June 20, 2024
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June 20, 2024
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Opening Containers on Shabbat, Part I

In honor of my younger son Hillel’s bar mitzvah, we explored a topic that Hillel is quite passionate about: the great debate concerning opening containers on Shabbat and Yom Tov. There is a rich discussion about this issue and Hillel and I wish to share our thoughts. Hillel, who believes that the lenient view is most compelling, is quite the competitor from the ball fields, to the chessboard, to (most important) practical halacha. Therefore, he will be making a most strong case supporting the lenient view.

We begin by laying the groundwork for the 20th- and 21st-century debates from the Gemara and Rishonim to the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries and through the late 19th-century halachic codifiers.

Gemara: Shabbat 146a and Eruvin 34b

The Mishna (Shabbat 146a) states that one may break open a barrel to retrieve the figs contained in the barrel if one does not intend to create a proper opening for the barrel. A problem with this rule is that it seems to be a destructive act (soter), which should be forbidden (on a rabbinic level) on Shabbat. Rashi (as interpreted by the Ran to the Rif Shabbat 61b s.v. Shover Adam) explains that since one destroys the barrel to obtain Shabbat needs, the rabbinical prohibition to destroy is waived. This Gemara indicates that one may open a container to gain access to the food inside.

On the other hand, the Gemara (Eruvin 34b) indicates that one may not break open an object to access the contents. This Gemara teaches that one may not break a shed to obtain the food inside it. Accordingly, the Gemara in Eruvin appears to contradict the Gemara in Shabbat.

Rishonim: Tosafot vs. the Ran

There are two leading schools of thought in the Rishonim regarding how to resolve this apparent contradiction. The Ran (ad. loc.) and other Rishonim argue that Shabbat 146a represents the conventional case. Eruvin 34b constitutes the exception, as it is speaking of breaking a huge vessel. The policy of Chazal to suspend the rabbinic prohibition against breaking items if one does the breaking for Shabbat needs applies only to breaking things usually used for food storage. However, Chazal never waived their ban to break a significant-sized structure such as a shack.

Tosafot (Shabbat 146a s.v. Shover), on the other hand, argue that Eruvin 34b represents the conventional case. Shabbat 146a constitutes the exceptional case because it is speaking of breaking a makeshift and flimsy vessel (a mustiki). Tosafot argue that Chazal prohibited opening a conventional container because of concern lest one create a viable opening in the vessel. Chazal are not concerned that he may make a suitable opening when one opens a mustiki. Since a mustiki is a poor-quality item, it is not worth investing the effort to make a functional opening.

The Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 23:2) seems to agree with the Ran, as he does not limit permission to break open a vessel containing food to a mustiki. The Rambam and Ran do not believe that Chazal were concerned lest one create a viable opening. The Rif (Shabbat 61b) also seems to agree with the Ran as he does not limit permission to break open a vessel containing food to a Mustiki. The Rosh (Shabbat 22:6), however, follows the approach of Tosafot.

Shulchan Aruch and its Commentaries

One would expect the Shulchan Aruch to rule following the Rif and the Rambam. In his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Karo writes that he rendered decisions by assembling a virtual beit din consisting of the Rif, the Rambam, and the Rosh. Rav Karo rules by the majority that emerges from the primary Rishonim. These great authorities represent the three major Jewish communities of the time. The Rif (who lived in Morocco) represents Jews from Arab lands, the Rambam stands for the Spanish Jewish tradition, and the Rosh (Germany) stands for the Ashkenazic tradition. In this way, Rav Karo sought to present a consensus view of all of the significant Jewish communities of the time.

The Shulchan Aruch (314:1) unexpectedly rules per Tosafot and the Rosh. This approach is somewhat surprising since the Shulchan Aruch follows the Ashkenazic Rishonim instead of two pillars of Sephardic psak, the Rif and the Rambam.

Perhaps Rav Karo does not follow the ruling of the Rif and the Rambam when we only infer their disagreement with the Rosh. Had the Rif and the Rambam explicitly rejected the approach of the Tosafot, Rav Karo would have been compelled to follow the former more lenient view.

Most of the major mefarshim to the Shulchan Ruch do not dissent from the Shulchan Aruch’s view. For example, the Rama, Magen Avraham and Taz do not express even a hint of a disagreement with this strict ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.

The Vilna Gaon (Biur Hagra, Orach Chaim 314:1 s.v. She’einah Machzeket), though, rules following the Rif, Rambam and the Ran. He firmly believes that the Gemara in Eruvin 34b and Betza 33b supports the lenient view. How interesting it is that the Sephardic Rav Karo follows the Ashkenazic Rishonim, and the Ashkenazic Vilna Gaon champions the Sephardic authorities!

Nineteenth-Century Codifiers

The Mishna Berurah (314:7) mentions the ruling of the Vilna Gaon but does not regard the Vilna Gaon’s opinion as normative since the Shulchan Aruch and most of its commentaries disagree.

This decision of the Shulchan Aruch, however, troubles the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 314:7-8). The Aruch Hashulchan wonders why the Shulchan Aruch rejects the opinion of such a significant number of Rishonim on an issue that involves only a rabbinic prohibition (destroying a utensil constitutes a rabbinic prohibition; setira is a biblical-level infraction only when done to rebuild eventually). He notes that many otherwise observant Jews in his community followed the lenient opinion and opened bottles on Shabbat. The Aruch Hashulchan concludes that one should not rebuke those who follow the lenient Rishonim’s view and the Vilna Gaon in this context.


The mainstream view permits opening only poor-quality containers on Shabbat and Yom Tov. However, a significant view permits opening even standard-quality and -sized containers on these holy days. The latter view may be relied upon as an adjunct to a lenient view, observes Hillel.

Now that Hillel and I have set the groundwork for the modern-day debate about opening containers, we look forward to presenting the discussion in next week’s issue, iyH. Of course, we will then see if Hillel convinces us to follow the lenient view!

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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