Why the Sabbath Is Everything
This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner
The Mishnah begins by methodically asking how a person might be led to inadvertently violate Shabbat. There are three logical possibilities. First, a Jew might “forget the essence of the Sabbath”—that is, he might not even know that the Sabbath is a holy day on which work is forbidden. Practically speaking, of course, no member of a Talmudic-era Jewish community could really have been so ignorant, not with Shabbat woven so thoroughly into the fabric of Jewish life. The only occupant of this category the rabbis can imagine, then, is “a child who was captured and raised among gentiles”—a Jew who never had the chance to learn the most basic elements of Judaism. The rabbis differ about whether such a child is even guilty of violating the Sabbath he never knew: Yochanan and Shimon ben Lakish both argue that such a person is exempt from any chatas offering.
The second way a person might inadvertently violate the Sabbath is if he didn’t know what day Shabbat was. Such a person “knows the essence of the Sabbath,” he just doesn’t know exactly when the Sabbath prohibitions are in force; he is liable, then, for a sin-offering for each Shabbat he inadvertently violated. One way this might happen, Rav Huna says in Shabbat 69b, is “if someone was walking on the way or in the desert, and he does not know when it is the Sabbath.” In that case, he advises, the man should count six days and then observe the seventh as Shabbat, so he will at least be preserving the principle of a day of rest. (Chiya bar Rav, on the other hand, says that the man should observe Shabbat immediately, and then count six days of work.)
Finally, there is the third kind of sinner—a man who knows what Shabbat means and when it is, but doesn’t know the rules about the 39 melachot. Such a man is liable to bring a chatas offering, not for each single action he performed but for each category of action. That is, if he planted three times and transferred four times, he would only have to bring two offerings, not seven. This brings us back to Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation for why the Mishnah gives the total number of melachot: The maximum number of offerings a person could have to bring would be 39 if he had somehow managed to perform every kind of forbidden work inadvertently.
There is, however, a basic question one might ask about this third kind of sinner. What exactly does it mean to say that a man could know the essence of Shabbat without knowing about the 39 melachot? Isn’t the essence of Shabbat that work is prohibited on it—so that if a Jew didn’t know this basic fact, he couldn’t really be said to know what Shabbat means? It is a good question, to which Rabbi Akiva provides the answer: “He knew about the Sabbath with regard to the law of boundaries,” which limits the distance you can travel on Shabbat. One might doubt whether a Jew could actually be found who knew about the boundary law and not the prohibition on work. But here, as always, the Talmud pays as much attention to remote logical possibilities as to practical ones; only when every possibility has been addressed can the rabbis consider a subject fully understood.
Editor’s note: Adam Kirsch’s Daf Yomi column returns January 8, 2013, following federal holidays Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
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