Before the onset of Shabbat, you’re obligated to check your clothing to ensure that nothing has mistakenly been left in your pockets.1 But despite your best efforts, you might realize that you’re carrying an item in your pocket while walking on Shabbat. So what do you do?

The Definition of “Carrying”

The biblical prohibition of carrying on Shabbat (hotza’ah) is violated in two ways:

  1. Picking up an object (akirah) in a private domain and depositing it (hanachah) in a public domain, or vice versa.
  2. Picking up an object, walking a distance of 4 cubits (approx 6.3 feet), and putting it down, all in the public domain.

Now, in order to be liable, you need not actually pick up or put down the item with your hands; starting or stopping to walk can also be considered “picking up” or “putting down.”2 Rabbinically, carrying even without picking up or putting down is also prohibited.

The Dilemma

Based on this, the moment you realize that you have something in your pocket, you are faced with a dilemma. Continuing to walk may just exacerbate the prohibition, and if you stop walking, that in itself may inadvertently be considered “putting down,” which is the completion of the biblical prohibition of carrying.3

In such a scenario, it is likely that one will have no recourse but to violate (at least) the rabbinic prohibition of carrying. However, with regard to some of the rabbinic prohibitions, the rabbis made an exception (or “waived” the rabbinic prohibition) so that a person does not come to violate the biblical prohibition. The rabbis give a number of suggestions and options regarding what to do to avoid (or at least minimize the severity of) the prohibition.

Keep Calm and Carry On

As mentioned above, coming to a halt is in itself considered a hanachah (“putting down”) and may be the completion of the biblical prohibition. As such, if you need a moment to figure out what to do, you should keep walking, preferably in circles within the same four cubits, until you decide the best course of action.

Dump Trash

If the item found in your pocket is cheap (like a tissue) and you don’t mind losing it, then from a practical standpoint, the easiest option is to continue walking and let the item drop in an indirect manner (for example, turn out your pocket so that it drops out).4

What if it is an item you do not wish to discard? There are other options, which may be even more halachically sound (but not always as practical).

Pass It On

If you find in your pocket an item you’d rather not lose, then, in theory, you can pass it to a non-Jew while the two of you are both walking. Since you neither stopped while holding it nor placed it on a stationary perch, you never completed the prohibited action, which includes putting down the object.5 However, in most instances, this isn’t the most practical of solutions (since, while walking around in a circle, you’d have to find a non-Jew who is willing to carry your object and hand it to him while he is walking).

Thus, preferably, you should drop the item in an indirect manner and then remain to guard it until nightfall. Alternatively, you may ask a non-Jew to guard it, but do not explicitly ask him to carry it for you. If he voluntarily carries it for you, you need not protest.6

If this does not work (such as a scenario when the non-Jew does not understand what you want from him, and you cannot afford to lose the item), you may ask the non-Jew explicitly to carry it for you, provided that you aren’t in a bona fide public domain (see footnote #17).7

If there aren’t any non-Jews around, you can ask a Jew who is not obligated to keep the mitzvahs. This includes a person whose intellectual disabilities prevent him or her from understanding the significance of Shabbat, a deaf-mute, and a minor. Where you have a choice, giving it to the person with intellectual disabilities is preferable.8

As mentioned above, you should give the item to the other person while he is walking (and if you haven’t stopped walking yet, ideally you should give it while you’re walking as well9). Furthermore, if the other person needs to stop to rest, then you should take the item from him and return it to him once he restarts walking.10

It needs to be stressed that this is only permitted in an instance where you accidentally found something in your pocket on Shabbat and there is a fear that you may come to transgress the biblical prohibition of carrying if this “loophole” is not allowed. Under normal circumstances, we may not give things to others to carry, even to those not obligated to keep the Torah laws. Similarly, if you found a valuable item in the street on Shabbat, these leniencies would not apply.

Break It Up

If none of the above-mentioned people are around, you may transport the item by carrying it less than four cubits at a time, i.e., walk with it for less than four cubits, stop for a short time to rest, then walk less than four cubits, rest, etc., until you reach somewhere where you can place the object.11

When making the stops, if you pause merely to adjust your burden, it is not considered a true interruption. Instead, you must stand still (and ideally sit down) in order to rest.12

Pass It Back and Forth

If you are together with someone else, then another (perhaps more preferable) method would be to keep passing the object back and forth while you remain within four cubits of each other (e.g., while you’re holding it, the other person walks a few steps while staying within four cubits. You then pass it to him and walk a few steps, etc.).13

Toss It In

The above two solutions (taking rest stops or passing from hand to hand) only help you move the item within the public domain. They will not, however, allow you to bring the item into a private domain.

Therefore, immediately upon reaching the home or other private domain where you wish to deposit the item, before coming to a standstill, toss the object into the home in an irregular manner (e.g., throwing it backwards over your shoulder). In this way, you have not properly “put down” the object (hanachah), avoiding the biblical prohibition.14

Run, Run, Run

If you cannot transport the object by walking less than four cubits at a time because you fear that thieves may steal it, etc., you may run while carrying the object until you reach your home. Then, before you stop, you must toss the object into the house in an irregular manner so that you will not bring it from the public domain to a private domain in a forbidden manner.15

Why did the sages allow running but not walking? When you walk, you may pause momentarily, effectively putting down and picking up the item again, causing you to transgress. However, as long as you are running, you will remember that you must not stop along the way.16

This leniency only works if either:

  1. you are in a bona fide public domain and you began walking with the item in your pocket before Shabbat started (in which case the original akirah did not take place on Shabbatand as long as you continue running, there is no akirah or hanachah), or
  2. it is not a bona fide public domain (see footnote17), in which case this leniency works even if you began walking with the item in your pocket on Shabbat.18

In conclusion, although we have outlined some courses of action if you inadvertently find an object in your pocket on Shabbat, none of them are ideal, and it is really best to get into the habit of checking your pockets before strolling out on Shabbat, reducing this entire article to a theoretical exercise.