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 proximity of the mitzvah to rest and refrain from work on Shabbat to the description in Parshat Vayakhel of the construction of the Mishkan teaches us (says Rashi, citing the Mechilta) that the 39 melachot used for the Mishkan are forbidden on Shabbat. Among them is “hakosher v’hamatir – tying and untying a knot.”
The Mishnah (Shabbos 111b) states that the knots in question are those of camel drivers and sailors. Rashi explains that these are permanent knots. The Chayyei Adam (topic 26-27:1-2) states that any knot tied to last for a lengthy period is considered permanent, but some view a tightly tied knot as permanent as well (even if it is not tied to last a long time). The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 317:1) adds that knots similar to those of skilled craftsmen are also included. The Rema cites Rashi, Rabbenu Yerucham, the Rosh, and the Tur who disagree about the length of time a knot must remain tied to be considered permanent (24 hours to a week).
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The Gemara (in Shabbos 74b) tries to determine the instance of tying in the Mishkan that serves as the source for the av melachah of “kosher – tying.” (The Hebrew word for tying, “kosher,” is spelled kuf, shin, resh. The word “kosher” in regards to food is spelled chaf, shin, resh.) The Gemara first proposes that workers tied the Mishkan curtain to pegs that held it in place. The Gemara, however, rejects this suggestion because the workers never intended for their tying to be permanent since the Mishkan was constantly being assembled and disassembled as the Jews’ encampment moved from place to place.
The Gemara, therefore, offers an alternative source for the melachah of tying. When artisans wove the Mishkan’s curtains, strings would tear necessitating that the two broken ends be tied together. The problem with this explanation is that we’re left with not knowing what the source for the melachah of untying is. The Gemara subsequently explains that if the weavers noticed two knots adjacent to each other, they would untie one and tie the other (Rashi s.v. “ve’katar chad” explains that they would leave the other tied as it was).
The Gemara rejects this explanation, though, as unseemly. (Rashi explains that there would be a visible hole remaining in that process as the threads used were thick; thus, a different process that involved longer strings must have been used so that knots did not occur close to one other.)
The Gemara ultimately concludes that Jews performed the melachah of tying and untying for the Mishkan in capturing the chilazon, the creature necessary for the techelet royal purple dye. Tying and untying was necessary to produce, use, and enlarge the ropes and nets that trappers used. (The Jerusalem Talmud [Shabbos 7:2], however, states that the source for the melachah of kosher lies in the process of weaving the curtains for the Mishkan.)
The Mishnah (Shabbos 111b) states that the forbidden tying and untying applies to knots of camel drivers and sailors since they exemplify the property of permanence found in the knots of the Mishkan. (The Mishnah does not mean that Jews actually tied camel drivers’ and sailors’ knots for the Mishkan.)
Do we know what sailors’ and camel drivers’ knots looked like? The answer is: not exactly. We do know that camel drivers’ knots included piercing a hole in a camel’s nose (similar to the piercings in ancient times for human nose rings). A short rope would be run through the camel’s nose piercing, which would form a sort of ring when knotted. To this, the camel drivers’ reins would be attached to enable leading or driving the animal. Similarly, the sailors’ knot involved attaching a rope through a hole in the bow of the boat, to which another rope or chain would be used for either mooring or anchoring the boat in place.
According to the Taz (Orach Chayim 317:1) explaining the Rambam and Rif, the knot must be firm and sturdy (tight) as well as long lasting. Tying such a knot on Shabbat is biblically prohibited. If the knot, however, is either not long lasting or not sturdy, then tying it is only rabbinically prohibited.
The Taz explains, though, that Rashi and the Rosh maintain that it matters not whether the knot is sturdy or not, but rather what the person’s intent was – i.e., did he expect the knot to remain tied indefinitely so that he need not retie it? If he did, then it is biblically forbidden to untie it on Shabbat. However, if he intended to untie it on the very same day that he tied it, he may untie it without incurring any violation, biblical nor rabbinical.