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Shabbat Parashat Pinchas | 5768

Muktzeh When a Phone Is Used as a Precaution

Ask the Rabbi

: I am an older man who recently underwent a series of health crises, including a heart attack. I usually take a cell phone with me outside the home in case I need to call for help. On Shabbat, I feel uneasy going out alone without a phone, as in my building’s stairwell or late at night people may not be around. May I carry the cell phone in my pocket (we have an eiruv), or is it a problem of muktzeh? (My nervousness is not enough to be unhealthy itself, and I will not refrain from going out if your answer is “no.”)

Answer: You imply that you do not feel that the cell phone is consistently needed on the level of safek piku’ach nefesh (the chance that it will save a life). You may be taking into account that where your live [the questioner included an address] many fine Jews would drop everything to help a person in distress and there is an active Hatzala organization. We begin with your assumptions.

A cell phone is generally muktzeh as a kli shemelachto l’issur (=kshmli), as its main purpose is to make phone calls that are prohibited on Shabbat. A kshmli can have a higher level of muktzeh (muktzeh machmat chisaron kis) if one is concerned enough about its safety to refrain from using it for other purposes. Nowadays people use cell phones for just about anything they desire.

A kshmli may be moved for tzorech gufo u’mekomo (to use it for a physical use or remove it from a place one wants to use) (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 308:3). It may not be moved to be protected from damage (ibid.). You are not interested in protecting the phone, but rather want it for its possible permitted usage. Is it enough that you are not moving it to protect it, or do you need a positive tzorech gufo u’mekomo? If it must be positive, how exacting are we in determining utility?

There are discussions among the Acharonim that seem to revolve along these questions. For example, the Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata (20:10) rules that the “need of the place” must be literally that the muktzeh object is occupying a place one wants to use. If it is only that the object is an embarrassment or is otherwise unwanted where it is, it may not be moved. In other words, there has to be a well-defined need of mekomo. Yet not all agree with him (see ad loc.:(20); Az Nidbaru VIII, 30), and all may permit it if due to the utensil’s presence, one will not use the room (ibid.).

The Mishna Berura (308:12) says that one may not move a kshmli to use it if a non-muktzeh object is available. Many poskim limit his stringency to cases where the non-muktzeh is easily useable (Igrot Moshe, OC V 21.12; Minchat Shlomo II, 34.30). Many feel that the Mishna Berura’s reasoning is unanimously accepted (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilachata 20:29; B’er Moshe I, 21). However, our basic assumption is that tzorech gufo u’mekomo must meet significant standards.

Our case is special in two opposing ways. On one hand, the potential usage is the most important one possible (saving lives). On the other hand, the chances of needing to use it on Shabbat appear extremely small. The gemara (Shabbat 124a) says that placing sticks to separate the loaves of the lechem hapanim and prevent their spoilage is not considered tzorech gufo because it is unlikely that there will be spoilage in a short time. This implies that if the chance the object is needed is small, it is not considered a valid need.

Tying things together, we suggest as follows. If, after discussing the matter with the appropriate, sensitive health experts, it is felt that there is even a remote but normal chance that the cell phone will be needed to save a life (this will also make it tzorech gufo), it is permitted to take it. If it is felt that the chance of use does not reach even that low threshold, then not only would piku’ach nefesh not apply, but muktzeh would also be a problem.


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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of

R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld


 Hemdat Yamim is endowed by Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois in loving memory of

Max and Mary Sutker

 and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.

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