The Jewish people observe the commandment to “guard” the Sabbath by refraining from any of the 39 m’la’chot, the 39 acts of creative labor that were employed in building the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

If the 39 m’la’chot refer to an act of creating something new, such as construction, then it makes sense for sewing to be a m’la’cha. But what about tearing? The sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 74b-75a) ask: “Was there any tearing in the Tabernacle? — Rabbah and Rabbi Zera both say: ‘A curtain that had been attacked by a moth was torn [around the moth hole] and resewn.’” Without tearing the cloth, they could not properly repair the cloth, and thus, tearing became a m’la’cha.

Tearing, or ko’ray’ah in Hebrew, has many applications in regular life. Think about how challenging it would be to function in a modern kitchen without tearing: left over food–just tear off a piece of aluminum foil; spill on the counter–rip off a paper towel. But even if the paper towel has been prepared to be ripped (perforations), tearing it creates a new and independent object – a usable paper towel – and is thus deemed a m’la’cha. (This is why many Sabbath observant Jews use pre-cut toilet paper. Others use tissues.**)

Wishing to prevent any accidental transgression, the sages also prohibited destructive tearing. This rabbinic prohibition has one important exception, which is the unwrapping of food. The Talmud states: “One may break open a cask in order to eat raisins thereof, provided that he does not intend to make a utensil …” (Shabbat 146a). A vessel or package containing food may* be torn open to retrieve the food inside (as long as one does not deliberately create a new vessel in the process or tear through any written letters).

*Tearing on Shabbat is not a straight-forward issue and should be discussed with a rabbi to insure that one is following the halacha correctly.

**Please note, using tissues may be hazardous to your house’s plumbing.

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