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Melacha, Creative and Destructive Acts, And the Opening of Cans and Letters כל המקלקלין פטורין

Bava Kamma 34b

Using one’s creative powers, seven days a week, may lead one to believe in oneself as a creator. This danger is averted in Judaism by the institution of Shabbat, in which one refrains from Melachot. Melachot are defined by my father, Dayan Grunfeld, in his Sabbath book, as acts which demonstrate one’s mastery of the world by means of the constructive exercise of one’s intelligence and skill. For just one day a week, we are asked to lay aside our skills and acknowledge the real Creator.

Essential, then, to the definition of melacha, is the concept of a constructive act. Any act of pure destruction, however strenuous, is not a melacha, or, as the Talmud puts it כל המקלקלים  פטורים “Kol Hamekalkelim Peturim.”

Thus, if one were to knock down a house, simply to destroy it, one would not be performing a melacha, in the Torah sense of the term (melacha De’oreita), although the act would be prohibited under Rabbinical protective legislation (melacha Derabanan). If, however, one would perform the self-same act, with the objective of building a new house in its place, one would have performed a melacha.

The classification of an act as a melacha de’rabanan, rather than de’oreita, has many practical consequences. Generally, whenever there is a compelling reason, the Sages are more flexible in permitting a melacha de’rabanan.

Thus, for example, opening a can of food, a milk carton, or tearing open a tea bag, when such containers are to be immediately discarded, are not constructive acts and because they enhance the enjoyment of Shabbat, the Rabbis permit it. If, however, when opening a can one intends to use it afterwards, as a container, the act becomes constructive, and is thereby transformed into a melacha de’oreita which the Rabbis have no leeway to permit. It is recommended that such containers be opened, in such a way, as to make it overtly clear that they cannot be used again. Some halachic authorities require one to open before Shabbat containers of food that will not spoil on Shabbat.

A constructive act includes not only physical acts but may also include spiritual acts as well. For example, tearing one’s clothes on Shabbat, simply to destroy them, would not be a melacha de’oreita. However, tearing them on Shabbat, in a situation where the Torah would command one to do so were it a weekday, is a melacha de’oreita. Accordingly,when confronted with the tragic news of the death of a close relative, on Shabbat, one may not tear one’s garment.

Because the opening of a letter on Shabbat involves the destructive act of tearing up and discarding the envelope, there is discussion amongst the Acharonim, whether this is or is not permitted. Why, it is argued, should this be different from the permitted act of opening a can of food on Shabbat?

Indeed, the Pachad Yizchak permits the opening of a sealed envelope on Shabbat. The Chafetz Chaim, however, prohibits it other than in extenuating circumstances, when he does permit a Jew to ask a non-Jew to do it for him on Shabbat. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that whereas the opening of food cans is required for Shabbat itself, the opening of letters is not, and, therefore, remains prohibited as a melacha de’rabanan.


Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received Semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, Zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” available for purchase at Ner Eyal: Samson Raphael Grunfeld, 9780615118994: Amazon.com: Books or by emailing Raphael at [email protected].

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