Complex Clearings or Removing Muktzah from the Table
It is Mrs. Friedman’s* unmistakable and excitable voice on the phone. “Rabbi,” she begins in her trademark high pitch, “I am married almost twenty years, and have been clearing my Shabbos table the same way all these years: I brush the small items off the tablecloth and pick up the large ones. Last week, a guest, Aviva, politely suggested that I ask my rabbi whether I am doing this correctly. She was taught that she may not remove pistachio shells and used napkins by hand; instead, to place a disposable clear cover on the tablecloth before setting the table, and after clearing the dirty dishes at the end of the meal, to simply roll up the plastic. However, I place my candlesticks in the middle of the Shabbos table; furthermore, I do not consider it Shabbos-dik to have a cover on my exquisite linen tablecloth! Am I indeed doing something wrong for the last twenty years! I was never told this during all my years in Beis Yaakov!”
What would you tell Mrs. Friedman? In order to answer her accurately, we need to understand these halachos well.
In parshas Terumah, the Torah discusses building the Mishkan, which are the same activities that are categorized as melacha activity on Shabbos. As a fence around the Torah, Chazal banned moving items that do not have a use on Shabbos, a law we refer to as muktzah (see Rambam and Raavad, Hil. Shabbos 24:13). For this reason, we may not move on Shabbos items that are not considered utensils, such as stones and pieces of wood. The rules of muktzah are highly complex, and yet at the same time affect each of us every Shabbos. Although we deal with removing items from the table several times every Shabbos, most of us do not realize all the detailed laws that this simple, common activity entails.
HOW, WHAT, AND WHEN
Certain specific questions about the laws of muktzah directly influence how one may clear the table.
How does one remove a muktzah item without violating the laws of Shabbos?
Which items commonly left on a table are muktzah?
When may I move an item, notwithstanding that it is muktzah?
Answering these three questions will explain what Aviva was taught and provide Mrs. Friedman with some practical, level-headed advice to keep her table Shabbos-dik.
Since it is likely that the remnants of a meal contain muktzah, how does one remove them on Shabbos? The Mishnah (Shabbos 143a) permits tilting the tabletop, thereby tumbling the muktzah to the floor. However, this leads us to question: If one may not move a muktzah item, how may I tilt the tabletop? This is also moving muktzah!
INDIRECT CARRYING – TILTUL MIN HATZAD
The answer is that (under certain circumstances) Chazal permitted lifting a permitted item that indirectly moves something muktzah.
In addition to tilting the tabletop, the Shulchan Aruch (308:27) suggests two other options to clear the table, both of which permit carrying the entire tabletop to a place where one can then tilt off the muktzah:
- If there is bread on the table in addition to something muktzah, the muktzah item is treated as bateil, nullified, to the piece of bread. For this reason, one may now carry the entire table or tabletop to a place where it is convenient to drop off the muktzah. One may even place bread on the table expressly for this purpose (Rosh, as explained by Magen Avraham 308:51).
Based on the above, if nutshells, which are muktzah, ended up on a plate during Shabbos, one may place some bread on the plate and then remove it from the table. Upon arrival in the kitchen, one may tilt the muktzah items into the garbage can. Bear in mind, that when one empties the muktzah items into a garbage can, one can no longer move the garbage can itself. (In all likelihood, the garbage can is already muktzah because of other items it contains. My observation is that people are sometimes not meticulous to treat their household garbage cans as muktzah. One should always leave the garbage can in place. Only under certain unusual circumstances, beyond the scope of this article, may one remove the garbage.)
- Even if there is no bread on the tabletop or plate, the Shulchan Aruch permits moving them to remove muktzah if one needs to use the area. Since this is often the situation, one usually does not need to place bread on the table or plate to remove the muktzah.
(All cases in this article assume that both the table and the plates do not qualify as a basis ledavar he’asur, meaning that it was not intended to be a base for the muktzah [see Tosafos, Beitzah 2a s.v. Uveis; Magen Avraham 308:50]. An item that is a basis ledavar he’asur, intended to be a base for a muktzah item, becomes muktzah and cannot be moved on Shabbos, even if somehow the muktzah item was removed. Detailing the laws of basis ledavar he’asur is beyond the scope of this article.)
DISPOSABLES TO THE RESCUE!
Similarly, someone who places a disposable plastic cover atop the tablecloth may remove the plastic cover and dispose of it even though it is covered with muktzah, provided there is some bread on the plastic cover. As we explained, even if there is no bread on the table, one may remove the plastic if one needs to use the table on Shabbos and cannot do so with the muktzah items still there.
Based on the above halachic discussion, Aviva was taught that the easiest way to clear the table without concern about moving muktzah is to remove a plastic table cover with everything on it. In this method, any potential muktzah is being carried indirectly.
For those who do not like placing plastic covers over their tablecloths, one could follow the same rule by removing the plates with the muktzah items on them, and then removing the tablecloth. Alternatively, one could simply lift the entire tablecloth to a different area and shake it out — then return it to the table.
However, what may one do to clear the table if one leaves the candlesticks on the table, thus making it impossible to remove the tablecloth, and one does not cover the tablecloth with a plastic?
CLEARING MRS. FRIEDMAN’S TABLE
Certainly, Mrs. Friedman will not be satisfied with any of the above methods of clearing her table. Although her son Yanky may like the Mishnah’s method of tilting the tabletop, or the Shulchan Aruch’s suggestion of lifting the entire table, I would elect to be absent should he tilt her table and dump her candlesticks along with the leftovers onto the carpet. Therefore, to avoid receiving her phone call should Yanky clear the table this way, we should explore other options how to do so.
My best advice in this situation is to place the muktzah shells, pits, and napkins directly onto a plate rather than on the tablecloth. Afterwards, one may remove the plate with the muktzah on it. Following the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch, if one places some bread on the plate, one may remove the plate even without knowing that he has any need to use that particular part of the table. If one knows that he will need that part of the table later on Shabbos, then one may remove the plate even without any bread on it.
However, what does one do if someone errantly placed their muktzah item directly on Mrs. Friedman’s gorgeous linen cloth, and there is no practical way to remove the tablecloth from the table?
In this situation, may one remove the muktzah items by picking them up or brushing them off the tablecloth? This is what Mrs. Friedman was doing that attracted Aviva’s attention.
Let us first analyze if indeed Mrs. Friedman’s pristine post-dinner table contains any items that are muktzah. This takes us back to our second original question:
Which items commonly left on a table are muktzah?
BONES AND SHELLS
When humans consume food, we often leave behind bones, shells and pits that we consider inedible, although other creatures consider them a delicious dinner. Are these leftovers considered useless and therefore muktzah, or are they functional, permitting one to move them?
Indeed, the Mishnah discusses whether bones and shells are muktzah, ruling that food remnants that animals do not eat are muktzah, whereas those that they will eat are not (Tosafos, Shabbos 143a s.v. Atzamos).
However, this definition requires refinement since one can find some creature that will consume virtually every organic substance. Does this mean that no biodegradable substances are muktzah? The answer is that only substances eaten by normally available animals, birds, and fish are not muktzah.
What type of animal food is included?
Items eaten by an animal or bird that someone in your neighborhood may own are not muktzah. Therefore, provisions eaten by dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, parakeets, or even household aquarium fish are not muktzah since it is not unusual to find these as pets. For this reason, bones that dogs may lick are not muktzah (see Shulchan Aruch 308:27). Similarly, crumbs are not muktzah, even though no one will be eating them. Halachically, these are still considered feed since one could leave them for animals.
On the other hand, items that are eaten only by animals not commonly owned by people in your area are muktzah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 308:29). Specifically, the Gemara concludes that items considered food only by a raven, an ostrich, or an elephant are muktzah since it is uncommon to find these as pets in someone’s house. Items eaten only by these types of creatures are muktzah unless one owns them. Therefore, a zoo may consider the feed common for any animal it keeps as non-muktzah, whereas in a private home, nutshells, bones, pits, and peels not suitable to feed locally available animals are muktzah unless there is some food still attached to them (Mishnah Berurah 308:114).
Potentially, other muktzah items could easily end up on a table, particularly if there are young children around who have a knack of placing crayons and similar items on the table. Furthermore, some authorities consider used napkins and tissues to be muktzah since no one utilizes them anymore.
MAY ONE REMOVE MUKTZAH?
We therefore see that one could easily find muktzah items on the table after a meal. How does one remove these items?
We noted above, that one may remove muktzah items if they are placed on a non-muktzah surface, particularly if some bread is placed on the same surface. Therefore, after licking clean a bone or pit one should place it onto a plate or other item that will later be removed. When shelling pistachios or other nuts, one should be careful to place the shells on a plate, and one should follow the same approach when one finishes using a tissue or napkin.
But what do you do with the shells that missed the plate? One now has muktzah items on Mrs. Friedman’s deluxe linen cloth!
This takes us to our third original question:
When may I move an item by hand, notwithstanding that it is muktzah? Let us explore a possibility.
GRAF SHEL RE’I
The halacha is that a malodorous or otherwise disgusting but muktzah item that ends up in a residential place may be removed. For example, after changing a baby, one may remove the soiled Pamper notwithstanding that it is now muktzah. This halacha is called removing a graf shel re’i, a chamber pot, which one may remove from a residential place where its presence disgusts people.
Why may one remove a graf shel re’i? Chazal permitted the removal of a graf shel re’i, even when it is muktzah, because of their concern for kavod habriyos, human dignity (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 308:58; Aruch HaShulchan 308:60). This means, that although moving muktzah is an ancient and sacred prohibition, Chazal permitted moving a muktzah item that affects one’s sense of self-dignity if the malodorous item is located in a place where one lives.
However, this halacha only permits the minimum necessary to restore one’s self dignity. For this reason, one usually may not create a kavod habriyus situation in order to facilitate removing muktzah. For example, if the unpleasant muktzah item is located in a part of the house that one does not normally use, one cannot decide to use that area on Shabbos to be able to remove the muktzah. (There is an exception to this rule that is beyond the scope of this article.) Similarly, one may not have a Jew move a graf shel re’i when a gentile could move it (Aruch HaShulchan 308:60).
The question we need to resolve is whether shells and dirty napkins are included under the heading of graf shel re’i. Perhaps one may remove only items far more disgusting, such as vomit and human soil (see Shulchan Aruch 308:34).
Furthermore, even though the lenience of graf shel re’i may not exist for bones, many authorities permit brushing them away with an implement (Taz, 308:18; however, the Chazon Ish 47:14 prohibits.)
Indeed, we find three opinions among the Rishonim regarding this subject. The Raavad prohibited moving muktzah bones and shells even if they are in a residential area, even by sweeping them and certainly by picking them up. He contends that only truly repulsive items are muktzah, and he further maintains that whereas removing a plate or cloth containing muktzah is considered moving muktzah indirectly, pushing muktzah with an implement is considered moving it directly.
On the other hand, the Rashba permitted sweeping away muktzah bones as an extension of the lenience of graf shel re’i (Ran, end of Tenth Chapter of Shabbos). The Ramban allowed sweeping these bones with a broom or other utensil because he considers it removing muktzah in an indirect way, but did not consider them to be a graf shel re’i.
The Shulchan Aruch and the Rama (337:2) both imply that one may remove shells and bones even when they are muktzah. The later authorities dispute whether they permitted sweeping muktzah only because this is removing it indirectly (see Shaar HaTziyun 337:7) or because we treat them as a graf shel re’i and permit removing them even by hand (Magen Avraham 337:4; Gra”z 337:2). This last dispute affects Mrs. Friedman’s table tremendously. The rav who advised Aviva suggested an approach that avoids all these questions: By lifting up the plastic tablecloth with all the rubbish on it, one avoids the entire question, since everyone rules that this is permitted. Whether Mrs. Friedman must push the muktzah items off the table with a knife or napkin or whether she may pick up some of the objectionable items by hand depends on the last dispute quoted. However, it is still preferable that as the muktzah items are created, one should place them directly on a plate.
Observing the halachos of muktzah properly forces us to constantly focus on what we move and how we use it. Thereby, these laws imbue our whole Shabbos observance with greater focus and meaning!
*all names have been changed