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Friday, March 12, 2010

More M'lacha

Sophie, bless her, posed the following:

You're not off the hook yet, my dear Shel. Let me sharpen my argument a bit and say - not sewing fashion bags for sale, but rather some mind cleansing cross stitching or sketching, done more to help the mind relax than for any earthly purpose.

You raise a sort of classic question about the nature of Shabbat observance. I will point out from the very outset that it is not my intention here to push people into Shabbat observance as understood by the rabbinic law. Mainly, I have been trying to point out a certain systematic and careful reading of the text. I draw my basic approach from the rabbinic approach both because it is, to my mind, very deep and well thought out and also because I happen to have devoted most of my life to understanding it.

What we have observed is that the term m'lacha in the context of Shabbat refers to some type or types of creative activity. On a deeper level we see that refraining from doing those types of activities on Shabbat is, in some way, to imitate God in the story of creation.

Just to highlight this point: God does not complete creation until he refrains from m'lacha on Shabbat. So Shabbat becomes not just a negative or an absence of activity; rather the resting is in itself an integral part of the creation. It is like the pauses in music, or the empty space of a picture--the absence of a thing is a thing itself, even a very important thing! Every artist understands this inherently. 

The rabbis understood a couple of things: 

1) The word m'lacha does not refer to some general or arbitrary activity or activities; rather it refers specifically to the 39 basic activities which were necessary for the building of the mishcan. While some Talmudic sources point to a verse which hints at that particular number, thirty nine, it is more likely that the rabbis saw the number and the specific activities as part of a tradition which traced back to what Moshe received as part of the oral Torah at Sinai. 

Therefore, they say, these acts are prohibited on Shabbat provided that they are done with intent, i.e. the specific intent to accomplish that specific act. For example, if you kick a stone by accident while walking and that action causes sparks to fly and the sparks catch on tinder and start a fire, according to Torah law you would not be held culpable for lighting a fire on Shabbat. If you took matches and lit one with the intent of lighting a fire that would be seen as a violation. This would be true even if your house had gone dark and you needed the light to feel comfortable and safe. Of course, if it is a matter of saving a life then these laws are pushed aside (based on an understanding of other verses later in Vayikra).

2) There are other aspects to Shabbat which were clearly part of the ancient tradition even though they are not mentioned specifically in the Torah. Thus, for instance, we find in Yishaya:

ישעיה נח:יג  אִם-תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ, עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי; וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג, לִקְדוֹשׁ יְהוָה מְכֻבָּד, וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ, מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר. יד  אָז, תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-יְהוָה, וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ, עַל-במותי (בָּמֳתֵי) אָרֶץ; וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ, נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ--כִּי פִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֵּר.

Isaiah 58:13 If thou turn away thy foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing thy business on My holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of the LORD honourable; and shalt honour it, not doing thy wonted ways, nor pursuing thy business, nor speaking thereof; 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Not my translation!! JPS 1917--sorry in a bit of a rush today)

The Torah does not explicitly forbid doing business, for example, on Shabbat. But the prophet understood that refraining from such activities constitute עונג oneg, a sort of delight or pleasure. So Shabbat observance is not just a matter of refraining from m'lacha as such but assuming a kind of mood or ambience which comes in the wake of leaving behind our daily pursuits.  

Sophie is probably saying right now, "That's exactly my point! I would do my cross-stitch or my sketching as a way of getting away from my regular daily pursuits!"

Who am I to disagree? Again, I am just pointing out that from the rabbinic point of view, the Torah forbids all m'lacha and does not make exceptions except in life threatening situations. Moreover, cessation from m'lacha coupled with a sense of the ambience of Shabbat is what creates oneg which seems to be one of the points and even gifts of Shabbat. 

From a parshanut perspective, this understanding has the advantage of producing a consistent reading of the text of the Torah in the context of Shabbat, the  mishcan and the creation. 

It is not the only way to read the Torah. I think, ultimately, we need to each find our place in the Torah and the Torah's place in us. There is a certain inevitability of us imposing ourselves on the text but the less we push our own agenda on the Torah and the more we  try to figure out the Torah's agenda perhaps the wiser we will be and perhaps the better.

But, as they used to say in ancient Babylonia נהרא נהרא ופשטיה each river runs its own course--in more modern parlance: different strokes for different folks!

Shabbat shalom and ziggi, I hope your challah came out well!

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