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The Shabbat Laws

The Shabbat Laws


The Shabbat laws are quite complex, requiring careful study and a qualified teacher. At first, it's often overwhelming and seems like an impossible number of restrictions. But spending shabbat with others who are shabbat observant will show you that eventually, you, too, will become comfortable with the Shabbat laws, as long as you realize that becoming shomer shabbat (shabbat observant) is a gradual process rather than an overnight transformation. You will also recognize that the wealth off details provides for a lifetime of scholarship--even those who have been keeping Shabbat for years find that there is always more to learn on this subject.

Following is a brief summary of some of the Shabbat laws you are most likely to encounter.

Let's start with some basic activities from which we refrain on Shabbat:

  • writing, erasing, and tearing;
  • business transactions;
  • driving or riding in cars or other vehicles;
  • shopping;
  • using the telephone;
  • turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, television, computer, air-conditioners and alarm clocks;
  • cooking, baking or kindling a fire;
  • gardening and grass-mowing;
  • doing laundry;

Does all this mean that Shabbat is somewhat of a miserable affair, where we sit hungry in the dark? Not at all. It simply means that we have to prepare for Shabbat in advance, so that, on the contrary, we celebrate in luxury, without doing any of the actual work, on Shabbat.

For example: Lights which will be needed on Shabbat are turned on before Shabbat. Automatic timers may be used for lights and some appliances as long as they have been set before Shabbat. The refrigerator may be used, but again, we have to ensure that it's use does not engender any of the forbidden Shabbat activities. Thus, the fridge light should be disconnected before Shabbat by unscrewing the bulb slightly and a freezer whose fan is activated when the door is opened may not be used.

Another example: We may not cook or light a fire, so we cook before Shabbat and keep the food warm through special methods that do not violate any Shabbat prohibitions. See Food Preparation on Shabbat for the laws and methods involved.

In addition to those mentioned above, two other important categories which are not permitted are using or touching items that are considered muktzah and carrying outdoors.


Many objects have been designated by our sages as Muktzah--we are forbidden from moving them, in some cases, even for activities permitted on Shabbat. Muktzah may not be moved directly with one's hand or even indirectly with an object (such as sweeping it away with a broom). However, Muktzah may be moved in a very awkward, unusual manner, with other parts of the body, e.g.: with one's teeth or elbow, or by blowing on it.

Some of the categories of Muktzah are:

1. Objects which have no designated use, e.g.: Stones, plants, flowers in a vase, raw food (inedible in its present state, such as beans); an object that has broken and become no longer useful such as a broken bowl, a button that falls off;

2. Valuable objects or those which would be used only for their designated task, for fear of damaging it, e.g.: Expensive items: camera, crystal decoration; Professional tools: scalpel, electric wiring; Important documents: passport, birth certificate;

3. Objects that are forbidden from use because of Torah prohibition, e.g.: Non-kosher food, chametz on Passover; also included are objects used for a mitzvah, such as tefillin, schach (rooftop greenery) that fell off a sukkah;

4. An object whose primary purpose is for an activity forbidden on Shabbat, e.g.: Hammer, stapler, pen. However, one is allowed to move these objects if a)they are needed for an activty permitted on Shabbat and nothing else can perform that task, e.g., a hammer to open a coconut or a telephone book as a booster seat or b) The place the object occupies is needed, e.g., if a pen is on a chair you want to sit on.

Anything that a muktzah object rests upon is a basis--base for the muktzah and becomes muktzah itself if:

A. The muktzah item was left on the spot intentionally, so that it remain there for at least part of Shabbat;

B. The object was placed there by the owner or with the knowledge of the owner;

C. At the start of Shabbat, the basis supported only the muktzah and no non-muktzah items.

An example of basis encountered every Shabbat is the Shabbat candles on the table. The candlesticks are muktzah, and may not be removed from the table on Shabbat. The table holding the candlesticks may thus become a base for muktzah and muktzah itself, preventing it from being moved if necessary. To remedy this, we simply put another non-muktzah item required for Shabbat on the table while setting up the candles. Thus, although the candlesticks are muktzah, the table holds the challah or prayerbook as well and is therefore not muktzah.


On Shabbat one may not carry or transfer objects between a "reshut ha-yachid" (private, enclosed domain, such as the house); and a "reshut ha-rabim" (public domain, such as the street). Examples of this prohibition include: carrying in one's pocket; carrying anything in the hand; wheeling a baby carriage or shopping cart, going outside with gum or food in the mouth. This prohibition also includes carrying in public hallways or yards of multiple dwellings, unless an eiruv chatzeirot is made. An eiruv chatzeirot is an arrangement whereby carrying in some of the above situations is permitted. In addition, the area in which one wishes to carry must be enclosed. This enclosure, commonly referred to as an eiruv, can occur naturally or be man-made, and must be constructed before Shabbat.

The Jewish community in some cities or neighborhoods constructs an eiruv which encloses several blocks. The area within the eiruv is then considered a private domain where carrying is permitted. If there is an eiruv, it is important to know its boundaries so as not to carry beyond them, and also to ensure before Shabbat that the eruv is up and not damaged.

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Discussion (31)
March 9, 2015
Thank you for the reply. I agree with the underlying issue you presented. For my own purposes, I will pursue a dialogue with an orthodox Rabbi who is comfortable with an open dialogue and perhaps empathetic to a reductionist point of view.
March 4, 2015
I here you...however...
To Eric.

You mention the need for "transparency" regarding "exhaustive fence building" and "contradictions" in these discussions.

I totally here what your saying. But the kind of discussion you are suggesting, does exist... within the Reform community.

However my understanding of the Orthodox position is that the 613 laws enumerated in the Torah are Divine and immutable. The fences the Sages/Rabbis enacted around them are meant to be protective and the basis for compliance is a mitzvah in itself.

I think the underlying issue here is world-view regarding the mitzvoth as well as the nature and history of the Torah and Israel. How one views these will have a huge impact on whether someone is bothered by rabbinic enactments, for example not tearing toilet paper on Shabbos.

If you take a reductionist ("scholarly") approach, then you will likely come to the conclusions it appears you have.

But one can take a rational approach, and still accept, and enjoy, the entire system.
February 28, 2015
On the precipice of pedantic?
I want to approach a higher level of observance with my family. Unfortunately, this subject epitomizes the conflict I believe serves as a barrier to others like myself.

What is so desperately missing is an engaging and foundational understanding of the ritualistic origins and their subsequent evolution over time vs. an enumerated discussion of restrictions.

In other words, explore the original source of the referenced laws and the scholarly lineage of customary behaviors intended to avoid transgression. Include thoughtful transparency about what would commonly be perceived as exhaustive fence building and peculiar contradictions to the well intended individual.

As an example, I have witnessed scores of woman stress and labor over the "serving of meals" during the Shabbos day itself. I see no luxurious celebration whatsoever. Yet, we are restricted to rip toilet paper?

My ask is for a deeper understanding of the where and why, tolerant of challenges to rabbinic paternalism.
December 6, 2014
Legal Dictionary
Law Dictionary refers to the system of law in modern era to maintains a common law legal system.
Martin Glue
October 26, 2014
If one cannot walk at all without the help of a cane, then it is considered as a "third leg" and may be used on Shabbos. However, if one can walk without the cane and the usage of the cane is only to assist and ease the walking, then it is considered as carrying on Shabbat which is prohibited.

The issue with brushing teeth on Shabbos is that the application of the toothpaste falls under the category of "memachek", which means to smoothen. One may not apply any cream or gel on Shabbos, because by doing so they are smoothing the cream into their skin. Shabbos toothpaste has recently been made available, which is a more liquid texture, and does not fall under this prohibition.

It is important to note, that if one has weak gums that bleed easily, they should refrain from brushing their teeth as drawing blood is prohibited on Shabbos.
Shaul Wolf
October 23, 2014
I am disabled and need a cane to walk & why can't I brush my teeth with toothpaste?
I do not live in a Jewish community. I use a cane to walk. So, it means that I cannot leave my home on Shabbat since I need to hold my cane in my hand? Doesn't make sense since it is medical aid.

Also, I heard you cannot use toothpaste on Shabbat? Never heard of liquid toothpaste. So, why can't I brush my teeth?
October 15, 2014
Re: Walk Signal
On Shabbos, we refrain from using all electronic devices. Activating a switch on an electronic device closes the circuit within that device, and constitutes a violation of Shabbat. It is best to cross the road at an intersection that automatically changes, or where there are no cars coming.
Shaul Wolf
October 5, 2014
Walk Signal
My family prohibits pressing the walk signal button on Shabbat. Is that true, or are you allowed to press the button to be safe when crossing the street?
Jesse Corey
June 12, 2014
Re: Exercise
According to the strict letter of the law, walking for the sake of exercise, provided one derives pleasure from such an activity. If it causes a person pain or discomfort, however, it is prohibited, as Shabbos must be enjoyed and pleasurable.

Other forms of exercise, such as those that involve exercise equipment or other items that are not fit for use on Shabbos, should not be done on Shabbos.

Although exercise in itself is permissible according to the strict understanding of the law, it is not necessarily in the spirit of Shabbos, which is supposed to be dedicated to holy activities.
Shaul Wolf
June 10, 2014
Money on Shabbos

See Nehemiah 13:15-16.