The Rabbis' Shabbat Part I: Prohibitions
The rabbis of antiquity used prohibitions to shape a Shabbat experience in which creative activity is set aside to make time for matters of the spirit. First of two parts.
Two kinds of prohibitions derive from the general statement "Let no man leave his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29). On the one hand, it is forbidden to go further than the boundary of the locality in which one lives (the tehum Shabbat); on the other hand, it is forbidden to take things out of one's house or to carry them about in public places (see Jeremiah 17:21-22). In Israel and in certain other countries, a "mingling of realms"--eruv hatserot--is often effected in a given locality (following special rabbinical rulings on this subject).
The main principle underlying the eruv is the creation of a circumscribed area. The two central practices connected with it are the creation of a symbolic fence around a city (or any part of it) formed by an arrangement of posts and wire, and a symbolic communal meal shared by all those participating in the eruv. In large cities with main streets full of public traffic, it becomes necessary to have an additional system of fences, which is not always possible to implement in practical or halachic terms. The eruv allows things to be carried almost anywhere within that locality. But this is not the case in most places in the Diaspora or even in certain places in Israel, and it is always best to ask knowledgeable local people how to deal with such practical problems as carrying keys, handkerchiefs, and prayer books on Shabbat.
The preceding is just an outline of halakhah (the law) on this subject, and much more detail needs to be learned, but all the rest is derived in one way or another from these basic principles. The upshot is that the only work that may be done on Shabbat is simple household tasks: picking up after oneself, light cleaning, and preparing meals (without cooking, baking, or readying raw food for use). It is permitted to cut and serve pre-prepared foods, or food that does not require manufacture (vegetable, fruit, etc.). Warm foods are permitted on the Sabbath when their preparation does not require ignition or changing the heat of the oven on the Sabbath itself. It is not only permitted to leave hot water for the Sabbath, but certain traditional Sabbath foods, like cholent, are dishes that are kept in the oven so they can be eaten hot. Otherwise, it is a day without ordinary activity, a day devoted to special things, "supplied with all that it needs" by the other days of the week.
In our own time, Shabbat observance has been made easier by the introduction of automatic timing devices ("Shabbos clocks") to turn electrical appliances on and off and thermostatically controlled heating elements for keeping food warm. These technological advances may be used because the Shabbat prohibitions apply not to the processes themselves, but to the human performance of them. Still, there are numerous halakhic restrictions involved in the use of such devices. These details need to be mastered, and it is best to get practical advice from people more expert in such matters before making too many assumptions about what is permitted and what is not.
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