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The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 15: Things 3

Who or What


I have a constant problem with my word processing program. I always describe people as “who” and my spell-check always warns me to switch from “who” to “that”. Sometimes it feels as if

the object, my computer, wants to treat people as objects. I’ll know I really have a problem when my computer instructs me to refer to objects as “who”!


I was standing at the gas pump in the pouring rain filling up my car when I learned that my computer is not the only one (who/that?) treats people as objects and objects as people. A group of young men were gathered around a beautiful car and discussing her. That’s right, they were speaking of the car (it/her?)as a woman. I realized then that I have never heard a car referred to in the masculine. Did you know that boats are also female? People (usually men) speak of their cars and boats as women. They speak of their cars as if they were people. “She’s a ‘beaut’”, “She can do 90 in ten,” “Look at the lines on her!” I find it even more interesting that these same people usually also speak of women as objects. We personalize things and “objectify” people.

The Shabbat laws were concerned with such attitudes. They address these concerns with two categories of “Muktzah”:

1) Muktzah Due to Mitzvah, and

2) Muktzah Due to Monetary Loss.

I. Muktzah Due to Mitzvah

Items that are used to perform a Mitzvah are reserved for Mitzvah use and are restricted from other uses. In fact, some Mitzvah items are actually Muktzah on Shabbat.

Succah decorations are considered items dedicated to Mitzvah use. Therefore, fruit which are hung as decoration may not be eaten, and other decorations which are hung from or attached to the Succah may not be used until after the Holy Day. The posters are mine. I bought them and hung them, but when I used them to decorate my Succah they are no longer mine. They are beyond my grasp. They are holy. We understand and appreciate that we have the power to transform an object into something holier. There is no need to speak of objects as people because we have great respect for objects as objects. We do not have the same power to change people. We relate to objects as things we can elevate.

Tefillin are Muktzah on Shabbat because they are used for a Mitzvah that may not be performed on Shabbat. Tefillin are not simply objects used as part of a Mitzvah; there is something holy about them. They are more than leather boxes, parchment, ink, veins and straps. The Mitzvah of Tefillin transforms all of these physical items into something holy that can only function as part of the Mitzvah. The Tefillin are Muktzah – “cut off” from us – when we may not perform the Mitzvah.

Objects are not people. They can exist in a realm all their own. We do not speak of objects as people, because the boundary between people and things is clear.

II. Muktzah Due to Monetary Loss.

Our appreciation of an object’s value can also determine its status on Shabbat. In most cases, Muktzah Due to Monetary Loss relates to expensive items such as a computer, camera, or anything withheld from general use by the owner for fear of monetary loss. This type of Muktzah is not only limited to expensive items, as it also applies to inexpensive items that the owner protects from general use for fear of monetary loss. Whatever value we ascribe to an item determines its status in this category of Muktzah.

If a person stores an item in a special place so as not to be damaged when not in use, such as a delicate tool, the item falls into this category of Muktzah. The mere fact that an item is expensive, easily damaged and kept in a designated place does not make it Muktzah. (We use expensive crystal glasses on Shabbat.) The expensive object only becomes Muktzah if it cannot be used for its normal use on Shabbat. (There is another category of Muktzah that deals with objects usually used for an action prohibited on Shabbat. We intend to deal with that category in another Music of Halacha.

Things are not people. Intention, use, and value determine our relationship with our things. People are not things. We do not determine the status of other people through our intention or appreciation of value. We are not permitted to “use” other people or even to consider them “our things”.

The Shabbat laws shape and elevate our relationship with objects. They teach us how to honor and appreciate the things which are only temporarily in our possession in ways that treating them as people will never accomplish.

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