This is a source sheet to accompany the panel that took place in Jerusalem on January 5, 2017 titled, “Divine Sparks: Shabbat, Electricity”
To listen to the audio from the panel, click on the following audio link:
Below is a summary of the main ways in which poskim have tried to put the use of electricity, when it does not involve any other melakha (e.g., the turning on of incandescent lights, which would be considered a fire since it burns a piece of metal generating heat and light). The seventh explanation concedes that it does not fit into any technical category of a Rabbinic or Biblical violation and frames the problem in terms of tradition (or we might say, minhag, custom). Why is it that we have such a strong intuition that we should not use electricity on Shabbat? In what ways does the use of electricity violate our sense of the nature or sanctity of the Shabbat day?
1. “The Use Of Electricity On Shabbat And Yom Tov,” Rabbis Michael Broyde and Howard Jachter, Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society, No. XXI – Spring 91 – Pesach 5751
Seven reasons have been advanced to prohibit the use of electrical appliances on Shabbat. The first six reasons are summarized as follows:
1. Turning on an appliance is analogous to creating something new (molid) which is prohibited on Shabbat.
2. Completion of a circuit is prohibited because it is a form of building (boneh).
3. Turning on an appliance violates the prohibition ofma’keh bepatish (completing a product)…
If each of these prohibitions were to be found inapplicable, then only the following reason would remain:
7. The use of electricity without light or heat is actually permitted, but because observant Jews since the invention of electricity have maintained that it is prohibited to use electrical appliances on Shabbat, and rabbinic authorities approved of this stricture, it is prohibited to use such appliances – absent great need – because of tradition.
“Shvut” and “Shabbaton” and the Sanctity of Shabbat
Ramban understands that the Torah’s concept of “Shabbaton” mandates that we preserve the spirit of Shabbat. What emerges from this passage as central characteristics of the sanctity of Shabbat? In other words, according to this Ramban, how would you finish the following sentence: “Shabbat is a day in which we ____”?
How does “Shabbaton” focus on a dimension of Shabbat that is different from that of the 39 melakhot? Can you think of any way that these two dimensions might be connected to the differences between the way in which the mitzvah of Shabbat is formulated in the first luchot and the second?
2. Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Vayikra 23:24
|ונראה לי שהמדרש הזה לומר שנצטוינו מן התורה להיות לנו מנוחה בי”ט אפילו מדברים שאינן מלאכה, לא שיטרח כל היום למדוד התבואות ולשקול הפירות והמתנות ולמלא החביות יין, ולפנות הכלים וגם האבנים מבית לבית וממקום למקום, ואם היתה עיר מוקפת חומה ודלתות נעולות בלילה יהיו עומסים על החמורים ואף יין וענבים ותאנים וכל משא יביאו בי”ט ויהיה השוק מלא לכל מקח וממכר, ותהיה החנות פתוחה והחנוני מקיף והשלחנים על שלחנם והזהובים לפניהם, ויהיו הפועלים משכימין למלאכתן ומשכירין עצמם כחול לדברים אלו וכיוצא בהן, והותרו הימים הטובים האלו ואפילו השבת עצמה שבכל זה אין בהם משום מלאכה, לכך אמרה תורה “שבתון” שיהיה יום שביתה ומנוחה לא יום טורח. וזהו פירוש טוב ויפה:
… אבל פירוש “שבתון” כך הוא שתהיה לנו מנוחה מן הטורח והעמל כמו שביארנו… והנה הוזהרו על המלאכות בשבת בלאו ועונש כרת ומיתה והטרחים והעמל בעשה הזה… וממנו אמר הנביא (ישעיה נח יג) מעשות דרכיך ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר… וזה מן התורה, שאלו מדבריהם כל דבר שאינו עושה אינו אומר לגוי ועושה (מו”ק יב א), שאפילו בשבות דאמירה החמירו בה
|And it appears to me that this [halakhic] midrash (that the rabbinic concept of שבות is actually biblically-based), tells us that we are commanded by the Torah that we should have a day of rest on Yom Tov even from those activities which are not מלאכה. Not that we should [refrain from technical מלאכה and yet] toil the entire day, measuring grain, weighing fruit, and filling the barrels with wine, and moving vessels and even stones from one house to another and from one place to another, and if the city were surrounded by a wall with the gates locked at night, people could even load up the donkeys, and even wine and grapes and figs and all manners of burdens (cf. Nehemia 13:15) they could bring on Yom Tov, and the market would be filled with all manners of buying and selling, and the stores would be open, and the storekeeper would be selling on credit, and the money-changers would be by their tables, with their golden coins piled in front of them, and the day-laborers would be rising early in the morning to their work, and hiring themselves out – it would become like a weekday regarding these matters and similar ones. Yom Tov, and even Shabbat itself, would become days free of restriction, for in all these matters there is no actual מלאכה being performed. It is for this reason that the Torah says שבתון – that it shall be a day of cessation and rest, not a day of toil. And this is a good and proper explanation.
… The meaning of the word שבתון is thus: that it should be for us a day of rest from toil and labor, as we have explained… Behold, we have been proscribed by the Torah from doing מלאכה on Shabbat, by force of a negative prohibition, whose violation is punishable by כרת (divine excision) and execution (by the court), and proscribed from toil and exertion by force of this positive commandment. And it is on this basis that the prophet says: “[You shall honor it] not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” (Isa. 58:3). … All this is from the Torah, for Rabbinically one is not allowed to tell a non-Jew to do anything that he cannot do – that is, they were stringent even a regarding a shvut of a mere act of speech.
Rambam focuses on the word “Shvut,” rather than “Shabbaton,” as directing us to an aspect of Shabbat that is not the 39 melakhot per se. What, for Rambam, is the scope of this concept? How much is it really distinct from the melakhot? Is his approach similar or different than Ramban’s?
3. Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 21:1
|נאמר בתורה +שמות כ”ג+ תשבות אפילו מדברים שאינן מלאכה חייב לשבות מהן, ודברים הרבה הן שאסרו חכמים משום שבות, מהן דברים אסורים מפני שהן דומים למלאכות ומהן דברים אסורים גזרה שמא יבוא מהן איסור סקילה, ואלו הן.||It says in the Torah, “You shall rest.” Even from matters which are not melakha, a person is obligated to rest from them. And there are many things which the Sages have prohibited based on the concept of shevut. There are those which are forbidden because they are similar to melakhot, and there are those which are forbidden as a safeguard, lest one come to do an act that is punishable by stoning. And these are they…|
Rambam gives many reasons for why Hazal forbade the moving of muktzeh items. What concept of the nature/sanctity of Shabbat emerges from this explanation? In what way is this similar to or different from Ramban’s approach?
4. Rambam, Laws of Shabbat, 24:12-13
|[יב] אסרו חכמים לטלטל מקצת דברים בשבת כדרך שהוא עושה בחול, ומפני מה נגעו באיסור זה, אמרו ומה אם הזהירו נביאים וצוו שלא יהיה הילוכך בשבת כהילוכך בחול ולא שיחת השבת כשיחת החול שנאמר ודבר דבר קל וחומר שלא יהיה טלטול בשבת כטלטול בחול כדי שלא יהיה כיום חול בעיניו ויבוא להגביה ולתקן כלים מפינה לפינה או מבית לבית או להצניע אבנים וכיוצא בהן שהרי הוא בטל ויושב בביתו ויבקש דבר שיתעסק בו ונמצא שלא שבת ובטל הטעם שנאמר בתורה +דברים ה’+ למען ינוח.
[יג] ועוד כשיבקר ויטלטל כלים שמלאכתן לאיסור אפשר שיתעסק בהן מעט ויבא לידי מלאכה
ועוד מפני שמקצת העם אינם בעלי אומניות אלא בטלין כל ימיהן כגון הטיילין ויושבי קרנות שכל ימיהן הן שובתים ממלאכה ואם יהיה מותר להלך ולדבר ולטלטל כשאר הימים נמצא שלא שבת שביתה הניכרת, לפיכך שביתה מדברים אלו היא שביתה השוה בכל אדם
| The Sages forbade the carrying of certain objects on the Sabbath in the same manner as [one carries] during the week. Why was this prohibition instituted? [Our Sages] said: If the prophets warned that the manner in which a person walks on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which he walks during the week, and similarly, one’s conversation on the Sabbath should not resemble one’s conversation during the week, as it is written, “[refraining from]… speaking about [mundane] matters,” surely the manner in which one carries on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which one carries during the week.
In this manner, no one will regard [the Sabbath] as an ordinary weekday and lift up and repair articles, [carrying them] from room to room, or from house to house, or set aside stones and the like. [These restrictions are necessary] for since the person is idle and sitting at home, [it is likely that] he will seek something with which to occupy himself. Thus, he will not have ceased activity and will have negated the motivating principle for the Torah’s commandment [Deuteronomy 5:14], “Thus… will rest.”
 Furthermore, when one searches for and carries articles that are used for a forbidden activity, it is possible that one will use them and thus be motivated to perform a [forbidden] labor.
[Another reason for this prohibition is] that there are some people who are not craftsmen and are always idle – e.g., tourists and those that stand on the street corners. These individuals never perform labor. Were they to be allowed to walk, talk, and carry as they do during the week, the result would be that their cessation of activity on [the Sabbath] would not be discernible. For this reason, [our Sages instituted] refraining from such activities, for the cessation of such activities is universally applicable.
Shvut in the Mishnah – A Fence Around Melakhot or Preserving the Sanctity of Shabbat?
Whether shvut is about protecting against the 39 melakhot, as emerges from one passage of Rambam (21:1) or whether is about preserving the nature of Shabbat, can be seen in different interpretations of the Mishna in Beitzah which lists a number of activities as classic examples of “shvut.” Notice that the Gemara explains that all of these are to protect against the violation of a melakha, but the Tosefta implies that they may more be referring to professional activities – climbing a tree to gather the fruit, riding animals and crossing bodies of water to get to one’s work or to transport wares, and clapping and slapping to scare away birds. The first group – climbing, riding, etc. – may also be to preserve Shabbat as a day of staying put, and the last group – clapping and slapping – may also be related to preserving Shabbat as a day of quiet.
5. Mishna Beitza, 5:2
|כל שחייבין עליו משום שבות .. חייבין עליו ביום טוב ואלו הן משום שבות
לא עולין באילן ולא רוכבין על גבי בהמה ולא שטין על פני המים
לא מטפחין ולא מספקין ולא מרקדין
|Every [act] that one is culpable on as a shevut… on Shabbat, one is also culpable on a festival. The following acts are culpable as a shevut:
one may not climb a tree, nor ride a beast, nor swim in water,
Nor [may one] clap the hands, nor slap [the thighs], nor dance
6. Gemara. Beitza 36b
|גמרא. לא עולין באילן – גזרה שמא יתלוש. ולא רוכבין על גבי בהמה – גזרה שמא יצא חוץ לתחום. – שמע מינה תחומין דאורייתא? – אלא: גזרה שמא יחתוך זמורה. ולא שטין על פני המים – גזרה שמא יעשה חבית של שייטין. ולא מטפחין ולא מספקין ולא מרקדין – גזרה שמא יתקן כלי שיר.||Gemara. One may not climb a tree: it is a preventive measure lest he pluck [fruit]. “Nor ride a beast”: it is a preventive measure lest he might go without the tehum. Then this proves that the law of tehum is Biblical? Rather say, it is a preventive measure lest he cut off a switch. “Nor swim in the water”: it is a preventive measure lest he might make a swimming device. “Nor clap the hands nor slap the thighs, nor dance”: it is a preventive measure lest he might repair musical instruments.|
7. Tosefta Shabbat 17:25
|המשמר זרעים מפני עופות ומקשאות מפני חיה משמר כדרכו בשבת ובלבד שלא יספק ולא ירקד ולא יטפיח כדרך שעושה בחול||One who guards seeds from the birds, and melons from wild beasts, can guard them in the normal way on Shabbat, provided that he does not clap, nor dance, or slap his thighs, in the manner that he does during the week.|
The Character of the Sanctity of Shabbat
The passages above suggest many ways to describe the way in which Shabbat is distinct from the weekdays. The abstention from melakha is a cessation of engaging in creative acts, reflecting the idea that God stopped creating on this day. But there are other aspects to the day – it is a day we don’t toil (“because you were slaves in the land of Egypt), a day we don’t do our normal professional activities, we stay put and don’t go out trying to acquire and take in; it is a day of quiet, free from busy-ness. Which of these dimensions – or what other dimensions – emerge from the following passages? And ask yourself- how does electricity and electronics challenge or violate some of these aspects of Shabbat?
Nehemia speaks of the ways in which the people were violating the Shabbat. What activities is he primarily concerned about? Are these acts that would fall under the 39 melakhot? How would you describe the way in which these activities violated Shabbat / created a day that felt like the weekday? Do you see how Ramban’s description echoes many aspects of this passage?
8. Nechemia, 10:32; 13:14-22
|(י:לב) וְעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ הַמְבִיאִים אֶת הַמַּקָּחוֹת וְכָל שֶׁבֶר בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לִמְכּוֹר לֹא נִקַּח מֵהֶם בַּשַּׁבָּת וּבְיוֹם קֹדֶשׁ וְנִטֹּשׁ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית וּמַשָּׁא כָל יָד:
(יד) זָכְרָה לִּי אֱ-לֹהַי עַל זֹאת וְאַל תֶּמַח חֲסָדַי אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּבֵית אֱלֹהַי וּבְמִשְׁמָרָיו: (טו) בַּיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה רָאִיתִי בִיהוּדָה דֹרְכִים גִּתּוֹת בַּשַּׁבָּת וּמְבִיאִים הָעֲרֵמוֹת וְעֹמְסִים עַל הַחֲמֹרִים וְאַף יַיִן עֲנָבִים וּתְאֵנִים וְכָל מַשָּׂא וּמְבִיאִים יְרוּשָׁלִַם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וָאָעִיד בְּיוֹם מִכְרָם צָיִד: (טז) וְהַצֹּרִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ מְבִיאִים דָּאג וְכָל מֶכֶר וּמֹכְרִים בַּשַּׁבָּת לִבְנֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִירוּשָׁלִָם: (יז) וָאָרִיבָה אֵת חֹרֵי יְהוּדָה וָאֹמְרָה לָהֶם מָה הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹשִׂים וּמְחַלְּלִים אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת: (יח) הֲלוֹא כֹה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם וַיָּבֵא אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת וְעַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת וְאַתֶּם מוֹסִיפִים חָרוֹן עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַלֵּל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת:
(יט) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר צָלֲלוּ שַׁעֲרֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לִפְנֵי הַשַּׁבָּת וָאֹמְרָה וַיִּסָּגְרוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת וָאֹמְרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִפְתָּחוּם עַד אַחַר הַשַּׁבָּת וּמִנְּעָרַי הֶעֱמַדְתִּי עַל הַשְּׁעָרִים לֹא יָבוֹא מַשָּׂא בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת: (כ) וַיָּלִינוּ הָרֹכְלִים וּמֹכְרֵי כָל מִמְכָּר מִחוּץ לִירוּשָׁלִָם פַּעַם וּשְׁתָּיִם: (כא) וָאָעִידָה בָהֶם וָאֹמְרָה אֲלֵיהֶם מַדּוּעַ אַתֶּם לֵנִים נֶגֶד הַחוֹמָה אִם תִּשְׁנוּ יָד אֶשְׁלַח בָּכֶם מִן הָעֵת הַהִיא לֹא בָאוּ בַּשַּׁבָּת: (כב) וָאֹמְרָה לַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ מִטַּהֲרִים וּבָאִים שֹׁמְרִים הַשְּׁעָרִים לְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת גַּם זֹאת זָכְרָה לִּי אֱ-לֹהַי וְחוּסָה עָלַי כְּרֹב חַסְדֶּךָ:
|(10:32) And if the people of the land bring ware or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the Sabbath, or on the holy day: and that we would leave the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.
(14) Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof. (15) In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I remonstrated them in the day wherein they sold food. (16) There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. (17) Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? (18) Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.
(19) And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the Sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the Sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the Sabbath day. (20) So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. (21) Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? If ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath. (22) And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.
Notice in this passage the idea of freeing your mind with preoccupation about your work and activities that “you have to take care of.”
9. Mechilta of Rebbe Yishmael, Yitro
|ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך. וכי איפשר לו לאדם לעשות כל מלאכתו בששת ימים, אלא שבות כאלו כל מלאכתך עשויה. ד”א שבות ממחשבת עבודה; ואומר אם תשיב משבת רגליך וגו’, ואומר אז תתענג על יי.||“Six days you shall labor and do all your work” – But is it possible for a person to complete all of his work in six days? Rather, rest on Shabbat as if all of your work was completed. Another explanation: rest from thoughts of work. And so the verse states, “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from seeking your pleasure on My day of desire…” and it says, “Then you shall find favor in the Lord…”|
Another aspect of Shabbat is staying put and not going out and engaging the world – indicated by the commandment to not gather the manna. This idea is also echoed in the verse in Yeshayahu. In contrast, in the story in Melachim and elsewhere it emerges that people would specifically travel on Shabbat to visit the prophet or the Temple. This is a tension between two different aspects of the day of Shabbat – a day of rest and staying put or a day of focusing on the religious and the spiritual, which might require travelling and exertion.
10. Exodus, 16:29
|רְאוּ כִּי־ה’ נָתַן לָכֶם הַשַּׁבָּת עַל־כֵּן הוּא נֹתֵן לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי לֶחֶם יוֹמָיִם שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו אַל־יֵצֵא אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי:||See, for that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath, therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day|
11. Isaiah 58:13
|אִם תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג לִקְדוֹשׁ ה’ מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר:||If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words.|
12. 2 Kings, 4:23
|וַיֹּאמֶר מַדּוּעַ אתי אַתְּ הלכתי הֹלֶכֶת אֵלָיו הַיּוֹם לֹא־חֹדֶשׁ וְלֹא שַׁבָּת וַתֹּאמֶר שָׁלוֹם:||And he said, Wherefore wilt thou go to him to day? It is neither new moon, nor Sabbath. And she said, It shall be well.|
Now that we’ve given some thought to various ways to define the character of Shabbat, look at the op-ed below which lauds the way in which Shabbat allows a person to unplug and free themselves from electronic devices. Which aspects of Shabbat does this address? Does this help to explain why all use of electricity is forbidden on Shabbat?
13. “And on the Sabbath, the iPhones Shall Rest: Unplugging on the Sabbath,” by Austine Considine, NY Times, March 17, 2010
|The Fourth Commandment doesn’t specifically mention TweetDeck or Facebook. Observing the Sabbath 3,000 years ago was more about rest and going easy on one’s family — servants and oxen included.
Desecration of the Shabbat and Competing Values
The focus on the sanctity of Shabbat absent any technical halakhic category on the one hand speaks to the very core Shabbat experience, but on the other hand is not always treated with sufficient weight because of the absence of a sense of halakhic violation. Interestingly, in two places the Rabbis use the term chilul Shabbat to refer to activities which are not so much as violations of Rabbinic prohibitions, but rather that undermine the very nature and quality of the day. It is worth noting that the term chilul suggests both ‘violation,’ and chol, that is ‘weekday’ It is these acts that turn the Shabbat into a weekday experience. This might be a powerful way to express what it means to use electricity on Shabbat – it creates, or is, a “chilul Shabbat”.
In these two examples of the violating of the character of the day, note that one relates to Shabbat as a day of quiet, and the other relates to it as a day of rest and taking things slow – two concepts closely related to one another. The last passage, from Brakhot, is of particular interest, in that this aspect of Shabbat came in conflict with another aspect – Shabbat as a day of religious pursuit (remember the discussion about regarding travelling on Shabbat to visit a prophet or go to the Temple). In the end, Shabbat as a religious day is given more – or at least equal – weight. These two approaches can be seen by the different way of reading the word שבת as a mnemonic – שינה בשבת תענוג or שינון בשבת תענוג – sleeping is a delight on Shabbat or learning is a delight on Shabbat (see Yerushalmi Shabbat 15:3). The answer might depend on the person.
This raises the question of how helpful it would be to frame the use of electricity in terms of the character of Shabbat, if one could imagine circumstances under which, at least for some people, its use may enhance certain aspects of the Shabbat. This is one of the benefits of placing it in a technical halakhic category – it becomes an absolute community norm, not to be assessed based on context, and this allows for a powerful shared Shabbat experience for all.
14. Bavli, Eruvin (104a)
|עולא איקלע לבי רב מנשה, אתא ההוא גברא טרף אבבא. אמר: מאן האי? ליתחל גופיה דקא מחיל ליה לשבתא.||Ula once happened to visit the house of Rav Menashe. A certain man came and knocked on the door [on Shabbat]. He (Ula) said: Who is this? Let his body be desecrated, for he desecrated the Shabbat.|
15. Bavli, Berakoht (6b)
|אמר רבי זירא: מריש כי הוה חזינא להו לרבנן דקא רהטי לפרקא בשבתא, אמינא: קא מחליין רבנן שבתא. כיון דשמענא להא דרבי תנחום אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: לעולם ירוץ אדם לדבר הלכה ואפילו בשבת, שנאמר אחרי ה’ ילכו כאריה ישאג וגו’ – אנא נמי רהיטנא.||R. Zera says: At first when I saw the scholars running to the lecture on a Sabbath day, I thought that they were desecrating the Sabbath. But since I have heard the saying of R. Tanhum in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: A man should always, even on a Sabbath, run to listen to the word of Halachah, as it is said: “They shall walk after the Lord, who shall roar like a lion,” I also run.|
Excursus – Melakha – Creative Acts or Professional Activities?
Until now, we have been assuming that melakhot are about creative acts and that aspects of the Shabbat distinct from such acts relate to the sanctity of Shabbat, but are not what the melakhot are about. This may not be the case. These are some sources that indicate that the melakhot are about professional or societal-building activities, and not – or not just – creative acts.
Rav Hirsch focuses on the etymology of the word melakha, and sees that it refers only to tasks or creative activities. This strengthens the Tradition’s understanding of what constitutes a Biblical violation of Shabbat. At the same time ,it seems to deny other aspects – such as laborious acts – that might be included in this concept.
16. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, Shemot 20:10
|The whole idea of Sabbath has been distorted and the whole laws of Sabbath undermined by the translation, “thou shalt not do any work.”… Sabbath was [wrongly] proclaimed as a day of bodily rest so that the mind might be freer to devote itself to God and spiritual matters. Prohibited מלאכה was then accordingly defined as labor, hard physical work…
The Mishna’s list of the 39 melakhot is often understood to be a listing of the activities done in the construction of the Mishkan. But the grouping suggests a different way of looking at these acts – as classic professional, or craft-based, activities, particularly those that are the basis of survival and civilization – producing food (framing, leading to the growing of wheat and the baking of bread); the making of clothing (including the making of wool); writing (the making of parchment); housing; fire; and transportation of goods. This suggests a different way of thinking about what the melakhot are about – not so much creative activity, but more professional and society building activities.
17. Mishna Shabbat, 7:2
|אבות מלאכות ארבעים חסר אחת
||The primary melakhot [acts of work] are forty less one:
See how Yeraim and Yerushalmi also move away from the classic “Mishkan / creative activity” model. Yeraim does not explicate what exactly the underlying concept of melakha is, but he definitely gives Hazal a lot of latitude in defining it, and it seems that it has a strong societal component – by looking at the various activities that were done, Hazal were able to identify which ones were the most important or the most avodah-like.
18. Sefer Yeraim, no. 274
|ואמרינן בשבת פ’ במה טומנין [מ”ט ב’] הני אבות מלאכות כנגד מי אמר ר’ חנינא בר חמא כנגד עבודת המשכן ר’ יונתן בן אלעזר אומר היה ר”ש בן יוסי בן לקוניא אומר כנגד מלאכה ומלאכות שבתורה ארבעים חסר אחת
וראו חכמים אלו המלאכות הדומות עבודה הדומה היא נקראת מלאכה דכתיב מלאכת עבודה לא תעשו ואמרינן אלו הן שהקפידה התורה עליהן כי לא מסרן הכתוב אלא לחכמים ואלו ראויות לקרוא מלאכה.
|In the Gemara Shabbat (49b) we read: “These primary melakhot, to what do they correspond ? Rabbi Chanina bar Chama stated that they correspond to the acts performed in [the construction of] the Mishkan. Rabbi Yochanan ben Elazer says that Rabbi Shimon ben Yossi ben Lakunia says that they correspond to the words melakha and melakhot that appear in the Torah forty times less one.”
[According to this latter approach,] the Sages assessed which acts of work are similar to labor/toil (avodah). One that were similar [to an act of avodah] is defined as a melakha, as the verse states, “melekhet avodah, laborious work, you shall not do.” (Vayikra 23:7 and elsewhere), and they said that it was these that the Torah prohibited. For the Torah gave this [the designation of what constitutes a melakha] over to the Sages, and it was these [that they deemed] which were fit to be called melakha.
The first passage in Yerushalmi echoes Yereim in that it shows that Hazal did not always simply deduce the melakhot from the categories or from some abstract definition, but at times they started with an intuition that something had to be a melakha and then worked backwards to find a category to put it in. The catch-all category was makeh bi’patish, presumably reflecting the general approach that melakhot are about creative activity. It is important to note that this working backwards approach seems to be what happened with electricity – a starting with an understanding that it must be forbidden because it so clearly violates the spirit of Shabbat, and then a searching for the proper category to put it in. This comparison appears in a teshuva by Rav Asher Weiss on the halakhic status of electricity on Shabbat.
The second passage – that squeezing was defined as its own melakha by dyers – reflects the idea that melakhot are more profession-oriented activities, or at least that that is one way of defining them. Rambam in one place (Shabbat 10:17) actually defines makhe bi’patish in this way, thus bringing the tow passages together.
19. Yerushalmi, Shabbat 7:2
|רבי יוחנן ור”ש בן לקיש עבדין הוויי בהדא פירקא תלת שנין ופלוג. אפקון מיניה ארבעין חסר אחת תולדות על כל חדא וחדא. מן דאשכחון מיסמוך סמכון הא דלא אשכחון מסמוך עבדוניה משום מכה בפטיש…
תני רבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי יוחנן בן ברוקה אומר הצבעים שבירושלם היו עושין סחיטה מלאכה בפני עצמה
|Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish spent 3 ½ years learning this chapter [of the melakhot of Shabbat]. They were able to derive 39 subcategories for each melakha. Ones that they could find support for, they supported [placed in the appropriate category]. Ones that they could not find support for, they placed them in the category of makeh bi’patish [the final hammer blow].