Question: Is one permitted to move a fork or knife on Shabbat for no reason at all?
Answer: In the previous Halacha, we have explained in general the reasons behind the prohibition of Muktzeh on Shabbat, which is a rabbinic enactment prohibiting the movement or carrying of certain objects on Shabbat. There are several types of Muktzeh. We shall now discuss the category of Muktzeh known as “an object used for permissible work on Shabbat”.
“An object used for permissible work on Shabbat” refers to a vessel whose primary use is a function which is permitted on Shabbat, such as a fork or knife. Certainly, these utensils can be moved on Shabbat whether one needs the actual utensil or just to use its space. Therefore, one may move a fork on Shabbat in order to use it for eating or simply because one needs to use the space where it is currently laying.
Clearly, most of the objects one uses on Shabbat can be classified as “an object used for permissible work on Shabbat.” Included in this category of Muktzeh are pots, plates, trays, chairs, tables, keys, and so on. We must now discuss whether these items may be moved on Shabbat even for no reason at all or perhaps one may only move them for a purpose.
The Gemara in Shabbat (123b) tells us that originally the Sages decreed the prohibition of Muktzeh on all objects, including objects used for permissible works on Shabbat (besides for several objects which the Gemara lists that were still permitted to be moved). However, when the Sages realized that most people could not uphold this decree, they progressively retracted and permitted certain objects to be moved on Shabbat and then once again permitted more things. The Gemara asks, “How lenient were they with regards to the original decree of Muktzeh? What did they permit the first time they ‘retracted and permitted’ and what did they permit the second time they did so?” The Gemara answers, “Rava said, originally they permitted moving an object used for permissible work on Shabbat only for its innate use or for the use of its place. Later, they permitted moving it even from [lying in the] sun to the shade.” This means that they originally only permitted moving such an object for its own use or use of its place, for instance, in order to use it for eating and the like. Later, the Sages permitted moving it even from sun to shade, meaning that if such an object lay in the sun and becomes very hot which can cause it to be damaged, even if one has no specific use for this utensil right now and one’s only interest is moving it so that it does not break, one may do so on Shabbat.
The Rishonim derive from this Gemara that it will only be permissible to move an object which is used for work permitted on Shabbat if one has some sort of use in doing so; however, moving it for no reason at all will be forbidden.
Based on this, one may only move an object used for permissible work on Shabbat provided that one is doing so for some sort of purpose; however, one may not move it for no reason at all. Although most people are not so meticulous regarding this Halacha, one is obligated to inform others of this, for this is not merely a stringency and is the actual letter of the law.
Rabbeinu Yosef Haim writes in his Ben Ish Hai that moving a utensil on Shabbat purely out of boredom, for instance, playing with a fork for no reason, is a forbidden form of moving Muktzeh on Shabbat. Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes in the name of the Aruch Ha’Shulchan that as long as one has some sort of actual satisfaction in doing so, moving the object will be permitted. Similarly, the Be’er Moshe writes in one of his responses that if one is sitting for many hours at the table of one’s Admor (Chassidic Rebbe) and in order to calm one’s nerves, one takes a fork and starts to play with it, one need not rebuke such an individual since there is some sort of necessity for what he is doing. However, if one does so for no reason at all, completely out of boredom, there is no room for leniency.
Summary: On Shabbat, one may move objects used for permissible works on Shabbat, such as a fork, knife, or chair, in order to use these objects themselves or to move them into the shade so that they are not damaged by the heat of the sun. However, to move this type of object for no reason whatsoever is prohibited on Shabbat, as we have explained.