Question: My son recently stopped wearing a necktie and lace-up shoes on Shabbat. He explained that he doesn’t want to transgress the prohibition against tying knots on Shabbat. Is tying a necktie or shoelaces really forbidden?
“A Mother in Israel” (Via E-Mail)
Answer: The Chayyei Adam (topic 26-27:1-2) states, “One who ties or unties a permanent knot [on Shabbat] that meets the criteria of a craftsman – such as knots used by camel drivers, sailors, shoemakers in the course of crafting shoes and sandals, and similar knots – is liable according to all views. There are those who say that any knot tied to last for a lengthy period is considered a permanent knot…. A knot that is tied to be untied every day is not considered a knot and one is allowed to both tie it and then untie it. However, in deference to those who view any knot that is squeezed tight as permanent, one should avoid untying [such a] knot unless it is a situation of great discomfort….”
The Chayyei Adam unusually classifies this halacha as one topic but gives it a twin numeric – “26-27” – since in many instances we are talking about a person actually committing two forbidden acts: tying and untying.
The source of this halacha is the mishnah in Perek Klal Gadol (Shabbos 73a). It lists the 39 primary labors prohibited on Shabbat. These were acts that were generally performed in constructing the Mishkan. The only exception is baking, which Rashi (s.v. “ha’ofeh”) notes was not performing in building the Mishkan.
The biblical source for prohibiting these melachot is derived from the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, which details the construction of the Mishkan. Preceding the description of the construction is the following verse (Exodus 35:2): “Sheshet yamim te’aseh melacha u’vayom ha’shevi’i yiyeh lachem kodesh Shabbat shabbaton la’Shem kol ha’oseh bo melacha yumat – On six days, work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for Hashem; whoever does work on it shall be put to death.” Rashi cites the Mechilta which explains that this passage precedes the construction of the Mishkan to serve as a warning that the melachot necessary to build the Mishkan do not override Shabbat.
Listed among the 39 prohibited labors is tying and untying a knot. The mishnah at the beginning of Perek V’elu K’sharim (infra 111b) states: “And these are the knots for which one is liable [for violating the Sabbath]: the knot of the camel drivers and that of the sailors. And just as one is liable for having tied them, he is also liable for untying them…” Rashi (ad loc. “v’elu k’sharim”) explains: “These, where the knot is permanent (kesher shel kayama) – they are never undone – are considered avot melachot (principle labors prohibited on Shabbat), similar to the tying of the curtains’ threads [in the Mishkan] that were torn.”
The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 317:1) adds: “…albeit that it is ‘ma’aseh uman’ (labor of a skilled craftsman). Then he is liable [and must bring a karban chatat]. Examples: the camel driver’s knot or that of the sailors and the knots on shoes or sandals that the shoemaker ties in the course of their manufacture and all that are like these. However, if one ties a permanent knot, but it is not of a skilled craftsmen, he is not liable [biblically, but is rabbinically prohibited from doing so].”
The Rema (ad loc.) notes: “There are those (Rashi, Rosh, Rabbenu Yerucham, and Tur) who disagree and opine that for any permanent knot, even if it is not of a skilled craftsman, one is liable. There are others who [go further and] opine that any knot that is not meant to be untied on that day [i.e. it will remain tied for a 24 hour period] is considered permanent. And there are others who are lenient and consider any knot that remains tied for less than seven days as not being permanent.”
The Mechaber (infra) also notes that “a knot that is not permanent and not of a skilled craftsman can be tied ab initio.” Rema adds: “This applies as well to untying it.”
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Kaf HaChayyim, Orach Chayyim, ad loc. sk 2) makes the following observation: “It would seem to me that the Mechaber’s [distinction between tying violations that make one liable to a karban chatat and those that do not and are only rabbinically forbidden] is of no consequence today as we have no sin offerings. However, I do see a consequential difference and that is in regards to those whose testimony is invalidated. If one intentionally transgressed a violation that requires him to bring a korban chatat, he is considered an invalid witness whose testimony may not be accepted. Also, if one betroths a woman in his presence [depending on him as a witness] there is no need for a get [if the couple should wish to divorce]. However, if his transgression is only rabbinically prohibited, then in the same circumstance, they will need a get to divorce, because he is deemed a valid witness…”