Sewing on Shabbos
Question #1: Stuffing a Pillow
“My pillow is torn, and some of the filling has fallen out.
May I restuff it on Shabbos?”
Question #2: Stitches
“Does stitching a wound closed involve a Torah prohibition
Question #3: Miscellaneous
What do these questions have to do with one another?
Among the 39 melachos of Shabbos, we find
several sets of pairs, including tying and untying, writing and erasing,
building and razing, and kindling and extinguishing. One of the sets is tofeir
and korei’a, sewing and tearing. Of this pair, korei’a usually
gets more coverage in practical halacha, because it involves many common
questions such as opening packaging and tearing toilet paper. So that tofeir
does not feel left out, the aim of this article is to show that there are many
interesting details relevant to this melacha, and we will also discover
some halachic surprises.
First, some introductory information about this melacha:
One violates the av melacha either by sewing three stitches (meaning
that the needle goes through the material three times) or by sewing two
stitches and then tying the thread with a knot, so that the stitches remain (Rambam,
Hilchos Shabbos 10:9). Without this last step, the stitches will not last,
and, therefore, one does not violate the melacha min haTorah.
The rishonim dispute whether one violates a melacha
min haTorah if one sews an item closed, but intends to open the stitches
very shortly. Why would one do this? An example is that launderers sometimes
stitched small items of clothing to larger ones, so that they will not get
lost. This stitching will be removed as soon as the laundry is complete. Does
this involve a Torah prohibition or is it prohibited only because of a rabbinic
I’ll provide a contemporary application, although it
presumably does not affect most of our readers. To make sure that they remain
firmly in place, boxing gloves are sewn closed around the wrists of the boxer.
However, the boxer presumably wants to remove his gloves before his next meal
or when he next needs to blow his nose. Thus, although the gloves are sewn very
tightly onto his hands, the stitches will be undone very shortly, sometimes
within a few minutes, if the boxer is either extremely successful or extremely
unsuccessful. Does this sewing involve a Torah prohibition?
Most rishonim follow the more stringent approach,
which is also the way the Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chayim 340:7).
The Rema (Orach Chayim 317:3) quotes both approaches. Most later
authorities understand that the Rema also concludes that the primary
opinion is that sewing properly is prohibited min haTorah, even when one
intends to rip out the stitches shortly (Tehillah Ledavid 340:6; Chazon
Ish, hashmatos, Orach Chayim page 257; cf., however, Graz 317:7).
So, boxers, beware, don’t sew your gloves on Shabbos! (Now, can you have
a non-Jew do it? That is a topic for a different time!)
Here is a case that involves sewing min haTorah that
most people do not realize is prohibited. On Shabbos, someone sees that
some stitching on his garment is loose, so he pulls the stitching together. Halachically,
this is considered an act of sewing the two pieces of the garment together,
and, therefore, this seemingly innocent act involves a Torah prohibition of
sewing (see Rashi, Shabbos 75a). This act will be prohibited min
haTorah also on Yom Tov.
Embroidering cloth also violates the av melacha of tofeir
(Nimla Tal, Meleches Tofeir note 25). Notwithstanding that, when
embroidering, one does not necessarily stitch through the entire thickness of
the cloth, there is still a Torah violation of tofeir (Yerushalmi,
Shabbos 7:2, as explained by Pnei Moshe).
A safety pin is usually inserted twice through cloth and
then closed. Could this be considered sewing, since it is similar to making two
stitches and then tying a knot, which is prohibited min haTorah?
Indeed, several prominent early acharonim banned the
use of safety pins for precisely this reason (Shu”t Ginas Veradim,
Orach Chayim 3:17, 19; Rabbi Akiva Eiger, notes to Magen Avraham 340:11;
see also Korban Nesanel, Shabbos 7:50). However, many later acharonim
permitted the use of pins on Shabbos, citing the following reasons:
(1) The closing performed by pinning is by nature temporary,
and therefore not an act of tofeir (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim #156,
page 257, notes to Chapter 340; Az Nidberu 3:72).
(2) Tofeir is the act of making two or more items into
one unit, which a pin does not do (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:84).
Notwithstanding that a pin attaches two items, there are many activities that
attach two items, such as buttoning, zippering and snapping, all of which are
permitted on Shabbos. So, there is no reason to assume that pinning two
items together should be treated any more stringently than buttoning them
The position of the Mishnah Berurah on this question
is unclear (see 308:46; 340:27). Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky understood that the Mishnah
Berurah was also lenient about the use of pins on Shabbos (Emes
Leya’akov, Orach Chayim 340).
Stuffing a pillow
Now that we have a basic introduction to the melacha,
we are in a position to discuss the halachos relevant to our opening
question: “My pillow is torn, and some of the filling has fallen out. May I
restuff it on Shabbos?”
The answer to this question lies in understanding a small
passage of Gemara (Shabbos 48a), which teaches the following:
Rav Chisda permitted returning stuffing into a pillow on Shabbos.
Rav Chanan bar Chisda asked Rav Chisda how he could permit this, since an
earlier, authoritative source (a beraisa) prohibited stuffing soft
material into a pillow on either Yom Tov or Shabbos. Rav Chisda
responded that it is prohibited to create a pillow for the first time by
stuffing it, but it is permitted to restuff an old pillow.
Why can’t you stuff?
What is wrong with stuffing a pillow on Shabbos? The rishonim
dispute why the beraisa prohibited stuffing a new pillow on Yom Tov
or Shabbos. Rashi explains that the prohibition is because of the
melacha of makeh bepatish, making a new item, since one is
manufacturing a new pillow. The Mishnah Berurah (340:33) understands
this act to be a Torah violation of the melacha.
However, the Rambam explains the Gemara quite
differently, that the prohibition here is rabbinic, and that this is not a case
of makeh bepatish. He understands that Chazal prohibited stuffing
the pillow because of concern that someone might forget and sew the pillow
closed (Hilchos Shabbos 22:23).
Both opinions agree that the prohibition is only to stuff a
pillow for the first time, but that it is permitted to replace stuffing that
fell out (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 340:8). Thus, we have an answer to
the question: “My pillow is torn, and some of the filling has fallen out. May I
restuff it on Shabbos?” The answer is that one may, assuming that one
does not tighten the thread that connects the two sides.
An interesting and contemporary question with a surprising
answer is whether suturing a wound on Shabbos by a physician involves a de’Oraysa
prohibition of sewing. In truth, most instances of stitching usually entail
an element of pikuach nefesh, life-threatening emergency, because of the
risk of infection. It seems to this author that this would permit stitching a
wound on Shabbos, even if it involves an act that is a melacha min
haTorah. However, there are at least three situations in which it will make
a practical difference whether stitching a wound closed involves a Torah
prohibition or not.
I. Extra stitches
One of the differences that might result is whether, because
of asthetic, non-medical reasons, it is permitted to make more stitches than necessary.
For example, when a plastic surgeon closes a wound, he makes the stitches very
close together in order to avoid a serious-looking scar. To do so, he uses more
stitches than necessary from a strictly medical basis. These additional
stitches are not pikuach nefesh, since one can safely close the wound
with fewer stitches.
Whether one can have a Jew perform melacha that is pikuach
nefesh when a non-Jew is available is a dispute among rishonim and
early poskim. In our case, it would have the following application: Is
one permitted to have a Jewish physician suture a wound closed on Shabbos
when there is a non-Jewish physician available who can?
III. Late on Shabbos
If an injury was sustained on Shabbos afternoon not
long before sunset, it is usually not pikuach nefesh to close the wound
immediately; one can wait safely until Shabbos is over and then stitch
the wound closed. Thus, if stitching the wound involves a Torah prohibition,
one should wait until after Shabbos to suture it. However, if no
violation is involved, one might be able to suture it immediately.
At this point, we will discuss whether stitching a wound is
included under the melacha of tofeir on Shabbos. I have
seen two reasons to contend that there is no melacha of tofeir involved
in stitching a wound closed:
A. We do not find that sewing as a melacha applies to
the bodies of people (Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah, 1979 edition,
Chapter 35, note 62).
B. Tofeir is the combining of two items. Stitching
skin does not make the two sides into one unit, but draws them close together
so that they can heal into one unit (Nimla Tal, meleches tofeir #37).
Thus, the stitching does not consist of a melacha min haTorah.
Tied in knots
However, either of these approaches may not change what the
practical halacha is in these situations, because of a completely
different problem. When stitching a wound closed, every stitch is followed by
tying a knot, which is left permanently. Even when the stitch is removed, it is
removed by cutting the thread and slipping out the stitching, not by untying
the knot. Thus, the surgeon’s knot, which is definitely a specialist’s knot and
is also knotted permanently, probably involves a melacha de’oraysah of kosheir,
tying knots, a different one of the 39 melachos. Since this article is
about tofeir and not about kosheir, I will leave further
discussion on this point for a different time. Those who have the shaylah
should get direction from their rav or posek.
We can now address the second of our opening questions:
“Does stitching a wound closed involve a Torah prohibition on Shabbos?”
It would seem that stitching a wound closed on Shabbos
involves a Torah prohibition of knotting.
We have learned many details about the melacha of sewing.
Sewing three stitches violates the melacha min haTorah, as does
sewing two stitches and then securing them so that they hold. Although using a
safety pin may appear to be similar to sewing two stitches and securing them,
many later authorities permit using pins to hold things together on Shabbos.
We learned that stuffing a pillow for the first time is prohibited on Shabbos,
and, according to some authorities, the reason for this prohibition is because
we are concerned that someone may inadvertently sew the pillow closed. We also
learned that there is an interesting halachic discussion whether
stitching a wound closed involves a Torah prohibition on Shabbos.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that
people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos in order to
provide a day of rest. This is incorrect, he points out, because the Torah does
not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha,
which implies purpose and accomplishment. The goal of Shabbos is to
emphasize Hashem’s rule as the focus of creation by refraining from our
own creative acts (Shemos 20:11).