It was Erev Shabbos Parshas Eikev. The zeman hadlaka had arrived, and it was already beginning to become ominously cloudy on the outside. Showers were virtually definitely in the offing. After hadlaka, I set out at once for Kabolas Shabbos at shul, in the beis medrash of the Mirrer Yeshiva, in hopes of outpacing the imminent onslaught of drenching rain.
But to no avail. By the time I stepped out the door downstairs, it had already begun pouring down, big time. I was wearing that full-length plastic rain cover, the one with the hood for a hat; and on that basis, I warily ventured out onto the street and walked up the sidewalk, briefly. But no sooner had I begun than I realized I needed to find temporary shelter at once. There was no point in compromising the dryness of my Shabbos pants, even if wetness threatened no more than its bottom extremes. I thereupon made my way over to the entrance of the neighboring building, where I took cover for a few minutes, until the pace of the downpour let up some. Then, off to shul I was once again, being careful to tread between the drops as best I could.
When I got to shul, I first went downstairs to the cloak room to hang up my dripping plastic rain coat. Then I went back upstairs and entered the beis medrash, where Kabolas Shabbos was just getting underway. I took my usual route to the place I sit, on the left side towards the rear. As I maneuvered over to the siddur shelf in the corner of the room, my attention was caught by the sight of a shtender standing in the back, in front of a seat, adjacent to the shelf. What was eye-catching about it was that on it was perched a tape recorder.
“What was a (muktza) tape recorder doing sitting on a shtender at the onset of Shabbos?” I wondered. “Won’t it interfere with someone’s use of the shtender and of the seat in front of which it was situated?" This would be a good question for Rav Nelkenbaum shlita,” I thought to myself, Rav Nelkenbaum being one of the roshei yeshiva of the Mir and a real bal halacha. But would I have an opportunity to ask him?
After Kabolas Shabbos came the roughly forty-minute intermission, designed to synchronize Ma-ariv with the time of nightfall. As is his wont, Rav Nelkenbaum entered the beis medrash a few minutes before Ma-ariv. As is his wont, he took a seat for the few intervening minutes in the rear of the beis medrash, not far from where I was. Actually, he hadn’t quite taken a seat, but he was just about to – on the other end of the very row of seats in which I was myself sitting. His presence thereby caught my notice; and I immediately lunged over to him and made ready to put to him my question. I had already rehearsed it in my mind, and made sure to so formulate it that it took on the aura of an halacha issue.
The question I posed was then this. Given that the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim, siman 308, se-if 3 rules that it is permissible to handle (on Shabbos) a davar shemelachto le-isur if it is done letzorach gufo or letzorach mekomo, should it not be alright for someone to physically remove that tape recorder – I pointed to it – from the shtender in order to daven by that shtender? To which he responded that it was not permissible, not at least according to the Mishne Berura. In particular, he said, the Mishne Berura rules that one should not handle a davar shemelachto le-isur letzorach gufo o letzorach mekomo if another alternative is available. In the case in point, he intimated, there were plenty of other seats and shtenders at which someone who wanted to daven could sit and stand. So an alternative was indeed available!
This is the gist of what he said. (I pressed him for an answer to a hypothetical case where it was crowded and no other shtenders were available. In regard to this, he recommended tiltul min hatzad.) Naturally, I accepted his answer, at the time, surprised by it though I was.
But after a while, I took the opportunity to check out the Mishne Berura. What I found was that, to my way of reading it, the situation was other than what Rav Nelkenbaum had made it out to be. The Mechabeir states that it is alright to handle a davar shemelachto le-isur if it is letzorach gufo or letzorach mekomo. The Mishne Berura glosses the words letzorach gufo with the comment that if another davar is available to serve the tzorach, one that is not melachto le-isur, then one should use such a davar instead. In other words, one should restrict one’s use of a davar shemelachto le-isur letzrach gufo to cases where it is absolutely necessary.
Seeing this, I immediately sensed that, by any straightforward reading of the Mishne Berura, the Mishne Berura did not intend to restrict use of a davar shemelachto le-isur letzorach mekomo in a similar fashion. The gloss is a gloss on letzorach gufo only. And it seems to be stretching it a bit (much) to presume that it is also intended as a qualification on the dispensation of tzorach mekomo.
I say this because it seems to me that there is a sound basis on which to distinguish the two in this regard. Let us begin by noting that the rationale behind the dispensation of handling a davar shemelachto le-isur in cases such as these is that a davar shemelachto leisur is a relatively weak manifestation of hakta-a, and that therefore, where there is a need for its use, its weak haktza-a is not deemed a factor to be reckoned with.
Let us now zero in on the idea of need. When there is a need for something to be done, there is, in effect, a need for utilizing an instrument with which that thing gets done. Even so though, the need for this instrument is secondary to the need for getting the thing done (with its use) per se. The latter is, after all, the raison detre of the whole affair.
Keeping this in mind, we can readily distinguish between the cases of letzorach gufo, on the one hand, and letzorach mekomo, on the other, insofar as these needs serve as dispensations for handling a dava shemelachto le-isur. Where the need is legufo, the concern is with an instrument that is to be used in bringing about the desired effect. Substituting another instrument (one that is not melachto le-isur) instead in no way impacts negatively on achieving this very desired result. Consequently, fulfillment of the need is not seriously thwarted by the imposition to use another instrument. By contrast, where the need is lemekomo, what is at stake is the very thing whose realization is sought: having an uncluttered place in/on which to perform one’s activity. It is not merely a question of what instrument to use for the purpose but of actualizing the purpose itself. That other places are available is therefore irrelevant: the sought objective is, after all, centered on this place in particular.
Now, the case in point concerned a situation where the tzorach was a tzorach mekomo: the shtender was needed to daven at. So if my reading of the Mishne Berura is correct, the fact that other shtenders were available should not affect the permissibility of using the one upon which the tape recorder sat, by removing the tape recorder (in the normal way).