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Why the Sabbath Is Everything

This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner

Adam Kirsch
December 18, 2012
(Magnes Museum)
(Magnes Museum)

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

The idea that underlies the whole of Tractate Shabbat from the very beginning has been the melachot—the kinds of labor prohibited on the Sabbath. But it was not until this week, in Shabbat 73a, that the Talmud finally does what one might expect it to have done on the first page: actually list the 39 categories of melachot.

“The primary labors are 40 minus one,” the Mishnah instructs, and it divides them into several categories. First come the 11 kinds of work necessary to bake bread. This includes everything from sowing seeds and plowing the fields to sifting flour, kneading dough, and baking. Then come the 13 labors involved in making clothing, from shearing wool to weaving threads, tying knots, and sewing stitches. Next are labors involved in preparing hides (trapping a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it), and in writing, including erasing what you have written. Finally come the six most general categories: building and demolishing; kindling and extinguishing; “striking the final blow”—that is, putting the finishing touch on any piece of work; and the melachah with which the whole tractate began, “taking from one domain to another domain.”

We have already learned, in Shabbat 49b, that these 39 categories are derived from the building of the Tabernacle by the Israelites in the desert: Every kind of work that the mishkan involved is banned on Shabbat. The Gemara takes up the question of exactly how each category of work was involved in the building of the Tabernacle. One melachah, for instance, is baking, but no bread was baked in the construction of the mishkan: So, why is baking forbidden? The answer is that baking is a kind of cooking, and building the Tabernacle did require cooking—specifically, cooking certain herbs to obtain dye. This example, from Shabbat 74b, drives home the point that it is not the precise actions involved in building the Tabernacle that are prohibited but the whole genus of actions of which the Tabernacle offers a species.

The summary catalog is followed, as one might expect, by a series of glosses, in which the Gemara explains what kinds of activity fall into each general category. If you chop wood on Shabbat, for instance, you are liable either for cutting—if you are cutting the pieces of wood to a specified size—or for grinding, if you are simply chopping it to bits to use for kindling. In another hypothetical case, the Gemara imagines a man who has a small mound of dirt, and on Shabbat he shoveled it away. If the dirt was outside, this action would be considered a form of plowing, since it would have the effect of loosening the earth. On the other hand, if the dirt was inside his house, he would be liable for building, since he would be improving the quality of his living quarters. By the same token, however, only work that actually improves something can be considered work. If for some reason you decided to dig up the floor of your house on Shabbat—a reminder that in Talmudic times the floor was usually just packed earth—you would not performing the melachah of building, since you would actually be damaging your house.

The very first question the Gemara asks about the Mishnaic catalog of melachot, however, is an unexpected one—though after several months of reading Daf Yomi, I find myself recognizing it as a familiar example of Talmudic reasoning. “Why,” the rabbis ask, “do I need the number?” That is, why did the Mishnah preface its list by stating that it would contain 39 items? Surely the reader could have tallied them up himself. But it is a basic principle of Talmudic interpretation that every word, every sentence, of a text is there for a reason—whether it is a biblical verse or a line of Mishnah. What purpose, then, did the Mishnah have in mind when it gave this seemingly superfluous number?

“It is to teach,” replies Rabbi Yochanan, “that if someone performed all 39 of them in one lapse of awareness, he is obligated to bring a separate sin-offering (chatas) for each one.” In this way, Yochanan picks up the thread of the long and exceptionally intricate discussion that has been in progress since the beginning of Chapter 7. This is a debate over exactly how to calculate the number of penitential offerings a Shabbat violator is required to bring, which in turn depends on how you define a Shabbat violation.

According to Exodus 35:2, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” As the Schottenstein Edition’s useful notes explain, the problem of capital crimes is taken up in Tractate Sanhedrin, where the rabbis hedge the death penalty with so many qualifications as to effectively ban it. A deliberate Shabbat violation is a matter for God himself to punish.

What concerns the rabbis in Tractate Shabbat, then, is only an inadvertent violation of the Sabbath, for which the rabbinical punishment is to bring a kind of offering known as chatas, a sin-offering. One effect of this restriction is to make it sound as if, in Talmudic times, deliberately breaking the Sabbath was simply unknown among Jews. The idea that there could be a Jewish community where a large majority of the population simply ignores the Shabbat laws—like, say, contemporary American Jews—would have been unthinkable to the rabbis.

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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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.