Muktzeh: Hands Off!
The Prophet Nechemia ben Chachalya said, “In those days, I saw in Judea that people were treading winepresses on Shabbat, and bringing sheaves of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, and figs and all types of loads, and bringing them to Jerusalem on Shabbat. And I warned them not to do it on the day that they were selling food and provisions.” (Nechemia 13:15)
This statement by the prophet Nechemia is taught on our daf as a reason for the prohibition against moving certain items on Shabbat under certain conditions. These items that were made off-limits to be moved on Shabbat are called muktzeh, which literally means “set aside” — i.e. not needed for Shabbat.
When did the prohibition of muktzeh begin? Did it begin in the era of Nechemia? Or did the muktzeh ban occur at a different point in our history? Let’s have a closer look at our gemara, Rishonim and a select later commentary — and I propose that we will arrive at an answer to this question that may come as quite a surprise!
You may wonder: What is the reason for the prohibition of muktzeh? Good question! Numerous answers are found in Torah sources. Perhaps the most notable reasons are found in the writings of the Rambam and the Ravad (Rabbeinu Avraham ben David), who both lived in the 12th century.
The Rambam lists three reasons for the prohibition of muktzeh. One is to help ensure that a person rests on Shabbat. In his words (free translation), “Our Sages prohibited moving certain things on Shabbat in a manner that a person does during the week. Why? They reasoned: ‘We see that the prophets warned and commanded that a person’s walk on Shabbat should not be like his walk during the week, and his speech on Shabbat should not be like his speech during the week as the verse states, ‘v’daber davar’ (see “Talmud Tips” for Shabbat 107-113 in Ohrnet Magazine). Therefore, it should be all the more so that the way and manner a person moves objects on Shabbat should be different in the way moves objects during the week, so that Shabbat should not be like a weekday to him. If he were allowed to move them as usual, he would come to pick up and arrange items, moving them from corner to corner or from room to room, and he will hide away useful stones and the like, because on Shabbat he is not working and he is sitting idly at home, seeking to occupy himself with any activities at hand. Therefore, it would turn out that he would not be resting on Shabbat, which would nullify the reason the Torah gives for keeping Shabbat (Devarim 5:14) — ‘In order to rest.’”
A second reason for muktzeh offered by the Rambam is that if a person would be permitted to move items that could be used to do melacha (activities that are forbidden by the Torah to do on Shabbat), it is possible that he will not only move these items but also (unintentionally) use them to do a melacha on Shabbat. The Rambam’s third reason is for the sake of people who are not normally working during the weekdays, such as travelers, who are not doing melacha any day of the week. If it would be permitted to walk and speak and to move objects on Shabbat in the manner that is permitted on the other days of the week, it would turn out that these people were not resting a “recognizable rest.” Therefore, refraining and resting from these matters — including not handling muktzeh — will provide a recognizable resting that is equal to every type of person.
The Ravad, as he is wont to do, disagrees with the Rambam regarding the reason for the muktzeh prohibition. The reason the Ravad gives for muktzeh is to stem the transgression of hotza’ah — transferring an object from a private domain to a public one (or the reverse). He asks two main questions on the Rambam. The question I’d like to discuss here is from a beraita on our daf which states that “at first” the movement of all objects was prohibited on Shabbat with the exception of three small eating utensils that were necessary for normal eating at the Shabbat table. Then, the beraita continues, our Sages permitted the movement of more and more objects for more and more purposes. Rabbi Chanina says in our gemara that this beraita was taught at the time of Nechemia ben Chachalya, who, as we saw at the very beginning of this essay, was shocked and distraught at the rampant chillul Shabbat he saw, and, as a result, enacted a prohibition of muktzeh that forbade moving virtually any object on Shabbat. Therefore, the Ravad asks: Since our gemara cites Nechemiya’s decree as the reason for the ban of muktzeh, why does the Rambam give three other reasons?
The Aruch Hashulchan offers a novel approach to muktzeh, suggesting that it existed from the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. He also asserts that Nechemia’s decree was certainly only intended to apply to his generation, but not afterwards. With these two principle, the Aruch Hashulchan defends the Rambam against the Ravad’s questions and explains why the Rambam wrote his three reasons for muktzeh in a beautifully detailed manner. (Recommended learning: Aruch Hashulchan 308:1-5)
- Shabbat 123b