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34. M&Ms - Part 2: Memachaik, Mesarteit, Mechateich

July 22, 2015 | by

Smoothing out solids, and cutting things to size.

Think fast: what do brushing your teeth, making something with Play-Doh® and using hand cream have in common? Don't know? You'll find out in this lesson.

First, a brief review. Remember when we discussed the difference between an av melacha and a toladah? (It was way back in our first lesson.) An av melacha (a 'parent labor') is the classic example of a particular labor category – in other words, the way it was performed in the Tabernacle. A toladah (roughly, a 'descendant') is any other activity that resembles the melacha.1

The melacha of Memachaik2 illustrates this distinction well. The av melacha is smoothing out a hard or somewhat flexible object. Such smoothing was done to animal skins after they were tanned. Of course, this kind of work is not something that we normally deal with on Shabbat. On the other hand, there is an important toladah of Memachaik, which is relevant to each of us on virtually every Shabbat.

Let's first look at the av melacha. Under this heading would fall activities like sanding wood (smoothing a hard object); using bar soap; and smoothing leather.3 In each case, the object you are working on will become smoother as a result of your activity.

Now to the toladah, which is known as Memarayach.4 (Since this is an awkward-looking word in English, we'll refer to it as smoothing, in italics, for ease of reference). Under this heading, we will discuss three categories of objects.

(1) Solid but Flexible

The first category includes items which are solid yet flexible.5 That is, they can be molded, but they generally keep their basic shape.

Some examples: stick deodorant; wax; tar.6

The normal use of these substances involves stretching or rolling them, such that they become smoothed out or thinned. This is the essence of smoothing. Other activities falling under this category include using Chap-Stick or lipstick, and making something with Play-Doh® or clay.7

(2) Not Quite Solid

What about materials which are not quite solid, but still hold their shape, such as toothpaste, Vaseline®, anti-fungal creams, and so forth?

These things also fall within the category of smoothing, under rabbinic law.8 In some cases, the activities associated with these substances can be done on Shabbat, though, although in a modified form. For example, if a baby needs to have some ointment put on, we dab it, rather than rub it into the skin, as we normally would. For this reason, we also do not use toothpaste on Shabbat 9

(3) Not Solid at all

When it comes to substances that are truly thin or porous, there is no prohibition of smoothing. This would include liquid soap, baby oil, and hand lotions that pour freely.10

Smoothing and Foods

You might be thinking ahead and wondering if you need to stop spreading cream cheese on your bagel during Shabbat. After all, this would seem like a classic case of smoothing. As it turns out, you won't have to forgo this pleasure. The melacha of Memachaik does not apply to activities we do in the normal course of preparing food, such as spreading cheese, jam, peanut butter or the like.11

There is one important exception, though. Smoothing out a food solely for aesthetic reasons is not allowed – for example, creating ripples in a dish of mashed potatoes by rolling a spoon or fork over the top, or applying icing to a cake. Since this action isn't necessary for the food to be eaten, Memachaik applies to it.12

Memachaik thus turns out to be a very important melacha for us to know, with its many common applications.

Mesarteit: Keeping Score

We now turn to two closely related melachot: the first, Mesarteit, is about preparing (or 'scoring') lines on an object prior to cutting it, and the second, Mechataich, deals with actually cutting on such a measured line.

These were the final two actions taken to complete the processing of an animal hide. As we've seen, the hide was first tanned and smoothed into a workable item. Then it needed to be cut into its desired shape. To do this, the artisan would score lines on the hide, and then follow those lines when cutting.13

Mesarteit is defined narrowly – you have done this melacha only if you make visible lines on an item so that you know where to cut (or fold) it later. For example, if you fold a piece of paper in half so that you can tear it at the fold, this would be an act of Mesarteit.14

Making lines or marks for other purposes does not fall within this category.

Mechataich: On the Lines

Mechataich is a broader melacha: it includes "cutting any object to a specific size," if that is your intent.15 Intent is an integral factor here – if you were tearing something on Shabbat,16 and it happened to get torn it in a specific shape, this would not be a violation of Mechataich. An illustration of this principle would be removing the tamper-proof plastic strip on a food container (e.g., cottage cheese). This is allowed, since your goal is just to get the plastic off, not to cut it in a measured way.17

With some packaging, the specific shape is already prepared, and you finish the job by removing or tearing something. Examples include taking off the lid of a tissue box (where there is a perforated line showing you where to tear), and separating garbage bags from each other along a perforated line. Tearing along any such line would be Mechataich.18

Which brings us to the example of toilet paper. Because it comes on a roll, and needs to be intentionally torn in order to be used, toilet paper is a classic case of Mechataich. The solution: pre-rip it before Shabbat.

In Israel, pre-cut toilet paper is widely available, and is a fixture in many observant homes. Of course, regular facial tissues work fine for this, too. But here also, you'd need to be careful about certain 'cheaper' brands where the tissues are not completely detached from one another. In such a case, detaching them would constitute Mechataich.

What if you find yourself in a situation where you are in a bathroom and realize there are no tissues or pre-cut toilet paper? In this case, the Sages allowed one to "break" a rabbinic-level melacha for the sake of human dignity. As we've discussed before, by performing an action in an unusual way, known as using a shinui (literally, a change), the action is reduced to a rabbinic-level melacha. So in this case, one may tear off the paper in a non-customary manner, such as by using your elbows.19

You might be surprised to know that we've now finished the 'Order of Hides.' This is the third set of melachot within the laws of Shabbat. With this lesson, we have now learned together 31 of the 39 labor categories. Coming up, G-d willing, are some very fascinating topics, including writing, building, and carrying in a public place. Stay tuned.

  1. The activities covered within the toladah are also Torah-level prohibitions.
  2. Pronounced meh-mah-CHAYK (last syllable rhymes with rake).
  3. It is possible to smooth leather without even intending to do so – for example, scraping off wet mud from a leather shoe using a knife. When you do this, you inevitably smooth out the leather and improve its appearance, even though your goal is just to get it clean. Talmud – Shabbat 141b; Orach Chaim302:8; 39 Melochos, p. 914-15. As we learned in lesson #2, where something prohibited will inevitably result from your action, you aren’t allowed to do it.
  4. Pronounced meh-mah-RAY-ach (last syllable rhymes with Bach).
  5. Rabbi Schloss refers to these substances as ‘semi-solid’. Principles of Hilchos Shabbos, ‘M’machek.’
  6. Orach Chaim 314:11; 39 Melochos, p. 917-18.
  7. Orach Chaim 314:11 with Mishnah Berurah; 39 Melochos, p. 918.
  8. Talmud – Shabbat 146b; 39 Melochos, p. 919 & 922-23. Many types of makeup are included in this category, and the halachic issues regarding makeup go beyond just the issue of smoothing. For a discussion, please see lesson #27.
  9. Shabbat-friendly toothpaste is available; it has a thinner consistency. See
  10. Some words of caution: There is a more stringent opinion about liquid soap, which holds that it needs to be diluted before it can be used on Shabbat. Also, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if a lotion is pourable enough to be considered ‘not solid at all’. Aruch Hashulchan 326:11; Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:113); 39 Melochos, p. 920.
  11. Rambam (Shabbat 11:5); Rema – Orach Chaim 321:19, with Biur Halacha s.v. ‘Tovo Alav Bracha’; Principles of Hilchos Shabbos, ‘M’macheik’; 39 Melochos, p. 926-27. As Rabbi Ribiat explains there, all of the labor categories in the ‘Order of Hides’ do not apply to foods.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Jerusalem Talmud – Shabbat 7:2; 39 Melochos, p. 931 & 935; Principles of Hilchos Shabbos, ‘M’sarteit’ and ‘M’chateich’.
  14. Mishnah Berurah 340:22; 39 Melochos, p. 932-34.
  15. Rambam (Shabbat 11:7); 39 Melochos, p. 936; see also Principles of Hilchos Shabbos, ‘M’chateich’
  16. Recall from our discussion of the melacha of Koraya (lesson #31) that, given certain conditions, you are allowed to rip items on Shabbat.
  17. 39 Melochos, p. 937 and Hebrew footnotes 16 & 17a.
  18. A potentially uncomfortable example is toilet paper. It would be Mechateich to tear off a piece on the perforated line. If there is no alternative – such as a tissue – to use, then it’s best to tear the paper not on the line and using an unusual method, such as your fists, rather than your fingers. (Principles of Hilchos Shabbos, ‘M’chateich’)
  19. As this issue makes clear, all aspects of life fall within the realm of halacha. For a more detailed discussion, see Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato 23:16; 39 Melochos, p. 842-43.


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