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1504: Shemot 18 Tevet 5774 21/12/2013

We have been asked if it is permissible for somebody to hold a pet cat near a switch so that it will turn on a light that was left off before Shabbat by mistake.

Is a Pet Muktzeh?

Before discussing the matter of having a pet perform labor on Shabbat we must discuss whether one is allowed to carry (or move) a pet animal at all. The accepted halacha is that an animal is "muktzeh" on Shabbat and should not be handled (Shabbat 128b; Shulchan Aruch 308:39). On the other hand, pets are meant to be enjoyed, and to be moved from place to place, and a pet owner does not set them aside as muktzeh before Shabbat begins.

Maharach Or Zarua wanted "to allow moving birds which sing in a pleasant way in their cages... Since people enjoy listening to their sounds, they are not muktzeh..." But the ROSH replied that he could not allow moving them, since "there is a severe prohibition not to handle living animals, which should not be put to use on Shabbat, and the sages did not dispute the matter of animals." [Responsa Maharach Or Zarua 81-82].

Indeed, some recent rabbis have mainly accepted the end of the words of the ROSH. They write that pets cannot be handled on Shabbat because they are muktzeh, since the sages did not differentiate among different types of animals (Orchot Shabbat 19:124; Yalkut Yosef 308:21). On the other hand, some do allow handling pets (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 5, 22, 21). They do differentiate between animals in general (including those that people enjoy looking at or listening to) and pets, because the main use of the pets "is to move them around from place to place," and that is their main purpose. (Shulchan Shlomo Shabbat volume 2 – 308:74,4).

Since muktzeh is a rabbinical decree, we can accept the lenient approach.

Having a Pet perform Prohibited Labor

We differentiate between different ways of accomplishing the goal of having the pet turn on a light.

(1) Pushing the pet against the light switch – In this case, the action is done by the human being, and this is forbidden. Even though this might be viewed as performing the labor "beshinui" – in a modified form – since it is being done in a way that is not usual behavior during the week, but in this case even labor performed beshinui is forbidden (Shabbat 92a).

(2) Holding the cat in the air in such a way that in a natural motion it will almost definitely move its feet and kick the switch. The question in this case is who is actually performing the action.

(a) If we say that the person is performing the action while making use of the natural habits of the cat, this might well be similar to "zoreh," one who separates the straw from the grain, with the help of a wind (Bava Kama 60a) or to one who puts a leech on a human being in order to suck out the blood (Magen Avraham 328:53; Even Ha'Ozer, ibid). Both of these actions are forbidden.

(b) If, on the other hand, we define that action is the result of both the cat and the person acting together, this would be a violation of the labor of "mechamer" – leading a donkey – which prohibits a person from doing something together with his animal (Shemot 20:9; Shabbat 153b-154a; Shulchan Aruch 266:2.)

(c) Even if we define that the cat performs the action alone in a way that corresponds with the will of the person, this is evidently included in the prohibition of giving work to an animal in your possession (Shemot 20:9; Avoda Aats 15b; Sulchan Aruch 246:3).

According to all three of the above definitions, this action is prohibited on Shabbat.

(3) However, if we hold the cat in a stable position a short distance from the switch in such a way that it is not forced by its nature to touch it, and the cat itself "decides" to stretch out its foot and play with the switch until the light is turned on – this might well be permitted in a case of great need. It would be similar to the case allowed in the Talmud of taking a small child "for a walk" near an item that has fallen down (where there is no "eiruv" to allow carrying), so that the child will pick the item up by himself and bring it home (Yevamot 113b-114a). The Rashba derives from this that one is permitted to put a young baby "near" a prohibited item that he needs "so that he will put out his hand and eat it" (in practice the use of a child is more complicated than indicated here, but we will not discuss this further).

Evidently the same principle applies to holding an animal close to a forbidden item so that it will perform labor, since the obligation for the animal to rest on Shabbat is derived from the same verse (Rashi, Ramban, ibid; Rashba Shabbat 153b; Chatam Sofer volume 1 (Orach Chaim), 83; Responsa Achiezer 3:83; Orchot Shabbat 24:7-8, note 2, and 31:6-10).


Muktzeh: Recent rabbis do not agree whether a pet can be moved on Shabbat or it must be considered muktzeh and therefore not be touched. One who acts in a lenient way has a valid opinion on which he can base his action.

Using a cat or other pets to turn on the light: If one physically pushes the pet onto the switch or if it is placed in such a way that by its nature it is almost certain that it will push the switch, this should evidently be prohibited. However, if the pet is held in a stable way a distance from the switch, such that there is no certainty that it will push the switch – this can evidently be permitted in a case of great need.

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