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Can’t Touch This

Talmudic rabbis debate the reach of permissions and prohibitions, and Jews are rewarded for virtuous behavior

Adam Kirsch
February 12, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Mistie Beardman/Flickr )

Literary critic Adam Kirschis reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

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.

This rabbinic confidence seems to justify a maxim that the sages state in Chapter 18, when they are discussing the reward people can expect for possessing various virtues. Most kinds of good behavior are rewarded in the world to come, the rabbis hold, but for “six matters a person enjoys the profits in this world”: hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, praying thoughtfully, going early to the study hall, raising sons to engage in Torah study, and judging another person favorably—that is, giving him the benefit of the doubt, as the rabbis gave the people the benefit of the doubt about Shabbat.

The Talmud goes on to tell some memorable stories about people who were given the benefit of the doubt, even when their conduct seemed questionable. There was, for example, the time when Rabbi Yehoshua went to visit a Roman matron whose help he needed. (As the Koren notes, it was not uncommon for upper-class Romans, especially women, to be interested in Judaism; presumably Yehoshua needed this woman’s help in dealing with the imperial authorities.) His students watched as Yehoshua took off his tefillin, entered the woman’s house, and locked the door behind him. When he emerged, he went straight to the ritual bath to purify himself.

Since this is what men have to do after having a seminal emission, it would have been natural to conclude that Yehoshua had just been intimate with the matron. But when he quizzed his students, they denied having any such suspicion. “When I locked the door, of what did you suspect me?” he asked, and they replied, “We said: Perhaps there is a royal matter that must be discussed between him and her.” “When I descended and immersed, of what did you suspect me?” “We said: Perhaps a bit of spittle sprayed from her mouth onto the rabbi’s clothes.” By judging Yehoshua so leniently, not suspecting him of committing crimes, the students earned his blessing: “Just as you judged favorably, may God judge you favorably.”

Finally, near the end of Chapter 18, we reach the Talmud’s discussion of when it is permitted to violate Shabbat in order to help a sick person. Actually, the rabbis first address the question of animals: What can you do, Rav asks, if an animal falls into an aqueduct on Shabbat? You are not allowed to actually pick it up and carry it, which would be a direct biblical violation. But you are allowed to take cushions and blankets and put them beneath the animal, so that it can walk out of the water on its own. The Gemara points out that by putting cushions in the water, you are rendering them unfit for their usual purpose, and that this could fall under the forbidden melachah of dismantling. Rav has an answer ready: “Negating a vessel’s preparedness is forbidden by rabbinic law. Causing a living creature to suffer is a Torah prohibition. And a matter prohibited by Torah law comes and overrides a matter prohibited by rabbinic law.”

When it comes to a human being, the rabbis are even more permissive. “One may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth,” the Mishnah instructs, since she is considered to be a person with a life-threatening illness. The Gemara expands on what this “desecration” includes: You can light a lamp, summon a midwife, and bring the pregnant woman oil. However, if possible, the rabbis advise that these things should be done in an atypical manner, as a gesture to Shabbat. Thus they advise that, if a woman is bringing her pregnant friend oil on Shabbat, she should “carry it in her hair.” The rabbis disagree, however, about whether this means immersing her hair in oil and then wringing it out—which seems odd, not to say unsanitary—or simply tying a container of oil to her hair.

It is permitted to violate Shabbat for a woman in childbirth, the rabbis rule, even if the patient herself doesn’t ask you to. According to Shmuel, “With regard to a woman in childbirth, as long as the womb is open, whether she said: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, or whether she did not say: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, one desecrates Shabbat for her.” It is even permissible to break Shabbat just to give the woman peace of mind. The rabbis consider the case of a blind woman in labor: Can one light a lamp for her, even though she doesn’t derive any benefit from the light? They answer that this is permitted, since the woman will take comfort from knowing that the people attending her will be able to see better. The case of the blind woman is a good example of the kind of hyperbole the rabbis often resort to when proving a point. Surely this particular situation didn’t arise often—a blind woman giving birth on Shabbat—but the rabbis invented it in order to demonstrate a principle: in this case, the principle that alleviating pain and suffering is even more sacred than Shabbat itself.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.