The melachah of mechateich refers to the act of cutting or ripping something in a precise manner, to make the item suitable for use.1

Mechateich in the Mishkan

The hides used to cover the Mishkan first underwent a thorough cleaning and tanning process to make them fit to use. Afterwards, they were measured, cut to size, and attached to each other to cover the entirety of the structure. To ensure that the cutting was done accurately, lines were drawn on the leather to indicate exactly where they should be cut. The ruling of these lines is the source for the melachah of mesarteit,2 and cutting along them is the source for the mechateich.3

What Is Included in This Melachah?

Included in this melachah are actions such as cutting out a picture, ripping a paper along its fold, and cutting material in an even, straight line with scissors. Food is not included,4 and one may cut food to a specific size and shape without concern.

Because mechateich specifically involves cutting in a precise manner, one’s intention to do so is necessary in order to classify an action as being a violation of the melachah. For this reason, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach5 maintains that ripping a sugar packet along the dotted line is permitted on Shabbat; one tears it along that line so that the packet doesn’t entirely rip and cause all the sugar to spill out, not because he needs the packet to be evenly torn. While there may not be an issue of mechateich involved, some authorities forbid tearing open packets on the dotted line for other reasons.

In this way, mechateich is different from many other melachot. It is generally forbidden to cause a melachah to be done even if one does not intend for it to happen. For example, one may not wash one’s hands over grass on Shabbat, because watering grass is a violation of zorayah (planting). Even though the person has no intention of watering the grass, it is still forbidden because the grass is still being watered. Mechateich, however, refers to cutting something in a precise manner in order to make it usable. If one does not care whether the item is cut precisely or not, it does not fall into the category of mechateich at all.6

Mechateich and Koraya

Many confuse the melachah of mechateich with the melachah of koraya(tearing) and assume that between the two, all tearing is forbidden. Although their names – cutting and tearing – do seem to indicate that, these two melachot differ from each other in many ways and each have very specific parameters.

According to the Alter Rebbe,7 koraya is limited to tearing apart two things that are attached to each other, while mechateich is limited to cutting in a precise way. Ripping a paper in two, or tearing the seal off a wine bottle, would not fall under either of these melachot. This does not mean that these, or other actions, are permitted, rather each situation should be analyzed individually as there are other halachic issues to consider.

May One Tear Toilet Paper on Shabbat?

Tearing toilet paper or paper towels on the perforated line would seem to be a classic example of mechateich. However, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach8 notes that tearing toilet paper is not mechateich for the same reason explained above regarding sugar packets.9 In truth, tearing toilet paper either on or off the perforated line is forbidden on Shabbat,10 for by tearing off a piece from the roll one is fashioning something and making it usable; previously the piece was part of the roll and could not be used properly and now that it is disconnected from the roll it can serve its intended function.

Where there is no other option, one may tear toilet paper not on the perforated line, and one should do so in a way that differs from how he or she usually tears it. This leniency exists to preserve human dignity, and it should not be generalized to other scenarios.11

Common activities to avoid:

  • Using scissors to cut out an article from a newspaper.
  • Folding a large paper in half and ripping it along the fold to make it smaller.
  • Tearing individual raffle tickets off a roll.
  • Tearing sheets of aluminum foil, paper towels, or parchment paper from a roll.