The transition from Tractate Brachot to Shabbat is abrupt. To those who love a good legal debate, it’s a delight; those of us who enjoy midrash and dreams and stories, it’s more of a shock. What are our dear rabbis talking about?
Shabbat (the tractate) doesn’t begin with stories about the beauty of Shabbat, the importance of rest, the lovely feeling at the end of a good meal with family and friends. It doesn’t even begin with a quote from the Torah, perhaps wondering why in the Ten Commandments of Exodus we’re told “to remember” and in those of Deuteronomy we are told “to keep” or “guard” the day. And it doesn’t begin with a verse form this week’s reading we sing weekly, nor with a verse from next week’s reading, or perhaps an instruction how to prepare for Shabbat or a discussion about the special prohibition against lighting a fire or the maybe the first of the 39 melachot, or general categories of things to do on Shabbat… There are so many places they could start with, and ease our way into it!! Instead the tractate opens with a scenario we’re not sure what to do with:
מַתְנִי׳ יְצִיאוֹת הַשַּׁבָּת, שְׁתַּיִם שֶׁהֵן אַרְבַּע בִּפְנִים, וּשְׁתַּיִם שֶׁהֵן אַרְבַּע בַּחוּץ.
MISHNA: Carrying (taking things) out on Shabbat (which is forbidden) constitutes primarily of two basic actions, which are actually four cases from the perspective of a person inside a private domain, and two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person outside, in a public domain.
It’s possible to read it again and again, and still wonder, what am I reading?? Then we go on to spell out these options, which, at least at first, confuses more than clarifies:
The mishna elaborates: How do these eight cases take place?
הֶעָנִי עוֹמֵד בַּחוּץ, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת בִּפְנִים: פָּשַׁט הֶעָנִי אֶת יָדוֹ לִפְנִים וְנָתַן לְתוֹךְ יָדוֹ שֶׁל בַּעַל הַבַּיִת, אוֹ שֶׁנָּטַל מִתּוֹכָהּ וְהוֹצִיא — הֶעָנִי חַיָּיב וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת פָּטוּר.
The poor person stands outside, and the homeowner stands inside. The poor person extended his hand into the private domain, and placed the object into the hand of the homeowner. Or, the poor person reached his hand into the private domain, took an item from the hand of the homeowner, and carried it out into the public domain. In both of these cases, the poor person is liable and the homeowner is exempt.
פָּשַׁט בַּעַל הַבַּיִת אֶת יָדוֹ לַחוּץ וְנָתַן לְתוֹךְ יָדוֹ שֶׁל עָנִי, אוֹ שֶׁנָּטַל מִתּוֹכָהּ וְהִכְנִיס — בַּעַל הַבַּיִת חַיָּיב וְהֶעָנִי פָּטוּר.
The mishna cites two additional cases: The homeowner extended his hand into the public domain, and placed the object into the hand of the poor person. Or, the homeowner took an object from the hand of the poor person, and carried it into the private domain. In both of those cases, because the homeowner is liable and the poor person is exempt.
We’re good?? Because in this Jewish Sudoku, there are four additional cases where neither the homeowner nor the poor person performed the labor in its entirety. Since neither one is doing the whole task by himself, neither is liable. You can try to figure out those cases and check them against those in Shabbat 2:a.
As if that’s not enough, in the following pages, this discussion will develop: maybe those 2 that are 4 that are 8, are actually 12? How do we figure? Well, where exactly is the line between picking up an object and placing it? It’s not just an up and down because that would mean the object landed straight back in the hands of the giver (or taker), so how much can it travel? For how long? Where can it be placed? What constitute what kind of domain for the purposes of this conversation??
But, before diving into the minutia of million details or feeling totally overwhelmed by it and closing our Talmud altogether, maybe let’s pause for a moment and think about the greater topic at stake here. The idea of having and defining “domains”, and of happens when we move things between them; how big is private; how do we explain it; how big is “public”; are there places that are neither (for the Talmud, yes) and more. In short, everything we might call nowadays transportation and its critical impact on our lives. Sitting at home in a self-imposed semi-isolation, listening to news about the need to lessen buses and trains, I wonder, if there could not have been a better (or worse, depends-) time to learn this. We thrive on movement, on coming, going, bringing, taking… we take pride in how many places we visited; how far we traveled; how global and worldly we are, all thing that are restricted on Shabbat. All of a sudden, it’s perfectly clear why this is the opening to tractate Shabbat, discussing a day whose name already means – stop, pause, rest, strike. There’s no better way to say slow down, then to delve into the structure and limitations of movements. For better or worse, we might be learning this difficult lesson right now.
May it be a Shabbat Shalom.