Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 17 December 2016 / 17 Kislev 5777

On the Button

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Phil

Dear Rabbi,

If a button unexpectedly pops off a garment on Shabbat, is it permitted to pick it up in order to save it to sew it back on after Shabbat, or does it become “muktze” and thereby forbidden to handle on Shabbat? I don’t see why it would be forbidden, but a friend says it is. If it cannot be handled, could anything be done to prevent it from getting lost?

Dear Phil,

Of the two opinions, yours is on the button. Generally, it would be permitted to pick up a button that falls off on Shabbat.

That being said, there is basis for your friend’s opinion to forbid it because of muktze, which might be a reason to be stringent in certain circumstances. So let’s elaborate on the reasons why it might be forbidden before explaining why it’s actually permitted.

There are two very broad types of muktze. The more stringent one includes raw materials that are not vessels or instruments, such as dirt, rocks or metals. As such, they have no basis for permitted use on Shabbat, and are out of sight and out of mind, and thereby off limits for use on Shabbat. The other less stringent one includes vessels or instruments whose primary use or function involves a prohibition of Shabbat, such as a hammer, lighter or grater. Since these instruments are used for actions which are forbidden on Shabbat, they are also off limits, unless for some permitted purpose, like using a hammer as a paper-weight.

Within the category of muktze vessels, there are several subcategories. One of these pertains even to objects whose normal use is permitted, but which have been set and fixed in a specific place, and thus set aside from use on Shabbat. A typical example of this type of muktze (which literally means something that has been “set aside” or “designated”) is a wall-painting. As a free-standing picture it is permitted to handle; but when it is permanently hung on the wall it is thereby set aside and put “out of reach” on Shabbat.

Arguably, buttons, which are permanently sewn in a specific place on garments, purses and the like, could be considered like paintings which are fixed on the wall, and thus would be muktze if they fall off on Shabbat, as is the case with a picture that falls off the wall.

However, we find an interesting case which serves as a point of distinction between the button and the painting. In a case where a movable chest or closet has parts which have been affixed to it, such as a lid, door or shelf, and such a part detaches on Shabbat, the separated part is not muktze even though it was set permanently on the chest. The reason given for this is that since the part was fixed on something moveable, the part was never set aside from being moved, such that when it falls off, it may be handled on its own. In this way, such a door or shelf is different than one which was fixed on or in a wall, which, if detached, would be muktze since it maintains its status as when on the wall, i.e. immovable (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 308:8 and Mishneh Berurah 35).

According to this, even though a button is permanently sewn in place, that place is on something that is constantly moved. Thus, even if the button falls off it does not thereby become muktze but rather may be picked up and handled since it is an instrument. Thus, its use is permitted on Shabbat as it was never set aside from being moved. And in fact, this is the generally accepted halacha.

Still, some make a distinction between the button and between the door or the shelf of the moveable closet since not only are these “fixed” parts considered moveable as parts of the chest, they are also usable on their own even when separated from the chest (for example, as a covering or seat, or any number of other uses). But this is not the case with a button, which has no use on its own and might thus be muktze because of this lack of purpose (Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach, zatazl, based on Meiri and Ran, Shabbat 126b).

For this reason, if the button is unique and would be difficult to replace if lost, one may rely on the basic halacha stated above that a button which falls off on Shabbat is not muktze and may be picked up and handled. However, if it may be easily replaced, there is basis to be stringent and not pick it up. In such a case, even if one chooses not to handle it, it is permitted to move it in an indirect way, such as by kicking it on the floor to a place where it will be guarded until after Shabbat.

  • Sources: Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchata 15:72

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