Can’t Touch This
Talmudic rabbis debate the reach of permissions and prohibitions, and Jews are rewarded for virtuous behavior
Writing last week about the Talmud’s rule that you cannot extinguish a fire on Shabbat, I noted that presumably an exception must be made for saving human life. I didn’t have to wait long to see how the rabbis approached this question, since it turned out to be one of the major themes of this week’s Daf Yomi reading. When it comes to sick people, women in childbirth, and even suffering animals, the rabbis make clear in Shabbat 128b, the usually strict rules of Shabbat observance can be relaxed or even violated.
This conclusion is reached after a long discussion, stretching over Chapters 17 and 18 of Tractate Shabbat, of the laws of muktzeh. This concept was treated at some length much earlier in Tractate Shabbat, but now the Talmud returns to it in an attempt to make its essence and application clearer. Muktzeh means “set aside,” and the basic principle is that an item can only be used or moved on Shabbat if it is explicitly or implicitly designated in advance for that purpose. Objects that ordinarily are not used on Shabbat, or that come into existence on Shabbat, or whose function is prohibited on Shabbat, are all “set aside.”
Nowhere do the rabbis explain the origin or purpose of this rule, and I was rather relieved to learn from the Koren edition’s notes that “it is not entirely clear why handling items that have been set aside is prohibited,” since it certainly had not been clear to me. The logic seems to be that muktzeh is a protective measure. By making it illegal even to touch certain objects, the rabbis hoped to prevent Jews from using those objects in ways that would violate Shabbat. This kind of prophylactic lawmaking has been common in the Talmud so far: Rabbinic laws are often designed as a fence around biblical laws.
Some kinds of utensils are obviously muktzeh, because they can’t be used on Shabbat—building tools, for instance, or firewood. But what if one uses such an item, not for its intended and prohibited purpose, but for another purpose that is allowed on Shabbat? Does the prohibition apply to the utensil itself, or only to the specific way it is used? This question is addressed in the first mishnah of Chapter 17, which rules, “A person may move a mallet to crack nuts with it, an axe to cut a cake of figs with it, a saw to cut cheese with it, a spade to scoop dried figs with it.” Ordinarily, all these objects would be muktzeh, since it is prohibited to do construction work on Shabbat; but if they are used for food preparation, the mishnah says, they can be moved. As the Gemara puts it (in the Koren’s expansive translation), “Using an object whose primary function is for a prohibited use, for the purpose of utilizing the object itself to perform a permitted action, is permitted.”
This is a liberal interpretation, and it doesn’t go unchallenged in the Gemara. After all, Abaye notes, Beit Shammai—the school of sages noted for the strictness of their rulings—said that “one may not take a pestle from a mortar in order to cut meat on it.” This would be an example of using a forbidden item for a permitted purpose, yet Beit Shammai forbids this. (Beit Hillel, as is usually the case, holds the opposite, more lenient view, that it is permitted to use the pestle for cutting meat.) To explain Beit Shammai’s objection, the Gemara explains that the pestle falls into a different category of muktzeh: items that are set aside because they are valuable and the owner wants to protect them from harm. Rav pointed out that “launderers’ pins, presses, and clothing rods,” all delicate tools, are kept in a designated place so that they won’t get broken, and it is forbidden to move them from this place on Shabbat. So, too, with the pestle: It is “set aside” to avoid monetary loss. “A large saw and the blade of a plow,” the Mishnah says, also fall into this category of valuable implements.
Why is it, one might ask, that the rabbis follow a permissive line in this case, allowing utensils to be moved around even if their primary purpose is forbidden? After all, in last week’s reading we learned that it was forbidden even to move your goods out of the way of a fire on Shabbat, lest you be tempted to put the fire out. Why aren’t the rabbis worried that Jews will take advantage in the case of muktzeh as well?
The reason, we learn in Shabbat 123b, is that the Jewish people earned this leniency on account of their good behavior. “Initially, [the Sages] would say that only three utensils may be moved on Shabbat: a knife for cutting a cake of dried figs, a combined spoon and fork to clean the filth of a pot, and a small knife for the table.” However, the Jews proved to be so careful about observing Shabbat, so sure not to use forbidden utensils, that the rabbis modified their ruling: “[T]hey permitted, and then they permitted, and then they permitted,” as the Gemara puts it. Finally, they decided that “all utensils may be moved on Shabbat except for a large saw and the blade of a plow.”
This struck me as a remarkable moment, for two reasons. First, it suggests that rabbinic lawmaking does not take place in a theoretical vacuum but is responsive to the needs and actions of the community and can change as the community changes. And second, it is a rare occasion when the rabbis express confidence in the people’s ability to observe the law carefully. Last week, we read that the Messiah would come if only the Jews could observe Shabbat perfectly two weeks in a row. Now, in this one aspect at least, it seems as if the Jews are capable of perfection.
What happens when an Israeli and a Palestinian, separated by checkpoints, meet and fall for each other