Yesterday, November 11th, was celebrated internationally as National Origami Day. Origami is a compound Japanese term: ori means folding and kami means paper. Origami was created in the 6th century CE in Japan. Today, origami has become a very popular avocation. Some now even use tools to create the paper objects, a practice that had been avoided until relatively recently.

May one engage in origami on Shabbat?

Why would there be a problem?

The 39 categories of prohibited “work” on Shabbat, known in Hebrew as the m’la’chot, are not based on exertion or what a labor union would consider “toil.” Rather, the sages understood the forbidden categories as those employed to “create” and “build” the Tabernacle, which housed the Ark of the Covenant and other vessels. The Tabernacle, or Mishkan in Hebrew, became the locus of Jewish spirituality until Solomon constructed the permanent Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. Those forbidden actions range from the process of baking bread (seeding the grains to cooking), creating fabrics (sheep shearing to cutting and bleaching), fashioning leather (trapping, slaughtering and tanning) and others.

In his landmark work on the laws of Shabbat, composed in the 20th century, Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth ruled, based on the opinion of his teacher and renowned halachic expert, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, that engaging in origami on Shabbat would not be permitted. He felt that origami would fall under the prohibition of creating a new utensil. Creating a new utensil can be a derivative prohibition of “building” or administering “the final hammer blow,” i.e., making an item usable. This ruling came in the chapter on children’s games in Rabbi Neuwirth’s magnum opus, “Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchita” (The Observance of the Sabbath according to the Law) (16:19).

A similar question is asked about folding napkins to make the dinner table more attractive. Rabbi Neuwirth, again, quoting his mentor, felt that one should avoid this because of it being similar to the prohibition of building. He felt, however, that folding a napkin does not parallel the prohibition of creating a new utensil. Rabbi Moshe Stern (1914-1997), known as the Rabbi of Debrecen (Hungary), where he had served before World War II, dissented from Rabbi Neuwirth’s ruling on folding napkins (see responsa Be’er Moshe 8:134). He felt that folding napkins or paper would only be forbidden on Shabbat when the paper is of very thick stock.

Happy National Origami Day, especially when it does not fall on Shabbat!

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