Massekhet Shabbat - An Introduction to the Tractate

October 05, 2012


And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it because on it He rested from all His work that God in creating had made.
(Genesis 2:3)
Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbat unto the Lord your God; you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Shabbat day and hallowed it.
(Exodus 20:9-11)
Therefore, you shall keep the Shabbat, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death, for whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
(Exodus 31:14)
If you turn away your foot because of the Shabbat, from pursuing your business on My holy day, and call the Shabbat a delight, the holy of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your wonted ways, nor pursuing your business, nor speaking thereof. Then shall you delight yourself in the Lord, and I will make you to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
(Isaiah 58:13-14)
Thus said the Lord: Take heed for the sake of your souls, and bear no burden on the Shabbat day, nor bring it into the gates of Jerusalem.
(Jeremiah 17:21)
And if the peoples of the land bring ware or any food on the Shabbat day to sell, we would not buy from them on the Shabbat or on a holy day.
(Nehemiah 10:32)
Tractate Shabbat is the first and the largest tractate in the order of Moed. It deals with the halakhot of the most sacred day of all, Shabbat.
Numerous halakhot, veritable mountains of halakhot, are found among the mitzvot of Shabbat, both positive mitzvot and prohibitions. Included in these are mitzvot of biblical origin, those established by the Prophets, and many rabbinic decrees and ordinances. Shabbat has even been adorned with the aura of legend; it is a day of rest and sanctity, God’s gift to a treasured nation.
There are numerous facets to Shabbat in halakhah and aggada. However, one aspect is fundamental and central: Abstention from creative labor. The only way to achieve a proper grasp of Shabbat and its halakhot, ranging from Torah statutes to rabbinic ordinances and decrees issued throughout the generations, is by means of gaining an understanding of this fundamental principle.
The mitzvah to abstain from labor and the prohibition to perform labor on Shabbat are both closely tied to the biblical depiction of the creation of the world and God’s own abstention from work on the seventh day. The Shabbat of the Jewish people is, in a sense, an extension and emulation of the Shabbat of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from which our Shabbat draws its spiritual foundations. On the seventh day, God abstained “from all His work that God in creating had made.” In the Torah, the Jewish people were explicitly commanded to abstain from engaging in the construction of the Tabernacle on Shabbat.
There are two equally fundamental aspects to these activities that are essential to the comprehension of the concept of labor prohibited on Shabbat: They are both creative acts of tangible labor and work done with prior intent. These two fundamental principles are captured in the following halakhic terminology: Planned, thoughtful, creative labor was prohibited by the Torah, and: For all destructive acts, one is exempt. The exceptions to the latter principle are those actions that are destructive in the short term, but in the long term are actually preparations for constructive acts that will follow.
Labor on Shabbat is defined in this manner because of the aforementioned comparison between our Shabbat and God’s Shabbat at the end of the creation of the universe. The degree of physical exertion expended to perform a particular action is not taken into consideration, nor does it matter whether or not the action produces results or brings profit to the worker, or whether it serves as the means of one’s livelihood. It is for this reason that even activities in which the amount of energy expended is minimal and which serve only for enjoyment, e.g., writing or kindling a fire, are prohibited by the Torah and constitute labor, i.e., creating a tangible result with prior intent.
Most of the halakhot of Shabbat, which are comprised of thirty-nine primary categories of prohibited labor and their subcategories, are the elaboration and detailed enumeration of these major principles in the definition of the various types of creative labor and the establishment of their parameters and limits. The ordinances and safeguards instituted by the Sages of blessed memory merely strengthen and reinforce the proper observance of the Shabbat in practical terms. They determine how to refrain from prohibited labor and from any action that could potentially lead to performance of a prohibited labor.
Among the thirty-nine primary categories of labor enumerated with regard to Shabbat, there is only one that is anomalous, and its explication occupies a most significant place in the tractate of Shabbat: Carrying out an object from one domain to another. According to Torah law, it is prohibited to carry any object on Shabbat from the domain in which it is located to another domain. There is no element of physical exertion or toil involved in this labor, as one is liable even for carrying out minuscule objects. On the other hand, carrying out cannot be included in the category of truly creative labors either. In truth, this labor is in a category of its own, a distinct Torah law that underscores the nature of rest on Shabbat.
The term shabbaton means cessation of the creative activities that characterize the six active days of the week. Shabbaton also means silence, rest, cessation of the motility and hustle-bustle of the weekdays, cessation of the connection between the private domain of the individual and the public domain, and the transformation of the public domain into an environment of quiescence and tranquility. So that the tranquility of Shabbat will be complete, the parameters of these realms are delineated in a manner unique to Shabbat, unlike the definition of public and private domains in other areas of halakhah, i.e., property law and the halakhot of ritual impurity. It is both prohibited to carry objects from one domain to another and to carry objects within the confines of the public domain.
The subcategories and complex details of the prohibited labor of carrying out on Shabbat, along with the ordinances and decrees issued by the Sages to foster its observance, constitute a significant portion of the halakhot contained in tractate Shabbat.
Although the essence of Shabbat lies in the observance of its restfulness, which is manifested in the prohibitions against creative labor and carrying out from one domain to another, there are also positive commandments involved in the observance of Shabbat, beyond the mitzvah to sacrifice additional offerings in the Temple. These positive commandments are alluded to in the verse: “Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy.” The practical fulfillment of this mitzvah is multifaceted. It begins with the essential commandment of kiddush, sanctification of Shabbat over a cup of wine, along with the special liturgy and customs unique to Shabbat; and it extends to the reference to each weekday in terms of its relative distance from Shabbat. This mitzvah also includes the ordinance of taking delight in Shabbat, consistent with the words of the prophet Isaiah. This is accomplished by the enjoyment that is added to the Shabbat meal, the kindling of the Shabbat lights, and all means of celebration that do not conflict with the basic tenets of Shabbat observance.
According to the oral tradition transmitted through the generations, an entire framework of ordinances and safeguards, categorized under the rubric of shevut, was instituted in the days of the earliest Prophets to ensure proper Shabbat observance. Included in this framework is the decree against engaging in commerce on Shabbat, already mentioned in the Bible. The institution of additional Shabbat domains originated long ago, along with the designation of additional areas in which the movement and transfer of objects is prohibited. The details of these ordinances are specified in the tractate Eruvin.
Among the activities that fall into the category of shevut are both those prohibited due to their similarity to the prohibited acts of creative labor and those prohibited due to the concern that they might lead to the performance of a prohibited labor. The halakhot of "set-aside" [muktze], which prohibit the use of materials or utensils typically utilized in the performance of creative labor, fall into the category of shevut as well. The Sages also prohibited typical weekday activities, as it is inappropriate to engage in them on this sacred day. Therefore, tractate Shabbat is distinctive in its terminology. It distinguishes between liability and exemption by Torah law, between actions for whose performance one is exempt by Torah law but whose performance is prohibited by the Prophets and Sages, and actions that are expressly permitted.
The halakhot of Shabbat in general, their fundamental principles and their details, and the elucidation of those halakhot that deviate from those principles, e.g., matters of life and death or circumcision on Shabbat, are all explained in the twenty-four chapters of tractate Shabbat. These twenty-four chapters are not arranged systematically by subject matter, but rather are ordered based on association between similar matters and the chronology of the activities performed on Shabbat eve leading up to Shabbat and those performed on Shabbat.



This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.
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