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;
- 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 muktzeh and carrying outdoors.
Many objects have been designated by our sages as muktzeh--we are forbidden from moving them, in some cases, even for activities permitted on Shabbat. Muktzeh may not be moved directly with one's hand or even indirectly with an object (such as sweeping it away with a broom). However, muktzeh 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 muktzeh 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 sechach (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 activity 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 muktzeh object rests upon is a basis--base for the muktzeh and becomes muktzeh itself if:
A. The muktzeh 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 muktzeh and no non-muktzeh items.
An example of basis encountered every Shabbat is the Shabbat candles on the table. The candlesticks are muktzeh, and may not be removed from the table on Shabbat. The table holding the candlesticks may thus become a base for muktzeh and muktzeh itself, preventing it from being moved if necessary. To remedy this, we simply put another non-muktzeh item required for Shabbat on the table before the onset of Shabbat. Thus, although the candlesticks are muktzeh, the table holds the challah or prayerbook as well and may therefore be moved after the flames have gone out.
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). Neither may one carry an object in a reshut ha-rabim for more than four cubits (six feet). 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.