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Cellphones On The Sabbath: Practice Catches Up To Halacha

December 7, 2014

I am happy to see that two halachic positions I have advocated  have actually been gaining acceptance: the prohibition against employing sworn enemies of our people, and the license, perhaps necessity, to carry cellphones on the Sabbath and Yom Tov. I have long advocated for both of these. Most have now heard of the various rabbanim calling on followers to remain vigilant and carry their cell phones even on the Sabbath. Those who know me know also know that I said to do so almost ten years ago. 

The following responsum from Rabbi Daniel Mann was sent to me by a reader:

Muktzeh When a Phone Is Used as a Precaution

I am an older man who recently underwent a series of health crises, including a heart attack. I usually take a cell phone with me outside the home in case I need to call for help. On Shabbat, I feel uneasy going out alone without a phone, as in my building’s stairwell or late at night people may not be around. May I carry the cell phone in my pocket (we have an eiruv), or is it a problem of muktzeh? (My nervousness is not enough to be unhealthy itself, and I will not refrain from going out if your answer is “no.”)

You imply that you do not feel that the cell phone is consistently needed on the level of safek piku’ach nefesh (the chance that it will save a life). You may be taking into account that where your live [the questioner included an address] many fine Jews would drop everything to help a person in distress and there is an active Hatzala organization. We begin with your assumptions.
A cell phone is generally muktzeh as a kli shemelachto l’issur (=kshmli), as its main purpose is to make phone calls that are prohibited on Shabbat. A kshmli can have a higher level of muktzeh (muktzeh machmat chisron kis) if one is concerned enough about its safety to refrain from using it for other purposes. Nowadays people use cell phones for just about anything they desire.
kshmli may be moved for tzorech gufo u’mekomo (to use it for a physical use or remove it from a place one wants to use) (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 308:3). It may not be moved to be protected from damage (ibid.). You are not interested in protecting the phone, but rather want it for its possible permitted usage. Is it enough that you are not moving it to protect it, or do you need a positive tzorech gufo u’mekomo? If it must be positive, how exacting are we in determining utility?
There are discussions among the Acharonim that seem to revolve along these questions. For example, the Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata (20:10) rules that the “need of the place” must be literally that the muktzeh object is occupying a place one wants to use. If it is only that the object is an embarrassment or is otherwise unwanted where it is, it may not be moved. In other words, there has to be a well-defined need of mekomo. Yet not all agree with him (see ad loc.:(20); Az Nidbaru VIII, 30), and all may permit it if due to the utensil’s presence, one will not use the room (ibid.).
The Mishna Berura (308:12) says that one may not move a kshmli to use it if a non-muktzeh object is available. Many poskim limit his stringency to cases where the non-muktzeh is easily useable (Igrot Moshe, OC V 21.12; Minchat Shlomo II, 34.30). Many feel that the Mishna Berura’s reasoning is unanimously accepted (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilachata20:29; B’er Moshe I, 21). However, our basic assumption is that tzorech gufo u’mekomomust meet significant standards.
Our case is special in two opposing ways. On one hand, the potential usage is the most important one possible (saving lives). On the other hand, the chances of needing to use it on Shabbat appear extremely small. The gemara (Shabbat 124a) says that placing sticks to separate the loaves of the lechem hapanim and prevent their spoilage is not consideredtzorech gufo because it is unlikely that there will be spoilage in a short time. This implies that if the chance the object is needed is small, it is not considered a valid need.
Tying things together, we suggest as follows. If, after discussing the matter with the appropriate, sensitive health experts, it is felt that there is even a remote but normal chance that the cell phone will be needed to save a life (this will also make it tzorech gufo), it is permitted to take it. If it is felt that the chance of use does not reach even that low threshold, then not only would piku’ach nefesh not apply, but muktzeh would also be a problem.
The reader sent it to me because shortly before Rabbi Mann had published this, I had basically made the same argument publicly, except that I held that a cellphone is not actually a kli shem’lachto l’issur, i.e., muqtzeh because it is used for a an explicit m’lacha, like a pen is used for writing, as a phone does not do any m’lacha! We are starting  to break out of the mode of thinking that anything electrical causes an issur m’lacha. Thus, there is even more reason to alow carrying a cellphone. I also pointed out certain people,like Rabbis and those with experience as emergency responders are more likely to be called by others during an emergency, just because others tend to look up to them. If a knowledgeable person knows that others may turn to him, whether for the right reasons or not, when things are awry, even if he himself really can not do much, he should still be ready to answer the phone. If you know that people are going to call you in an emergency, then carry your phone on the Sabbath, and answer it even if only to provide proper guidance. It has happened to me in both ways: I was the man to turn  to, and sometimes I was not, but at least I was able to direct the callerswhen that happened, but if I had not answered, they might not have done the next thing right.
I also work with the assumption that just like many community rabbis have already allowed civilians to carry weapons on the Sabbath, then of course they should allow cellphones. Guns, for example, are most definitely keilim shem’lachtam l’issur (they are used to kill or wound, which are both m’lachoth) and are only allowed to be carried around because of the chance they may be necessary. How much more so may cellphones be carried around, if they are not even muqtzim to that extent.

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