Question: I was about to sit down and play chess with my son on Shabbos, when my cousin who was visiting said we weren’t allowed to sort through the pieces and set up the board because of Borer. We haven’t played since! Was he right, and is there a way we can still play our weekly game?
Answer: Chess pieces that are in a mixture are distinct, therefore they will fall under the prohibition of Borer (see below) if not separated the right way. We would have to apply the three permissible methods of sorting as discussed below. Thus, the chess pieces would need to be sorted by setting them up on the board at the beginning of the game with your hands, to be used now, while taking the desired from the undesired.
Question: What about card games, is there a problem of Borer there?
Answer: It depends on what you are doing. Removing jokers that are mixed into the deck because you don’t want them is a problem. However, playing a game in which you have a bunch of cards in your hand and you pick them out one by one to put in the pile is permitted because it fits all the criteria of the proper method of sorting.
Question: What if I am taking out a card that I don’t want but it is to give to somebody else that I am playing with who does want it?
Answer: That is allowed. With Borer, you always look at who the separating is done for, not who is doing the separating.
Question: My child asked me to play checkers with him. We opened the box and the red and black pieces are all mixed together. My child wants to be black. Can I take out the black pieces to give to him or since I technically don’t want those, I can only take out the red?
Answer: Since you are separating for him, and he desires the black, you can take them out and give them to him.
Borer is one of the 39 creative acts (melachos) that are forbidden on Shabbos. It is defined as sorting or selecting from a mixture. In order to identify a potential borer situation two factors must be assessed:
- Borer applies only when you are separating parts of a mixture. The first thing to consider is whether or not the mixture before you is considered a halachic mixture. A halachic mixture is defined as the combination of two or more different and distinct entities. Therefore you must determine if the particular mixture contains two different and distinct things. If there aren’t two different things or “types”, then there is no problem with borer at all.
For example, to separate or sift through a bunch of black checker pieces is not a question of Borer at all since they are all considered the same type of item. However, a pile of black and red checker pieces would be a problem to separate because their color makes them two different”types”. Also, not only would black and white chess pieces be considered a mixture, but even the different pieces within one particular color would be a problem. This is because even though they are the same color, the pieces are still defined as different and distinct entities in that they look different as well as have different functions in the game.
- You need to determine whether or not the two items are in fact considered mixed at the moment. How close do the two items have to be to each other to be considered mixed? Only if they are touching each other? These questions have no set rules because it is relative to whether we consider them mixed or not. This aspect makes Borer particularly hard to define due to its relative nature to any given situation.
In summary, there are two factors to consider that will answer whether there is a question of borer at all: if the items are distinct from each other and whether these items are actually in a mixture.
Once we have determined that we do in fact have a borer problem, there are three criteria that if met (all three simultaneously) would make the selecting or sorting permissible.
The three criteria are:
- Taking from the mixture what you want as opposed to discarding that which you don’t want. An example for this would be a bowl of peanuts with some pieces of shells mixed in. You may take the peanuts from the mixture, but are not allowed to throw away the shells in order to be left only with the peanuts.
- Taking from the mixture if you are planning to use what you took out relatively soon (it does not necessarily have to be immediate but the maximum amount of time is hard to define, its somewhere around thirty minutes).
- Taking from the mixture with your hand as opposed to a utensil that helps with the separation process i.e. a strainer. (Cutlery is considered an extension of the hand and is permissible.)
So one is allowed to separate from a mixture if ALL of the three conditions are met, namely taking the desired from the undesired, to be used relatively soon, and by hand.