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Things Broken and Repaired

In this week’s page of Talmud, the rabbis show their skill at making distinctions between obligation and acting out

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(Original illustration via Nikol Lohr/Flickr)
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For the last several chapters, Tractate Shabbat has been focused on just a few of the 39 categories of forbidden labor—above all, various issues of transferring and carrying. The rabbis seem drawn to problems involving this kind of work precisely because it is so abstract and allows so many elaborations and case studies. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, however, the Talmud turns, in a series of short, pithy chapters, to some of the other forbidden melachot, including building, writing, and trapping an animal.

In earlier discussions, we learned that there is a minimum quantity that you must carry before you are liable for carrying on Shabbat—in the case of food, the amount is equal to the volume of a dried fig. Chapter 12 opens by asking a similar question about the forbidden melachah of building. Is there a minimum degree of building that has to take place before it is considered a Shabbat violation, for which the offender must bring a sin offering?

The Mishnah tells us that there is no such minimum: “One who builds any amount, and one who chisels, or strikes the final blow with a hammer or a sledgehammer, or drills any amount, is liable.” The logic here, the Mishnah explains, is that any kind of constructive labor is forbidden: “Anyone who performs labor, and his labor endures, on the Sabbath he is liable.” The Gemara goes on to explain what kinds of seemingly trivial kinds of building the Mishnah has in mind. Digging a small hole, the way a pauper does to hide his money, is one such forbidden activity. Since we know that all forbidden labors are ones that were performed during the building of the Tabernacle, the rabbis explain that the Israelites too had occasion to dig small holes: “for indeed, those who sewed the curtains for the mishkan would dig a hole to store their needles in it.”

Abaye, however, takes issue with this example, on the commonsensical grounds that no one would store needles in a hole in the ground: “Since they would rust, the craftsmen would not do this!” Instead, he gives another example of trivial labor: a pauper who builds a small stove for his small pot of food. This, too, has a Tabernacle precedent, since the Israelites would cook herbs to make the dye for the curtains, and when they needed only a small amount of dye they would use a pauper-sized pot.

But Rav Acha bar Yaakov is not happy with this explanation either, for an interesting reason: He holds that to speak of paupers at all in connection with the mishkan is an insult to its dignity. As Rashi explains, it’s offensive to think that the builders of the mishkan fussed with such tiny amounts of dye. Rather, they made huge batches from the beginning, and so never had to deal with pauper-sized pots. Once again, a discussion of legal technicalities has brought the rabbis to imagine the splendor of the Tabernacle.

The Mishnah bans any kind of constructive or positive activity on Shabbat; but this raises a question to which the Talmud will return in the following chapter, in Shabbat 105b. What if you perform an action that involves some real expense of energy but its effect is purely destructive? The Mishnah gives the example of “one who tears in his anger or for his dead.” This is a kind of work; but tearing falls under the category of “all who act destructively,” and so it is exempt from punishment. On the other hand, if you tear a garment deliberately in order to sew it together again, the way a tailor would, you are liable, since in this case the destructive act takes place as part of a constructive process.

Here, as often before in Tractate Shabbat, the Talmud is trying to define the problem of intent. Are certain actions forbidden on Shabbat in and of themselves, or does the intent behind them count? Earlier we saw how the rabbis puzzled out this question in the case of carrying, by performing thought experiments in which the size of a burden changed in mid-journey. In this case, too, the Gemara finds grounds for extensive debate. The Mishnah allows “tearing for his dead,” presumably on the grounds that this is a purely negative action. But isn’t it the case, the Gemara asks, that tearing your clothes in mourning is actually an obligation? How can it then be considered a destructive act?

To solve the problem, the rabbis do what they do best—they make a distinction. The obligation to tear your clothes applies only in the case of the death of a relative; to tear your clothes for that reason would indeed violate Shabbat, because it would be carrying out a positive obligation. What the Mishnah has in mind is tearing your clothes over a non-relative, which is not obligatory and is therefore strictly destructive. It is a seemingly inverted logic: On Shabbat, you are not allowed to do what you are supposed to do, and you are allowed to do what you are not supposed to do.

But the Gemara is not done turning over this question. You are usually not obliged to rend your garments in the case of a non-relative who dies; but what if the dead man is a Torah sage? Yes, the rabbis grant, you are obliged to mourn for a Torah sage. And what if the dead man was not a sage but just an upright person? Yes, you have to mourn for an upright person a well. And what if the dead man was neither a sage nor especially upright, but you simply happened to see him die—don’t you have an obligation to tear your clothes then? In this way, the rabbis narrow down the field of mourning: The only purely destructive act is to tear your clothes for a non-relative who was not a sage or a righteous man and who you did not actually see die. Only in this case is the mourning gratuitous and therefore, by the logic of Shabbat, permitted.

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Samuel Goldring says:

I was taught that to be so caught up with one’s own anger, as indicated by the wanton destruction of property, is to put aside what G-d wants- decency, and instead turn one’s wild impulse into a god (idol ) I worship and whose bidding I act out.

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Things Broken and Repaired

In this week’s page of Talmud, the rabbis show their skill at making distinctions between obligation and acting out