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Intention Versus Action

This week, the rabbis ask if two half-sins equal a whole one. In what part of a sin is sinfulness located?

Adam Kirsch
January 08, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Matt Green/Flickr)

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

Way back at the beginning of Tractate Shabbat, the Talmud established the principle that an action can be considered a violation of the Sabbath only if it is begun and finished by the same person. The rabbis illustrated the point with the example of a man standing inside his house and another man standing outside in the street. If the man inside took an object from his house and placed it in the other man’s hand, he was guilty of performing the forbidden work, or melachah, of transferring an object from the private domain to the public domain. If, on the other hand, the man inside extended his hand out into the street, and the man in the street took an object from his hand, neither of them would be guilty of a transfer, since each had performed only half of the action.

Chapter 10 of Tractate Shabbat, which made up most of last week’s Daf Yomi reading, returns to this principle and tests it in some unexpected ways. In the preceding chapter, the rabbis laid down some rules about how large an object has to be before it is considered a burden that cannot be carried on Shabbat. The rule of thumb is that it must be at least the size of a dried fig. Now, however, the rabbis qualify this rule by bringing up the question of intention. What if you had a quantity of medicine, for instance, that was smaller than a dried fig, but you still intended to use it as medicine; could you carry it on Shabbat?

In Shabbat 90b, the Mishnah makes clear that you cannot: When it comes to objects that are useful even in tiny quantities, a man “is liable for any amount.” The fig rule, it becomes clear, was meant to limit a burden to a trivial quantity of any item, one so small that it could not serve any purpose. If a small quantity is nevertheless usable, then it counts as a burden and cannot be carried.

What this means is that, in determining a Shabbat violation for carrying, we now have to take into consideration two factors—the size of the burden and the intention of the person carrying it. The discussion that follows is designed to clarify how these two factors interact, by means of a series of thought experiments, some of them so odd that they would obviously never arise in real life.

What if, Rav Nachman asks, you took a small amount of wheat into the public domain with the intention of eating it, but once you got outside you changed your mind and decided to plant it instead? In this case, you would have picked up the object with one intention, and set it down with a different intention: Does this still qualify as a transfer? This is another way of asking which matters more, the intent behind an action or its actual performance, and Nachman decides that the performance is what counts: In such a case, “he is liable.”

Next, the Gemara varies the question to make it even trickier. Suppose, Rava asked, that you take an amount of produce half the size of a dried fig out into the public domain, with the intention of planting it. So far, you would be guilty for your intention—since planting is one of the 39 forbidden melachot—but innocent as far as the amount is concerned. Then, imagine that on the way outside, the amount of produce swelled and became the size of a whole fig, and then you decided not to plant it but to eat it instead. If you had taken half a fig’s worth of food outside with the intention of eating it, you would be innocent, since eating is not forbidden on Shabbat; but since you ended up carrying a whole fig’s worth, you are guilty of transferring an item.

This is one of those imaginary problems that can tempt the reader to simply throw up his hands, since it’s so remote from practical life. (How, for example, would the produce swell to twice its size en route? The rabbis don’t say.) But clearly the rabbis knew as well as we do that such a case would rarely if ever actually come up. What they are doing is posing an abstract logical problem, which could be paraphrased this way: The man in question is guilty of two halves of different sins. By taking the produce out of his house with the intention of planting it, he has committed the first half of the sin of planting; but since he ended up eating it, he is not guilty of the second half of the sin of planting. At the same time, because the amount he ended up with is a fig’s worth, he is guilty of the second half of the sin of transferring; but since the amount he started out with was half a fig’s worth, he is not guilty of the first half of the sin of transferring. The question the Gemara asks is, do these two halves of different sins add up to a single completed sin? In what part of a sin is the sinfulness located?

This may seem like enough of a brain-teaser, but Rava is just getting started. One way of answering this conundrum is that the man is guilty because of his original intent: The intention to plant is what counts in determining the sinfulness of the whole action. But if you hold this principle, Rava continues, what would you say if the terms of the problem were reversed? That is, say a man goes outside with fig’s worth of produce intending to eat it, but on the way it shrinks to half that size, and he then decides to plant it instead. Now his original intent is blameless, since eating is permitted on Shabbat, but his final action is sinful, since planting is prohibited. Conversely, his original action is sinful—since he was carrying a forbidden amount of food—but his final action is blameless—since the amount shrank en route. Do we still say that original intent is all that matters and acquit the man for planting?

Say, then, that to avoid this conclusion, we decide that a man can be held guilty for his current intention at any given moment. By that principle, the man in our example is guilty twice: At the start of his action, he intended to make a forbidden transfer, though he didn’t complete it; and the end of his action, he intended to make a forbidden planting, though he didn’t initiate it.

But if you think Rava will let you off that easily, you’re as mistaken as the hapless food-carrier. For now he raises the third, most unlikely hypothetical of all. What if you leave your house carrying a fig’s worth of food, and as you walk it shrinks to half that size, and then it grows again back to its full size, and then you set it down outside. Effectively, you have made a forbidden transfer. But if you consider the action in two halves, both would be innocent: You started out with a fig’s worth, but ended up with a half-fig’s worth; then you started out with a half-fig’s worth, and ended up with a fig’s worth. Would the transfer be effectively “broken” by the shrinkage, so that it could not be considered a sin? In the Gemara’s terminology, “Is negation (dichui) an operative principle with respect to Sabbath law?”

It is at this point that the Talmud makes its most amazing, and yet somehow most characteristic, gesture. After laying out these intricate logic problems—so intricate that I’m not totally confident I’ve grasped every nuance of them—the rabbis conclude, “Let it stand”: that is, the question remains open. We are not even given the satisfaction of a resolution to Rava’s problems! This is frustrating and casts further doubt on the practical application of everything that’s gone before: If the rabbis are willing to leave these questions unanswered, they couldn’t be very relevant to actual Jewish practice.

However, the Talmud is also sending a powerful implicit message. The act of thinking about law, of reasoning out its most distant ramifications, is itself sacred and pleasurable to the rabbis, regardless of its practical application. To read the Talmud at all, I’m finding, it’s necessary to be able to share at least their pleasure, if not their sense of sanctity.


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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.