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Opening an Umbrella on Shabbat

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In what way is an umbrella similar to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which served as the dwelling place of the Shechina (Divine Presence) during the Israelite’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness?

First, a definition of an umbrella: a cloth canopy attached, in the center, to a large stick with spokes radiating out to the edge of the material, designed to protect against rain or sunlight. Umbrellas have been used around the world throughout history. Even thousands of years ago, most cultures had some sort of umbrella (recorded either in words or pictures).

Since an umbrella is mobile and usually only offers temporary protection, any rabbinic discourse on umbrellas involves the question of whether using an umbrella creates a temporary or permanent structure. This is precisely the connection of the umbrella to the Mishkan. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yosi Bar Nun states that the Mishkan was a temporary structure, as it traveled with the people. Rabbi Yoseh maintains that the people viewed the Mishkan as a permanent structure because their encampments were considered permanent until God’s next order to change locations.

But the question of using an umbrella on Shabbat is specifically a question of whether or not an umbrella is considered an ohel (tent), the construction of which would not be permitted. Since an umbrella’s sole purpose is to protect a person from the elements, the vast majority of halachic authorities consider it to be an ohel, and its use on Shabbat is therefore prohibited. Thus one walking in Boro Park, NY (Brooklyn) on a rainy Saturday will notice many people hurrying through the rain and see nary an umbrella in sight.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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