Muktzeh (lit., “set aside”) refers to items that may not be moved or handled on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. One of the most famous Shabbat-related rabbinical injunctions, muktzeh was instituted to preserve the state of restfulness of this sacred day.

The laws of muktzeh are codified in the Code of Jewish Law in the Laws of Shabbat.

History of Muktzeh

In the year 3426 from Creation (335 BCE), fourteen years after the Second Temple was built, Nehemiah received authority from the Persian king to become governor over the Jews in Jerusalem. Upon arrival, he found the community in miserable conditions, and he worked hard to improve their material and spiritual state. (Read more: The Return to Israel.)

One of the things that appalled Nehemiah was the commercial activity being carried out on Shabbat:

In those days, I saw in Judea [people] treading wine presses on Shabbat and bringing stacks [of grain] and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs and all types of loads, and bringing them to Jerusalem on Shabbat day.1

To strengthen the observance of Shabbat among the populace, Nehemiah and his colleagues instituted that any object not needed for Shabbat use may not be handled on that day. When Shabbat observance improved, they eased the restriction somewhat and allowed additional categories of objects to be handled, as well as additional methods of handling. The resulting set of laws remains in effect today.2

Reasons for Muktzeh

  • Since it is forbidden to work on Shabbat, one might utilize the free time to rearrange the items in their home and carry them from one place to another, in contrast to the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest. To avoid such scenarios, the muktzeh decree was established.3
  • For those who do not work at all, Shabbat may appear equal to the other days of the week. To distinguish the rest observed on this day from their lack of work the duration of the week, muktzeh was established.4
  • Muktzeh was instituted to prevent someone from carrying the item from a private domain to a public domain, an activity forbidden on Shabbat.5
  • Our sages restricted the handling of items whose primary function is for an activity forbidden on Shabbat (e.g., a pen), to prevent the person from performing that activity (e.g., writing).6 Read more: Melacha—A Unique Definition of Work

Read more: Shabbat: An Island in Time

Basic Principles of Muktzeh

It should be noted that the laws of muktzeh are quite detailed and can only be properly grasped through studying the relevant sections of the Code of Jewish Law. (Read the laws in depth: The Laws of Shabbat, chapters 308–313.) Whenever in doubt, consult your Orthodox rabbi.

Not all muktzeh items are subject to the same rules.7 When determining whether a given object may be handled on Shabbat, two question must be asked: First, what type of item is it? And second, why is it being handled?

Type of Item:

The items that fall under the restriction of muktzeh are divided into various categories, each one subject to different laws. The following are the three most comprehensive groups:

  • Set apartdue to a prohibited use. An item or utensil whose primary function is for an activity forbidden on Shabbat (e.g., writing instruments, tools, appliances).
  • Set apartdue to value. An expensive item or utensil (whose primary function is for an activity forbidden on Shabbat) that one is careful never to use for anything other than its specific function, so as to ensure its value will not decrease (e.g., expensive musical instruments, expensive electronics).
  • Set apart by its very definition. An object or substance that has no inherent function, and is not an instrument or tool (e.g., rocks, money, lumber, vegetation, soil, inedible food, animals).

Read more: How Does Shabbat Observance Affect Pet Owners?

Additionally, non-muktzeh entities are also divided into two categories:

  • Items or utensils whose primary function is for an activity permissible on Shabbat (e.g., cutlery, flatware).
  • Food and liquids, books, people.

Purpose of Handling:

The motive why a given item is being handled also plays a role in determining if, and how, it may be moved. With regard to muktzeh, there are four reasons why an item can be handled:

  • To use the object for an activity permissible on Shabbat (e.g., a fork to eat with it, a cup to drink from it, or a hammer to crack open nuts).
  • To use the place where the item was lying (e.g., to move an item lying on a chair for the purpose of sitting there).
  • To protect the item (e.g., to remove it from a place where it may be subject to damage or theft).
  • For no need at all (e.g., toying with a fork).

The following chart delineates the basic principles that apply to the above-mentioned five categories of objects.

      
Purpose of handling →
Type of object ↓
To use the item To use the item’s location To protect the item For no need at all
Muktzeh due to prohibited use X X
Muktzeh due to value X X X X
Muktzeh by definition X X X X
Items used for permissible activities X
Food, books, people

Additional Laws

The restriction of muktzeh specifically applies to moving a muktzeh item. By contrast, you may touch a muktzeh item if doing so will not cause it to move (e.g., to touch a car or tree trunk). Similarly, you may sit on top of a muktzeh item, place a non-muktzeh item atop a muktzeh item, or remove it from upon it (provided the muktzeh item does not move as a result).8

Moreover, moving a muktzeh item is only prohibited if it is done with one’s hands. You may, however, move a muktzeh item with your feet, body, elbow, and the like, or by blowing it.9

If a muktzeh item was placed upon a non-muktzeh item before Shabbat and remained there at the onset of Shabbat (e.g., a candelabra on a table), the non-muktzeh item receives the same status as the muktzeh item and may not be moved for the duration of that Shabbat. This is true even if the muktzeh item subsequently was removed or fell off.10

However, this principle does not apply in any of the following scenarios:

  • If you were planning to remove the muktzeh item before Shabbat, but forgot to do so.11
  • If the muktzeh item was not placed there for a specific purpose (e.g., muktzeh items lying on top of non-muktzeh items at random in a drawer).12
  • If, at the onset of Shabbat, the non-muktzeh was simultaneously supporting another non-muktzeh item of greater value than the muktzeh item (e.g., a table supporting a box of matches along with a silver goblet).13
  • In any of these three scenarios the non-muktzeh item may be moved, even though the muktzeh item is indirectly being moved along with it. However, if possible, the muktzeh item should first be shaken off.14

Conversely, a muktzeh item may not be transported by placing a non-muktzeh item on top of it.15 Similarly, a muktzeh item may not be moved directly via a non-muktzeh item (e.g., removing inedible shells from the table with a knife).16

A repulsive muktzeh item that is found in one’s living quarters may be removed/disposed of (e.g., a dirty diaper).17

A muktzeh item that might pose a physical danger to the public may be moved (e.g., broken glass in an area frequented by people).18

The laws of muktzeh equally apply to Yom Tov and Yom Kippur.19 In fact, there is an additional restriction on Yom Tov that does not exist on Shabbat: an item or utensil that received a new type of function on Yom Tov should not be handled, while if this occurred on Shabbat it may be handled (see note for further elaboration).20

Listen: The Rabbinic Ordinances of Techumin and Muktzeh

True Rest

At first glance, it may appear that muktzeh, along with all the other Shabbat restrictions, inhibit our ability to relax and enjoy this day. Why so many don’ts? Why not just focus on the beautiful rituals and the restful atmosphere?

Rest is the most unnatural phenomenon in the universe. The universe—existence itself—is a giant perpetual motion machine. Everything in it, from galaxies to atoms, is constantly on the move. Earning a living is work, running a home is work, even vacationing is work.

Rest is a divine gift; if G‑d had not created the seventh day, there would be no such thing as “rest.”21 Even now, true rest is an elusive commodity, obtainable only via the Shabbat experience. And to experience Shabbat rest, we need to cease work—that is, cease all creative involvement with our world, opening ourselves up to the Shabbat rest.

Read more: Why So Many Don’ts on Shabbat?