only a rabbinic prohibition. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement: “All who destroy are exempt” (m. Shabbat 13:3). Whenever the term patur (exempt) is used in Masekhet Shabbat it means that one who performs the action is exempt from the punishment mentioned in the Torah, but the act remains forbidden rabbinically (Shabbat 3a).

Thus, one who tears in order to sew transgresses a Torah prohibition, whereas one who tears without the intention of sewing transgresses a rabbinic prohibition (below 13:11); one who dismantles a house or tool in order to refurbish it transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who dismantles something without intending to rebuild it transgresses a rabbinic prohibition (below 15:1); one who erases letters in order to write others in their place transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who erases without intent to write transgresses a rabbinic prohibition (below 18:1); one who lights a fire in order to cook, to supply heat or light, or because he needs the ash, transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who lights a fire to destroy something transgresses a rabbinic prohibition (Shabbat 106a; MT 12:1; below 16:1); one who kills an animal for its meat or skins transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who kills an animal simply to be destructive transgresses a rabbinic prohibition. So one who steps on ants or kills mosquitoes transgresses a rabbinic prohibition, as there is nothing constructive about this action (below 20:8).[5]


[5]. According to Rambam, one who takes revenge on another person and injures him has transgressed a Torah prohibition; since he has placated his evil inclination with this act, it is deemed a productive activity. However, Raavad maintains that since this action is not really productive, the prohibition is only rabbinic (MT 11:1; MB 316:30). See Harĥavot 20:9:2 regarding the destructive act of causing a wound.

08. Kiyum

The Torah prohibits melakha on Shabbat only when the result is lasting (mitkayem). If it is not lasting, there is no Torah prohibition. Therefore, one who writes with a pencil or pen on paper transgresses a Torah prohibition, since this writing will last for a long time. However, if one writes with fruit juice whose color fades quickly, or on a leaf that will soon dry out and crumble, then the prohibition is rabbinic. Similarly, writing in sand or in the condensation on a window is rabbinically prohibited since it does not last (below 18:2, 4).

Along the same lines, one who ties a durable knot that will hold for an extended period of time transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who ties a temporary knot that will not last long transgresses a rabbinic prohibition. A very loose knot that is easily undone and has absolutely no permanence, like a single knot or the knot of a tie, is not prohibited at all, since it is easily untied (below 13:13). The same applies to the melakha of Boneh: if one affixes a hook to the wall in a permanent way, he transgresses a Torah prohibition, while one who affixes it temporarily transgresses a rabbinic prohibition (below 15:3).

09. Grama

The Sages learn from the verse, “You shall not do any melakha” (Shemot 20:10), that the Torah prohibits the actual performance of a melakha, but if the melakha is done automatically, even if a person caused it to be done, it is considered grama (causation), and it is not prohibited by the Torah. In cases of great necessity, one may use grama to achieve the result of a melakha. For example, if a fire is spreading, one may surround the fire with containers filled with water so that when the fire reaches them, the containers will burst open and the water inside them will pour out, putting out the fire (Shabbat 120b; SA 334:22). All agree that grama is permitted only in exceptional circumstances: to avoid loss, in service of a mitzva, or for some other great need. Barring these circumstances, one may not cause melakha to be done on Shabbat (Rema 334:22).

There are some melakhot whose normal matter of performance is through grama, and so one who performs them, even though grama, is liable. For example, Zoreh (winnowing) is a Torah prohibition even though the separation of grain from chaff is accomplished by the wind; tossing the mixture in the air is merely a grama, yet this is the normal way of performing the melakha (see BK 60a). Similarly, one who places a pot on the fire transgresses a Torah prohibition even though he is only causing the food to be cooked by the fire, since that is the normal way people cook. In other words, grama is relevant only when the melakha is performed in an unusual manner. In such a case, if the melakha is performed via an indirect action, there is no Torah prohibition, and one may use this method in cases of great necessity.

In general, if an action looks like the result of direct human action, it is attributed to the person performing it, and it is prohibited by Torah law. When it is not obvious that his deeds are causing the action, but only that he is indirectly causing the melakha to be done, this is considered grama. For example, if one removes a dam that had been holding back water and the water that is released performs a melakha, if that melakha takes place close at hand it is called ko’aĥ rishon (firsthand force), and the person who performed the initial action is held completely responsible for the melakha. But if the melakha happens at a distance, it is called ko’aĥ sheni (secondhand force), and is considered grama. Along the same lines, if the melakha is done immediately after the causative action, it is considered a direct action and is prohibited by Torah law, while if the person’s initiative leads to a melakha being performed only after some time has passed, it is considered grama. Regardless, if the normal way to perform the melakha – even during weekdays – is by causation, where the initial action is separated from its eventual result by a physical distance or a period of time, this is not considered grama, as this is how the melakha is normally performed. Rather, this is direct melakha and it is prohibited by Torah law. Grama always refers to causing melakha to be performed in an unusual way.[6]


[6]. Some poskim permit grama even le-khatĥila on Shabbat (Taz 514:10 and Vilna Gaon 314). Many others permit it only in case of loss, for the sake of a mitzva, in a case of great need, or for the needs of the ill (Rabbeinu Yoel; Mordechai; Rema 334:22; MA). On Yom Tov, though, many permit grama even le-khatĥila (Ma’amar Mordechai; SHT 514:31).The parameters of grama are explained in San. 77b. If one ties up another person and then drowns him by unleashing water that had been restrained by a dam, he is guilty of murder. However, this is only true if the water killed him with ko’aĥ rishon; if it is a case of ko’aĥ sheni, the crime is merely grama. Similarly, in Ĥullin 16a we read that if one unleashes water whose flow turns a wheel attached to a knife that is poised at an animal’s throat, thus slaughtering the animal, the sheĥita (ritual slaughter) is kosher as long as it is a case of ko’aĥ rishon. This is because the removal of the dam is considered the act of slaughter. However, if the water that turned the wheel was a result of ko’aĥ sheni, the sheĥita was accomplished by grama, and the animal’s meat is deemed neveila (not properly slaughtered) and thus forbidden to eat. Rashi explains that when the melakha is slightly removed from the initial action, it is considered ko’aĥ sheni. Ramah maintains that water that flows directly is ko’aĥ rishon, while water that was delayed on the way to performing the melakha because of an obstacle in its path is ko’aĥ sheni. Similarly, water that flows immediately from where it had been dammed up is considered a result of ko’aĥ rishon, while any later flow is considered ko’aĥ sheni. In Sanhedrin, further explanations are offered. If one throws a stone into the air, and the stone falls straight down and causes damage, this is considered indirect damage; the stone fell on its own, due to the force of gravity, rather than the action of the thrower. But if the stone moved sideways as it fell, he is considered responsible; even though it fell because of gravity, nevertheless the fact that it did not fall straight down demonstrates the impact of his action.

10. Children, Non-Jews, and Animals

In addition to the prohibition of doing melakha on Shabbat, we are also enjoined to allow our entire household to rest – children, servants, and animals – as is written: “You shall not do any melakha – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements – so that your male and female slave may rest as you do” (Devarim 5:14).

Thus we see that in addition to the rabbinic obligation to educate children toward mitzva observance, there is also a Torah obligation to make sure that no melakha is done on Shabbat by a child (below, ch. 24).

Similarly, the Torah prohibits allowing one’s non-Jewish servant do melakha. In order to understand the significance of this, we must first explain that according to the Torah, a non-Jewish servant who is acquired by a Jew must undergo conversion, after which he must keep all of the mitzvot except for time-bound positive ones. Should his master decide to free him, he becomes a normal Jew, obligated in all of the commandments including time-bound positive ones. Therefore, even while he is a servant, since he has undergone conversion he is obligated by Torah law to keep Shabbat. The Torah further requires the master to supervise his servant and make sure that he does not work on Shabbat.

If a servant has not undergone conversion, he is not obligated to keep Shabbat. He may do melakha for his own benefit, but not on a Jew’s behalf. The Torah decrees that just as the Jew must rest, he must also not request that his servant perform melakha for him on Shabbat, as the Torah states: “That the son of your servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Shemot 23:12). The Sages explain that this refers to a servant who has not undergone conversion.[7]

The Sages also forbade a Jew to ask a non-Jew to do melakha for him on Shabbat, with occasional exceptions in cases of rabbinic prohibitions (below, sections 11-12 and ch. 25).

The Torah also prohibits having melakha done by one’s animals (below, ch. 20). However, one’s inanimate possessions do not need to “rest” on Shabbat. Therefore, a Jew may lend items to a non-Jew for doing melakha on Shabbat, as long as it will not appear as if the non-Jew is acting on the Jew’s behalf (Shabbat 19a, following Beit Hillel; SA 246:1-3).


[7]. Yevamot 48b; SA 304:1; MB ad loc. 1, 15. There is a disagreement regarding the status of a ger toshav, a non-Jew who takes upon himself the seven Noahide commandments. Rashi and Tosafot Yevamot 48b, citing the verse, “on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that…your bondman and the stranger (ger) may be refreshed” (Shemot 23:12), maintain that even though the ger mentioned here is a non-Jew and thus may work on Shabbat, it is forbidden by Torah law for a Jew to ask a ger toshav to do melakha for him on Shabbat. However, according to Rosh ad loc. and Rambam (MT 20:14), the Torah prohibition is relevant only if the non-Jew has been hired by the Jew to work or if he is the Jew’s servant. However, a ger toshav who is not in his employ is like any other non-Jew. Thus, according to Torah law, one may ask him to do melakha, but rabbinic law forbids it. (Smag, Lo Ta’aseh 75 is the lone voice that maintains that one may not ask a non-Jew to do melakha on Shabbat according to Torah law. Beit Yosef quotes this at the end of §245.)

11. Shvut Di-shvut for the Sake of a Mitzva or Great Necessity

The prohibition of asking a non-Jew to do melakha on Shabbat, like other rabbinic prohibitions, is called a shvut. There is a disagreement among the poskim whether the Sages permit transgressing such a prohibition in order to enable the performance of a mitzva. For example, if the lights go out on Friday night, and it will be impossible to enjoy the Shabbat meal or to learn Torah, may one ask a non-Jew to turn on the lights?

According to Itur, whenever a mitzva is involved, the Sages permit asking a non-Jew to perform melakha. However, according to Rambam and most poskim, one may not ask a non-Jew to do a melakha that is forbidden by Torah law, even for the sake of a mitzva. They agree that one may ask a non-Jew to perform a rabbinic prohibition for the sake of a mitzva. In other words, the Sages did not permit transgressing a shvut even to enable the performance of a mitzva, but they did permit transgressing a shvut di-shvut. It can be helpful to think of a shvut as half a Torah prohibition and a shvut di-shvut as a quarter of a Torah prohibition, since it is prohibited only by combining two rabbinic safeguards.

In practice, one may engage in a shvut di-shvut for the sake of a mitzva. Thus, if a brit must be performed on Shabbat, and there is no mila knife at the location, one may ask a non-Jew to bring the knife through a karmelit (where carrying on Shabbat is rabbinically forbidden), because this action is a shvut di-shvut for the sake of a mitzva. The prohibition of asking a non-Jew to do melakha is rabbinic, and the prohibition to carry in a karmelit is also rabbinic. However, one may not ask a non-Jew to carry the knife through a reshut ha-rabim, because one may not violate a normal shvut even for the sake of a mitzva. There is another solution for the problem of transporting the mila knife. The non-Jew may be asked to carry the knife with a shinui, thus creating a case of shvut di-shvut, since the prohibition of asking the non-Jew to do melakha is rabbinic, and the prohibition of carrying with a shinui is also rabbinic (see below, 24:4).

According to most poskim, for the sake of a mitzva even a Jew may violate a shvut di-shvut. For example, if one needs to bring a knife through a karmelit to perform a brit and no non-Jew is available to do so, a Jew may carry the knife with a shinui so that the action becomes a shvut di-shvut. To be sure, some are stringent and forbid this; but in practice, if it is necessary to enable the performance of a mitzva, even a Jew may perform a shvut di-shvut.

Just as a shvut di-shvut is permitted for the sake of a mitzva, it is also permitted in a case of minor illness (SA 307:5) and in order to avoid a substantial monetary loss (MB 307:22). Shvut di-shvut may not be incorporated into one’s normal Shabbat routine.[8]


[8]. Eruvin 67b states that one may tell a non-Jew to bring hot water for a brit through an area without an eruv. There are three opinions as to why this is permitted. According to Itur (quoted by Ran at the end of Shabbat, ch. 19) the non-Jew is asked to carry in the public domain. This is prohibited by Torah law for a Jew, but is permitted here because violating a shvut is permitted for the sake of a mitzva. However, according to Rambam (MT 6:9-10), the non-Jew is asked to carry in a karmelit, which is only rabbinically prohibited even for a Jew. Thus we see that a shvut di-shvut is permitted for the sake of a mitzva or for the sake of one who is slightly ill. According to Tosafot (BK 80b) the leniency in the case of a shvut di-shvut is only in the case of a brit because it is a particularly important mitzva (and violating a single shvut is permitted for the supremely important mitzva of settling the Land of Israel), but the leniency of shvut di-shvut is not relevant when it comes to other mitzvot.In practice, SA 307:5 rules according to Rambam and allows one to transgress a shvut di-shvut in the case of a minor illness, a great need, or for the sake of a mitzva. MA explains that “a great need” refers to a great monetary loss.

Nevertheless, some poskim rule stringently, maintaining that one may not ask a non-Jew to perform a Torah prohibition with a shinui (see Be’er Yitzĥak §14). But in practice, when it is necessary we are lenient. (See MA ad loc.; MB 340:3; SSK ch. 30 n. 49, following R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The latter adds that according to Eshel Avraham 307:5, even if the non-Jew then performs the melakha in the normal fashion, the Jew may still benefit from it, since he requested that the non-Jew do it with a shinui.)

Some prohibit a Jew from transgressing a shvut di-shvut even for the sake of a mitzva. They maintain that the entire leniency discussed (Eruvin 67b) is relevant only to asking a non-Jew to perform a melakha, because this does not require that a Jew take direct action (Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 307:7; Maharam Schick, OĤ §121). However, most poskim rule leniently even for a Jew in the case of shvut di-shvut (Ha-elef Lekha Shlomo §146; Maharam Brisk 2:64-66; Livyat Ĥen §35). Since the prohibition is rabbinic, the law follows those who are lenient.

It is important to emphasize that one should not make regular use of the leniency of shvut di-shvut. It should be used only occasionally, in cases of true necessity.

12. Shvut for an Important Mitzva or for the Public Good

As we have seen, according to most poskim one may not violate a shvut even for the sake of a mitzva, while according to Itur one may do so. The halakha follows the majority. However, when the mitzva in question has a communal nature, one may rely on Itur in certain cases. Such cases include a situation in which the local eruv has become invalid, and if it is not fixed, many will violate the prohibition of carrying. In such a case one may ask a non-Jew to fix the eruv, even if doing so involves performing melakha that is prohibited by Torah law (MB 276:25).

Some say that even though one may, under pressing circumstances and for the public good, violate the shvut of telling a non-Jew to perform a melakha, a Jew still may not perform a rabbinically prohibited melakha for the sake of a public mitzva. Others maintain that if it is truly necessary – in a case of great need as well as a communal mitzva – then a Jew may transgress a shvut. For example, in the case above in which the eruv is down, if there is no non-Jew available to fix it and, if it is left as is, many people will carry on Shabbat, a Jew may fix the eruv, using a tie knot if possible (see 29:8 below). This is the custom in practice.[9]

The Sages further permitted violating a shvut in order to preserve kevod ha-briyot (human dignity). For example, if one uses the bathroom but has nothing with which to wipe himself, it would be extremely embarrassing if he were to simply refrain from wiping. Because of this, the Sages allow one who finds himself in such a situation to use a muktzeh item or to tear toilet paper with a shinui, both of which are normally rabbinic prohibitions (SA 312:1; MB 12; below 13:11).

There is one special mitzva for which everyone agrees that one may violate a shvut le-khatĥila, even when there is no great need. This is the mitzva of settling the Land of Israel, and the leniency exists on account of its tremendous importance. If a Jew has the opportunity to buy a house in Israel from a non-Jew on Shabbat, he may ask the non-Jew to write up the contract on Shabbat and make sure that it is registered by the courts, as well as show the non-Jew where his money is and allow him to take the money that is coming to him. He may do so even in order to buy a small room of four square amot (one ama is 45.6 cm). Buying property from a non-Jew in Eretz Yisrael constitutes a fulfillment of the mitzva of settling the land and benefits the entire Jewish people (Ramban on Shabbat 130b; Rivash §387; SA 306:11; MB ad loc. 45-47).[10]


[9]. Behag, Rashba, and Rabbeinu Yehonatan agree with Itur. Rema 276:2 attempts to find some justification for the actions of those who ask a non-Jew to light a candle for them to illuminate the Friday night meal (an action that is prohibited by Torah law), by assuming that they are relying on Itur, which permits transgressing the shvut of asking a non-Jew to do melakha if it is for the sake of a mitzva. However, this is not Rema’s ruling in practice, as AHS explains in 276:13, and as we see from MB 276:24. But in the case of a communal need, according to many poskim one may rely on Itur. Thus Ĥayei Adam 62:11 cites Panim Me’irot 1:30, which states that one may ask a non-Jew to fix the eruv even if doing so entails transgressing a Torah prohibition, in order to avoid mass Shabbat desecration. This is quoted as the halakha in MB 276:25, and this is the custom in practice. Similarly, if the electricity goes off in the synagogue on Friday night in the middle of prayers, one may ask a non-Jew to turn the lights back on for the good of the community. If there are two non-Jews present, it is preferable to ask one of them to ask his friend to perform the melakha, because some maintain that such a case is considered a shvut di-shvut (see MB 307:24). If one offers the non-Jew something to eat so that when he turns on the light he himself will benefit, then this is permitted even le-khatĥila. (Also see below 25:4.)Even though we rely on Itur when it is necessary for the good of the community and permit the shvut of asking a non-Jew to do melakha for us, we do not permit a Jew to perform a rabbinic melakha directly (MB 276:21). However, in a time of great need, when there is no non-Jew available, and it is for the sake of a communal mitzva, some allow a Jew to transgress a shvut directly. This is recorded in Responsa Mahari Ashkenazi §13; Panim Me’irot 1:30; Sho’el U-meshiv 2:1:89. SSK 17:34 rules leniently in the case of a Jew fixing an eruv by using a tie knot, an act that is only rabbinically prohibited. (By fixing the eruv, one forms a meĥitza [wall] that permits carrying, and forming such a wall is rabbinically prohibited; see below 15:4; 29:8.)

If there is the possibility of an exceedingly great loss, the poskim permit telling a non-Jew to perform a Torah prohibition to prevent a Jew from desecrating Shabbat himself (MB 307:69). There are also situations in which they allow a Jew himself to transgress a rabbinic prohibition in order to avoid a great loss, such as carrying money with a shinui (Rema 301:33; SA 334:2). In contrast, when it comes to putting out a fire and everything connected to it, they are stringent, out of concern that leniency in such a case would encourage people to actually put out fire on Shabbat (see below, 16:5:1).

If masses are at risk of injury, one may extinguish a burning coal in a public thoroughfare (SA 334:27; below 16:8). One may also kill an animal whose bite causes great pain (SA 316:10; below 20:10).

[10]. Explaining the special permission granted to desecrate Shabbat in order to buy a home in the Land of Israel (permission that is not granted for other mitzvot), Ramban writes: “It is a mitzva that benefits all Jews, that the Holy Land not be desolate” (Shabbat 130b). Rivash §387 expresses similar sentiments. The Sages state that the mitzva of settling the Land is equivalent to all the other mitzvot (Sifrei, Re’eh §53), and this permission gives expression to this idea within a halakhic framework. To be sure, according to Itur, one may transgress a shvut le-khatĥila for the sake of other mitzvot as well, but most poskim limit this leniency to settling the Land, even when there is no public good riding upon it. See Eliya Rabba 306:22, which maintains that even the act of acquisition may be undertaken on Shabbat. However, one may not carry money, since the Jew can simply show the non-Jew where the money is, and the non-Jew can then take it for himself.

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