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Question: May one fold garments on Shabbat, for instance, folding a Tallit along its original creases at the conclusion of prayer services so that it does not become wrinkled, or is this prohibited?
Answer: The Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat (113a) states: “One may fold garments on Shabbat.” The Gemara proceeds to explain that this is only permissible when one person is doing the folding; however, if two people are folding the garment together, this is prohibited. Similarly, our Sages only permitted folding a new garment on Shabbat, but it is prohibited to fold a garment that is not new. Additionally, our Sages only permitted folding a white garment on Shabbat; however, a colored garment may not be folded. Furthermore, it is only permissible to fold a garment when one intends to wear this garment again on the same day; however, if one does not intend to do so, this is prohibited. Furthermore, our Sages only permitted folding a garment on Shabbat when one does not have any other garment; however, if one does have another garment, one may not fold this one on Shabbat.
The Reason Behind the Prohibition to Fold Garments on Shabbat and its Halachic Ramification
Rashi explains that the reason for the prohibition to fold garments on Shabbat is because it is similar to repairing a vessel, which is one of the forbidden works on Shabbat. “Repairing a vessel” does not necessarily mean fixing a broken vessel on Shabbat; rather, anything beneficial that is done to the vessel, such as immersing a vessel which was not yet immersed in the Mikveh, is also included in the prohibition of “repairing a vessel” on Shabbat (although the specific example of immersing a vessel in a Mikveh on Shabbat is subject to a disagreement among the Poskim). The Sages therefore prohibited folding garments on Shabbat. The Tosafot explain likewise: “We can derive from here that it is prohibited to fold the synagogue’s Tallitot, for this is a necessity of tomorrow,” meaning that although the Tallit is new and white, since one has no intention of wearing it again that same day, one may not fold it on Shabbat.
Based on this, it would seem that when one removes one’s Tallit on Shabbat, one may not fold it after prayer services. Similarly, one may not fold the clothes one removes on Shabbat night before going to sleep or one’s colored garments, for this is similar to repairing a vessel on Shabbat.
One May Act Leniently When Not Folding Along the Original Creases
The Ra’avaya rules in accordance with the Tosafot that one may not fold one’s Tallit on Shabbat, however, he adds that if one does not fold the Tallit along its original creases, it seems that this is permissible. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes (in his Yechave Da’at, Volume 2, Chapter 40) that the reason for this is that if one actually intended to keep the form of the garment, one would fold it along its original creases. However, now that we see that one is folding it intentionally not in this way, one shows that one does not care about keeping the garment smooth in its original form. Thus, this is not similar to repairing a vessel which is prohibited on Shabbat.
The Reason for Those Opinions Who Rule Leniently Regarding Any Type of Folding on Shabbat
The Kol Bo writes that one may fold a garment on Shabbat even along its original creases, for nowadays, we are not as concerned about keeping garments unwrinkled as they were in the times of our Sages; thus, there is no issue of repairing a vessel involved here. There are several places that customarily ruled leniently on this matter based on this opinion.
Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 302) quotes the opinion of the Ra’avaya that one may act leniently and fold a garment not along its original creases, but he does not mention the opinion of the Kol Bo who permits folding garments in any way nowadays at all. It is clear that he does not agree with the lenient view of the Kol Bo; rather, he only means to rule in accordance with the Ra’avaya who permits folding a garment not on its original creases.
Nevertheless, there are those who have ruled leniently in accordance with the opinion of the Kol Bo in contrast with the opinion of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch and they claim that this was the prevalent custom even before our acceptance of the rulings of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch. Maran zt”l did not accept this opinion as Halacha and he therefore rules that one may not act leniently and fold a Tallit (or other colored garments) on Shabbat unless one does so not along its original creases.
Summary: One may fold a garment or Tallit on Shabbat when this is done not along its original creases. However, one should not act leniently and fold a garment along its original creases, for this is tantamount to repairing a vessel. If one sees an individual who acts leniently and folds a garment along its original creases, one need not protest, for he indeed has on whom to rely.