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The Melacha of Sewing on Shabbat

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Aug 4, 2008

The Melacha of Sewing on Shabbat

In the previous issue we discussed the melacha of korei'a (tearing) and its relationship with the melacha of tofer (sewing). In this week's issue we will discuss the melacha of tofer, define some of the parameters of the melacha and provide practical applications to this discussion.

The Quality of the Stitch

The Mishna, K'la'im 9:10, implies that there is a relationship between the standards of sewing in order to violate the prohibition against wearing sha'atnez and in order to violate the melacha of tofer. As we discussed in a previous issue, according to many Rishonim, a garment of wool that is sewn together with a linen garment constitutes sha'atnez. The Mishna states that in order for two garments to be considered sewn together, a minimum of two stitches are required. As such, in order to violate the melacha of tofer on Shabbat, one must sew two stitches. This idea is reflected in the Mishna, Shabbat 73a, that describes the melacha as hatofer shtei tefirot, one who sews two stitches.

The Gemara, Shabbat 74b, notes an important qualification of the melacha of tofer. All melachot have to exhibit some degree of permanence. If one sews two items together with only two stitches, it is very likely that the stitches will unravel. The Gemara concludes that in order to violate tofer with two stitches, one must tie a knot at both ends so that the stitches are permanent in nature.

Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 10:9, in codifying the statement of the Gemara, states that if one sews more than two stitches, he violates the melacha of tofer even if he doesn't tie both ends because such a stitch is inherently permanent. Rambam implies that the Gemara's requirement to knot both ends is not definitional to the melacha of tofer and is only a means of assuring the permanence of the stitch. Ramban, Shabbat 74b, s.v. V'Hu, adds that in order to violate the melacha of tofer, the knot does not have to be a type of knot that would violate the melacha of kosher (tying). [Meiri, Shabbat 73a, states that by tying certain types of knots in order to secure the stitch one can potentially violate the melacha of kosher in addition to violating the melacha of tofer.]

The Difference between Tofer and Kosher

A number of Acharonim note that the melacha of kosher and the melacha of tofer seem to be one and the same. In both melachot, the purpose of the melacha is to bind two items together. If so, what is the practical difference between kosher and tofer?

R. Yechiel M. Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 317:18, suggests that the difference is that kosher is violated when one combines two items in a way that undoing the connection will restore the two items to their original form. Tofer is violated when one combines two items in a way that separating the two items requires destroying the point of connection.

R. Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:84, presents a similar answer to that of R. Epstein. He adds two points. First, even though a sewn item can be undone by removing the stitches, if the normal way of disconnecting the two pieces is through tearing, connecting the two parts is considered tofer. Second, there is another important difference between kosher and tofer. When one ties two items together, they remain two distinct items. When one sews two items together, they are perceived as one item. Therefore, kosher is defined as connecting two items, whereas tofer is defined as combining two items into one item.

Practical Applications

R. Feinstein's responsum discusses whether it is permissible to bind two items together using a safety pin. Based on his definition of tofer, he permits use of the safety pin because it does not serve to combine two items into one item and its removal does not require tearing. [Its use would not constitute a violation of the melacha of kosher because kosher has its own parameters which are beyond the scope of this article.] R. Feinstein admits that his opinion seems to be at odds with a comment of Korban Netanel, Shabbat 7:50. However, R. Feinstein suggests that Korban Netanel may agree to his approach.

R. Shmuel HaLevi Vosner, Shevet HaLevi 3:51, rejects the premise of R. Epstein and therefore adopts his understanding of the position of Korban Netanel that one may not attach two items using a pin on Shabbat. Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata 15:70, accepts R. Feinstein's position. However, out of deference to the opinion of Korban Netanel, he suggests that one should connect the two items by only placing one hole in each of the garments. By doing so, it is considered only one "stitch." Therefore, even if one considers use of safety pins to be tofer, there is no biblical violation of the melacha because it is lacking two stitches.

Based on R. Feinstein's parameters for tofer, use of a zipper would not constitute a violation of tofer. However, R Vosner, op. cit., and Shevet HaLevi 8:61, maintains that in principle, use of a zipper constitutes a violation of tofer. The only reason why it is ordinarily permissible to use a zipper on Shabbat is that in most cases the garment will be unzipped within a short amount of time. However, if one plans on keeping the two sides of the zipper together for a long time, it is prohibited to use the zipper. For this reason, R. Vosner prohibits attaching the lining of a coat to a coat using a zipper.

Stitches on a Human

When a person suffers a deep cut, there is often a need to sew the wound closed in order for it to heal properly. If the wound must be treated on Shabbat, the treatment constitutes pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and one must treat the wound on Shabbat. Suppose that the wound is on the face and in order to treat the wound only a few stitches are required, but in order to prevent a significant scar from forming, additional stitches are required. Those additional stitches are not for the purpose of preventing infection and ostensibly, the mandate to violate Shabbat for pikuach nefesh would not apply. Is it permissible to sew additional stitches on Shabbat?

R. Yitzchak Zilberstein, Torat HaYoledet (Chapter 34), in concurrence with R. Yechezkel Abramsky, suggests that the melacha of tofer does not apply to stitching human skin. As such, additional stitches would be permissible on Shabbat. R. Shlomo Z. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo, Tinyana no. 35, disagrees and maintains that tofer does apply to stitching human skin. Nevertheless, R. Auerbach provides a leniency to sew additional stitches based on the principles of pikuach nefesh.

There is an additional factor relating to stitching human skin which may provide another leniency regarding the question of sewing additional stitches on Shabbat. R. Auerbach (cited in Shulchan Shlomo, Hilchot Shabbat Ch. 340 note 42) questions whether stitching of human skin should be categorized as tofer or boneh (building). He suggests that human stitching does not fit the classical definition of tofer because in ordinary stitching of garments it is the stitch that connects the two garments. If one removes the stitch, the two garments are separated. Regarding human stitching, the purpose of the stitches is to hold the two pieces of skin together temporarily while the skin heals. When the skin heals, the stitches can be removed and it will not affect the binding of the two pieces of skin. Therefore, it is possible that binding together two pieces of skin would be considered boneh and not tofer. [Rashi, Ketuvot 6b, s.v. Chayav, states that "fixing" a human constitutes a violation of boneh.]

If one assumes that human stitching is considered boneh and not tofer, one can suggest an additional leniency regarding sewing additional stitches on Shabbat. If someone has a wound that needs to be treated on Shabbat, it is certainly permissible to bind the two pieces of skin together for the purpose of pikuach nefesh. Sewing additional stitches would not constitute a further violation of boneh because the pieces of skin will bind regardless of whether the additional stitches are sewn.


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