Ask the Rov: May I twiddle a fork by the Shabbos meal to occupy myself?
By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin – Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah
Interestingly, the rules of muktza evolved over history, with Chazal first making them stricter, and then gradually closer to their original more lenient criteria.
Initially, in the days of Shlomo Hamelech, the prohibition of muktza only applied to things that were not at all fit for Shabbos use. In the days of Nechemia, when Jews became lax about Shabbos laws, Chazal issued decrees to enhance the sanctity of Shabbos. They prohibited moving any utensils — even those with permitted uses — with the sole exceptions being cutlery, which could only be handled for meal use.
When Shabbos observance improved, Chazal lifted parts of their restrictive decree in phases, with the end result that any common utensil may be moved for its space or any permitted use — even if it’s not its normal usage (e.g. a hammer to open a coconut) — and utensils designated for permitted use may be moved even for their own protection (e.g. from rain or robbery). Even so, they never lifted the prohibition of moving a permitted utensil — even meal utensils — for no use at all, and this applies until today.1
Edible food and books that may be read on Shabbos were never included in the restrictive decree and may therefore be moved even with no purpose. Some poskim extend this to clothing and jewelry, which are garments meant for constant wearing and not “tools.” Others argue that aside from food and books everything was included in the decree (as seen from the Alter Rebbe’s prohibition of cups). The Ketzos Hashulchan records the common practice to be lenient.2
Is fiddling with cutlery to release stress considered a legitimate purpose?
Many contemporary poskim rule that this qualifies as a purpose and therefore is permitted.3 Likewise, poskim permit holding something in one’s hand while learning or giving a sermon to help with focus.4
It should be noted that the purpose for the item need not be immediate. Thus, one may move an item to a different location if they will need to use it later on Shabbos, even if they currently do not need to use it.5
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From The Weekly Farbrengen by Merkaz Anash