Jewish Law

What’s the Truth About . . . Chai Nosei et Atzmo?

Misconception: On Shabbat it is permitted to carry a child in a public domain that does not have an eruv because of the principle of “chai nosei et atzmo—living beings ‘carry’ themselves.”

Fact: This is not a new misconception—the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (82:10; 1864) and Mishnah Berurah (308:154; 1891) both note that there are people who erroneously think that chai nosei et atzmo permits them to carry a child on their shoulders on Shabbat in a public thoroughfare. While this halachic principle indeed exists and exempts one Biblically, it remains rabbinically prohibited to carry a child in a public domain on Shabbat unless there is an eruv.

Background: The final item in the Mishnah’s list of the thirty-nine melachot prohibited on Shabbat (Shabbat 7:2) is hotza’ah, carrying between a public and a private domain or carrying four amot within a public domain. Among the details mentioned in the subsequent series of mishnayot is the statement (Shabbat 10:5; 93b): “[If one carries] a living person in a bed, he is not liable even for the bed because the bed is secondary to the person; [if one carries] a corpse in a bed, he is liable.” In analyzing the mishnah, the Gemara (Shabbat 94a) quotes a Tanaitic debate (Tosefta, Shabbat, ch. 9) in which Rabi Natan exempts one who carries a living animal, while the Sages hold him liable; i.e., Rabi Natan seems to accept the principle of chai nosei et atzmo and thus exempts the carrier, while the rabbis seemingly reject the concept.

The ensuing Talmudic discussion (Shabbat 94a) narrows the scope of the disagreement, with Rava explaining that the debate relates only to animals, but that with regard to carrying a human, the Sages agree that no Torah prohibition is violated.1 According to Rava, Rabi Natan also concedes that the principle does not apply to a bound creature who cannot assist in balancing his own weight.

This principle seems to be rather strange—why should there be an exemption for carrying an unbound, living person? Rashi (Shabbat 93b, s.v. et hachai) says that the person being carried “lightens himself and carries himself” to a certain degree, possibly similar to the Gemara’s statement (Gittin 56a) that a live body is lighter than a dead one. Tosafot (Shabbat 94a, s.v. she’hachai) are bothered by that suggestion because one is liable for carrying even a very light load; thus why should it matter that the person being carried “makes himself lighter”? They suggest, rather, that the exemption is due to the fact that there is no precedent for carrying a living being in the construction of the Mishkan, the source of all of the Shabbat melachot.2 Tosafot HaRosh (s.v. she’hachai; Yachin on this mishnah had a similar understanding) did not see the relevance of the fact that there was no carrying of living creatures in the Mishkan and think this explanation does not fit with the words of the Gemara. They understood that the exemption of carrying a person is an extension of the rule regarding two people jointly doing a melachah, because in general one cannot carry a living person without his assistance. Note that the opening section of that very mishnah deals with the rule about two people doing a melachah.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe 1:YD:2) offers a novel explanation of chai nosei et atzmo. He says that the explanation of Tosafot is only relevant for Rabi Natan’s view, but that the Sages derive their position from the following logic: A change in an object’s location that is enough to elicit a question of “who moved that?” can constitute a melachah. But when a person is in a new location, no one would ask such a question because the person could have gotten to the new location on his own. Thus, even if he were carried, the carrier is exempt.3 In this construct, chai nosei et atzmo is not referring to when the person is being carried (on Shabbat), but is a general statement indicating that the person is mobile, i.e., he is capable of “carrying himself.”

While not stated explicitly in the Mishnah or Gemara, the commentators understand that the principle of chai nosei et atzmo is behind the Mishnaic rule (Shabbat 18:2 [128b]) that one may lead a young child in a public thoroughfare as long as one is not actually dragging the child. This is because even if he ends up carrying the child, there would be no Biblical violation, only a rabbinic one. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 308:41) codifies this and explains that leading a child is permitted as long as the child ambles along, always supporting himself on one leg.

Limitations of the rule

The halachah is clear that chai nosei et atzmo removes the Biblical prohibition of carrying a person in a Biblical reshut harabbim (public domain), yet rabbinically it remains prohibited to carry a person even in a carmelit, an open area that is rabbinically treated as a public domain.4 Nonetheless, the Mishnah Berurah (308:154) says that those who will certainly not listen should not be corrected (cf. MB 608:3) so that they remain unintentional, rather than intentional, sinners. Binyan Tzion (siman 20) cautions that this does not imply that one should rule leniently, but merely that one not rebuke those who would not listen.

Tosafot (Shabbat 130a, s.v. Rabbi Eliezer; cf. Tosafot, Shabbat 94a, s.v. aval) seem to suggest that even an eight-day-old baby is included in the principle of chai nosei et atzmo. However, based on a Talmudic statement (Shabbat 141b), most authorities rule that carrying a person who cannot walk is a Biblical prohibition (Mishnah Berurah 308:154—see list of Rishonim in Biur Halachah 308:41, s.v. shelo, and Sha’ar Hatziyun 308:124;5 Aruch Hashulchan, OC 308:67). Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 18:16-17) seems to include all people, without any indication of age distinctions or walking ability, in the principle.

Rava had explained that chai nosei et atzmo does not apply to a bound individual. Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 18:16, possibly derived from Yoma 66b or Rosh Hashanah 1:9) equates a sick person who cannot ambulate with a bound person, to whom chai nosei et atzmo does not apply. So too, Tosafot (Shabbat 130a, s.v. Rabbi Eliezer) suggest that chai nosei et atzmo does not apply to a sick child, and that is how the Magen Avraham (308:70) rules.

Leniencies based on chai nosei et atzmo6

Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah (18:51, with note 202) and Yalkut Yosef (Dinei Chinuch Katan 5763, 301:5 [p. 182]) rule that a child who is mildly ill7 and knows how to walk may be carried to a doctor even in a public domain because chai nosei et atzmo makes it a rabbinic prohibition and rabbinic prohibitions are permitted for a mildly sick individual.8 If he cannot walk on his own, i.e., a mildly ill baby, he may be carried in a carmelit.9 Similarly, even in the case of a mildly sick child, a non-Jew may be asked to carry the child (even in a reshut harabbim) or drive him to a doctor (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah 38:28). While the above is the opinion of both Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah and Yalkut Yosef, it is not obvious that all rabbinic prohibitions may be violated for a “mildly sick individual” (choleh she’ein bo sakanah). Rav Hershel Schachter (Eretz Hatzvi #6) distinguishes between a gezeirah d’rabbanan and a melachah d’rabbanan. If carrying a child is a melachah, and not a gezeirah, it may be prohibited to carry a child who is a choleh she’ein bo sakanah.

Rabbi Shaul Breisch (She’eilat Shaul, OC 44) brings various proofs that carrying a child who can walk is prohibited in a carmelit, but says, basing himself on Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu”t 28) and other lenient positions, that if one is walking with a child who gets tired or starts to cry and absolutely refuses to budge, one may be lenient and carry the child in a carmelit. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe 4:OC:91) permitted carrying a crying, uncooperative child in a carmelit, but not if the adult was “lazy” and simply did not want to walk slowly.10

Because chai nosei et atzmo reduces the carrying to a rabbinic prohibition, the Pri Megadim (Mishbetzet Zahav 301:12) permits non-Jews (but not Jews) to carry a scholar when he is needed by the public. Tzitz Eliezer (13:32) combines this principle with other reasons to permit a person who usually does not rely on an eruv to carry a child in a place with an eruv.

The mishnah that teaches the principle of chai nosei et atzmo also teaches that items that are secondary to the carried person may be carried together with him, and thus in cases when it is permitted to carry a child, he may be pushed in a stroller as the stroller is secondary to him (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah 18:51).11 Similarly, in an important application in pre-refrigeration times, a corpse may be carried together with a child who is mobile (Shulchan Aruch, OC 311:2; MB 311:11).

Other ways of moving an obstinate child also exist and are also only for when one is in a bind. One of these is pachot pachot—multiple carries of less than four amot each.12 Usually this may not be done lest one accidentally exceed four amot in one of those moves (Shabbat 153b; Shulchan Aruch, OC 349:5), but it may be permitted in extenuating circumstances, such as if one finds tefillin on Shabbat and needs to move them to protect them (Eruvin 97b; Shulchan Aruch, OC 301:42; Gra, OC 349:5, s.v. assur); someone who is stranded as Shabbat commences and wants to bring his belongings to a safe place (Shulchan Aruch, OC 266:7); or the removal of a thorn from a public thoroughfare (Shabbat 42a; Shulchan Aruch, OC 308:18).

The Shulchan Aruch Harav (OC 331:8) and Taz (OC 266:4) were willing to rely on pachot pachot—with multiple people—and have a non-Jew do the inter-domain transfer in order to bring an infant to shul for his brit milah, but the Magen Avraham (331:5; cf. Aruch Hashulchan, OC 331:6) thought it preferable, when possible, to do the brit in the house.13 Exactly how pachot pachot is implemented, i.e., whether it is sufficient to merely stop every less-than-four amot or whether one must actually put down the object or sit down is debated (see Beit Yosef, OC 266; Magen Avraham 266:9, Taz, OC 266:4; and Mishnah Berurah 266:18, who cites both opinions).

The phrase chai nosei et atzmo is used as an expression, even if not in its original halachic sense, in other areas of halachah.14 For example, the Shach (YD 58:14) uses it to explain why a sheep is not in the treifah (injury or defect to the animal that would render it nonkosher) category of “nefulah” if a person holds the hind legs while he lets the sheep fall to the ground in preparation for shechitah.

Pit’chei Teshuvah (YD 195:3) cites the Tashbetz that although normally a husband and wife may not pass anything between them while she is a niddah (Shulchan Aruch, YD 195:2), because of chai nosei et atzmo, they may pass a child, although Pit’chei Teshuvah suggests that that leniency would not apply to an infant or a sick child. Rabbi Mordechai Leib Winkler (Levushei Mordechai, CM 18:3) tried to defend this position, but the Aruch Hashulchan (YD 195:5) did not see the relevance of the principle in this application and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought it should be used in practice only in extenuating circumstances (Halichot Shlomo, vol. 2, ch. 5, note 96 [p. 78]). Rabbi Binyamin Zilber (Az Nidberu 6:59) is also not enthusiastic about this leniency and rejects it as a solution for a couple to serve as kvatter when the woman is a niddah.15

The Sefat Emet (Shabbat 92a) compares the aron, which “carried its bearers” (Sotah 35a), to chai nosei et atzmo and says that it was thus not a melachah to “carry” the aron on Shabbat.

Today many communities have an eruv, but the issue of being stuck indoors when one has a young child and there is no eruv still arises. This issue was presented to several contemporary Israeli posekim when a young Israeli family accustomed to having an eruv was residing in a US community with no eruv. They asked several Israeli rabbis whether based on chai nosei et atzmo or pachot pachot they could carry a below-chinuch-age child who knows how to walk, so that his mother could get out and have “nachat ruach.” Rabbi Shlomo Aviner responded (unpublished letter) that we do not rely on chai nosei et atzmo to carry children in an area with no eruv and one should not do pachot pachot. He suggested they ask a US rabbi. Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth (unpublished letter) did not address the Shabbat question, but rather pointed the questioner to Mishnah Berurah 98:3 and 124:28, which discourages bringing small children (not of chinuch age who are prone to disturb) to shul and notes that one should give nachat ruach to the Borei Olam and not only the mother. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (unpublished letter) notes that in extenuating circumstances posekim have permitted relying on chai nosei et atzmo, but in this case the need is not so great and he suggests that the mother and father can rotate going to shul and staying home with the child.

It is difficult to see the “work” involved in hotza’ah, the melachah of carrying. It is termed a melachah geruah (a lesser classification of melachah) and the rather strange principle of chai nosei et atzmo leads it to be further minimized. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comes to the rescue. He beautifully explains the significance and symbolism of hotza’ah (see his lengthy commentary to Shemot 35:1). He notes that in Yirmiyahu Hanavi’s exhortation to observe Shabbat (17:19-27), he gave specific attention to this melachah. Rabbi Hirsch understands from Yirmiyahu 17:22 that Shabbat observance involves two parallel concepts—refraining from the other thirty-eight melachot and refraining from carrying. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the other thirty-eight melachot express the idea that man subordinates his power over matter to the will of G-d, while the prohibition of carrying expresses the idea of man placing his social world under G-d’s dictates. In other words, refraining from the other thirty-eight melachot acknowledges G-d’s mastery over nature, while refraining from carrying is an acknowledgement of G-d’s role in history and human affairs (The Hirsch Chumash [Brooklyn, 1989], p. 669).


1. Yerushalmi, Pesachim 4:3 implies that the Sages also argued about carrying human beings.

2. See Aruch Hashulchan (OC 301:27) and Korban Netanel (6) for further explanation of Tosafot. The Tzitz Eliezer (appendix to 13:32) cites a clever insight of his father’s regarding this Tosafot.

3. A similar idea is advanced by Rabbi Haim Sabato (Hama’ayan, Tishrei 5744 [24:1]: 55-56). The melachah of carrying is termed a melachah geruah—a lesser classification of work (e.g., Tosafot, Shabbat 2a, s.v. yetziot and s.v. pashat; 96b s.v. hotza’ah) as there is no change in the object itself (see Ohr Zarua 2:82; Tosafot Rid, Shabbat 96b; Chayei Adam 9:11; Minchat Shlomo 1:5; Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Binyan Av 1:OC:12). Rabbi Sabato explains that the location of an object is also a quality of the object, and thus moving it is considered a melachah. An unbound, healthy human has the potential to effect a volitional change in his location—chai nosei et atzmo—and hence, changing a human’s location is not a melachah. See Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s thoughts on melachah geruah in Harerei Kedem (3:1). Pnei Yehoshua (Shabbat 51b, s.v. b’Tosafot) suggests that because carrying is a melachah geruah, it does not apply on a Biblical level to one’s animals.

The Rema (OC 299:10) distinguishes between “melachah gemurah, a full melachah, and lighting a candle or carrying from one domain to another, which do not fall into the category of melachah gemurah.

The Avnei Nezer, in his analysis of the melachah of trapping, observes that trapping is actually less of a melachah than carrying (OC 189:7) because absolutely no change happens to the creature when trapped, neither a physical change nor even a change in location.

4. See Shu”t Maharsham (7:52) who brings proofs to permit and prohibit this and concludes that it is prohibited.

5. He points out that according to the
Ba’al Hamaor, even Rabi Natan considers one liable for carrying a person who cannot walk.

6. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger’s controversial position (Chochmat Shlomo, OC 308:41 and Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo 146) that one may carry a small child in a carmelit in order to be able to recite Kaddish is not based on chai nosei et atzmo but on melachah she’einah tzerichah l’gufah (a melachah done for a different conceptual purpose than the purpose for which it was done in the context of building the Mishkan).

7. It need not be stated that if a person is very ill, then Shabbat must be violated in order to treat the person, including, of course, carrying when necessary.

8. I thank Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz for this point.

9. Note that the person being carried may not carry unnecessary items, nor may there be items in a pocket, stroller or bag (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah 18:51; cf. n. 211).

10. If one were in a similar situation in a reshut harabbim, it might be permissible to ask a non-Jew to carry the child (who knows how to walk) because that would be a double shevut (rabbinic prohibition) in a case of great need.

11. In general, without an eruv, it is prohibited to push a stroller or wheelchair on Shabbat (Iggerot Moshe 2:YD:33). If the child cannot walk (e.g., an infant) it is a Biblical prohibition in a reshut harabbim. In a place with no eruv, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe 4:OC:90) permitted a person in a wheelchair to roll it himself (others may not) because it is “like clothing” for him. He notes that chai nosei et atzmo would not permit one to use crutches on Shabbat. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner (Shevet HaLevi 7:37) combines several reasons, including that almost all needs of an infant are considered “great needs,” to permit having a non-Jew push an infant in a stroller in a carmelit. See similarly, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah 38:28. Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg discussed (Yechaveh Da’at, 1935 [privately reprinted 1998], vol. 1, siman 5) the then-prevalent custom of Jews in Montreal, Canada, pushing children in strollers on Shabbat in public. He assembled a creative heter that included the principle of chai nosei et atzmo.

12. This is only relevant for carrying in a public thoroughfare and not for getting between public and private domains (Taz, OC 266:4).

13. The Pri Megadim (Mishbetzet 301:12) notes that there were places where the sandek would be put on a chair and Jews would carry him as he held the infant to bring him to shul. He says that this is absolutely forbidden on Shabbat even in a carmelit.

The Machatzit Hashekel (OC 331, se’if katan heh, s.v. v’al yedei) prefers having a non-Jew carry the knife to where the infant is, rather than carry the infant to shul, as the knife can then be left at the house until after Shabbat, while the infant would need to be carried back home.

14. According to those who hold that the rule was derived from the way objects were carried in the Mishkan, it would seem that it should be a uniquely Shabbat principle and it is not clear that it should extend to other areas of halachah (see Minchat Shlomo, Tinyana 75:2). In that case, when it appears in other areas it is the same term but a different concept (see Techumin 6:340).

15. Owing to the mitzvah connection and its brief nature, the Chida (Yosef Ometz 85) approved of a leniency used in Salonika unrelated to chai nosei et atzmo whereby the baby was on two pillows and the husband would take the top one from his wife.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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