Talmidav Shel Aharon
12-5768: Mitzvah N-5
January 21, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 6 – It is a negative commandment to do no work on Shabbat.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “you shall not do any work etc.” (Ex. 20:10) The Sages of blessed memory listed thirty-nine major primary kinds of forbidden labor, which are taught in the seventh chapter of the Talmud tractate Shabbat (73a). For any of the primary labors, and so for any of their derivative kinds, the punishment deserved is death by stoning. If it was done deliberately, but there was no prior warning, the penalty is Karet (Divine severance of existence); and if it was done unwittingly, a Hattat (sin offering) would be required. The difference between primary kinds of labor and the derivatives is only in regard to the number of animal offerings required. The punishment for willfully doing those kinds of labor which are Sh’vut, forbidden by the law of the sages, who made this decree about them as a “fence,” a protective measure, is whiplashes of disobedience.
About all these labors we are adjured also in regard to our domestic animals. To tell a non-Jew to do some labor is forbidden by the law of the Sages, and this is called Sh’vut. The Sabbath may be thrust aside [and labor is done] where there is danger to human life. The Sabbath is equal in importance to all the Mitzvot, since it is a sign between the blessed Lord and the Jewish people. If someone violates the Sabbath willfully, flagrantly, hi is like a heathen in every respect. The prophet, though, praises one who keeps the Sabbath, as Scripture says, “Happy is the man that does this…that keeps the Sabbath from desecrating it.” [Isaiah 56:2] It is in force everywhere, in every time, for both men and women.
There is much to unpack in this commandment.
The laws of Shabbat are found in two places in the Torah, It is a part of creation, for G-d rested from creating on Shabbat. And the fourth commandment (in this week’s Parshat Yitro) requires all Jews to refrain from working or making animals and slaves work. Multiple times we are commanded in the Torah to not work on Shabbat as G-d rested and because it is a holy day, not for secular activities. There is only one problem; the Torah never defines what it considers to be “work”! The only hint the Sages can find for a definition of work, are the activities that go into creating the portable sanctuary in the wilderness (the Mishkan) because just after the command to build the Mishkan, G-d reminds the people that they cannot “work” on Shabbat. The Sages then identify thirty-nine different actions that are classified in the reference to the Talmud. They are all activities that are associated with building the Mishkan. These 39 activities are called, Av Melachot, the original prohibitions on work. If someone were to willfully violate any of them, that person would be guilty of a capital crime and the punishment is death. To prevent this, the Sages created a “fence” around these 39 laws; they extended them so that just preparing to violate one would be a violation itself. These laws are called “sh’vut”. For example, buying and selling are one of the Av Melachot. Going into a store would be a violation of a sh’vut, and the penalty is whiplashes, painful but not death. Later Sages would extend the fence to a new category, “muksa” things we don’t touch because it could lead to a violation of sh’vut or an Av Melacha. Muksa would be handling money on Shabbat that could only lead to going to a store or buying something, a capital offence. The Sages did not like going to the death penalty. (A court who convicted anyone of a capital crime once in seven years was called a “hanging court”) so they made it more difficult to actually do anything that could lead to such a crime.
The laws of Shabbat were for everyone, citizens, slaves, visiting outsiders and extended even to animals. Work was forbidden, period. The only exception to this was a non-Jew could do activities on Shabbat that were part of his or her regular routine. If a non-Jew were making a pot of coffee for himself, Jews could share in it. If she needed to light a candle, then a Jew could use the light from that candle. If a bus were going where you needed to go and you didn’t have to pay for the ride (you had a monthly pass for example) you could get on the bus and ride on Shabbat. (There may be an issue with carrying the bus pass, so see your Rabbi before using this permission)
Finally, we must remember the “Prime directive” in Judaism is “Choose Life” you are forbidden to do or not do any activity that could endanger your life or the life of another person. All the laws of Shabbat are suspended when life is on the line. A Doctor could work the emergency room on Shabbat, or take calls. A heating repairman could go out and fix a furnace on an exceptionally cold day. Workers for the Power Company could work to make repairs on Shabbat since the loss of electricity could endanger the lives of those who need the electricity to survive. Needless to say, soldiers and police officers are also exempt from Shabbat prohibitions. Women who are exempt from time bound Mitzvot are not exempt from the laws of Shabbat since the exemption only applies to positive commandments and not to negative ones. But if the life and health of children are involved, parents can violate Shabbat. If we are not sure if a life is at stake or not, i.e. we don’t know if someone is really sick or not, we err on the side of caution and violate Shabbat on their behalf. It is better to violate one Shabbat than to risk the loss of health of life.
Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments and considered a vital part of Judaism. Those who willfully violate Shabbat are considered to have renounced their link to the Jewish people. We can argue if electricity is really considered by Jewish law as “fire” or not, but cooking is still a violation. Of course, if one did not learn the laws, then they are not guilty of willful violation but should take the time to learn them as adults. One modern Sage reminded his students, “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” To really understand what it means to live a Jewish life, one needs to accept Holiness of Shabbat into their lives. That includes these prohibitions and a whole lot more.
If you don’t know where to start, talk to your Rabbi.