The Rabbis Compared Shabbat to a Mountain Hanging By a Hair
By Rabbi Marc Katz
Much has been written throughout the ages about observing Shabbat, however, little about this subject actually appears in the Torah. Other than a few short (but important) references, the Bible is virtually silent about how one should observe the day. The rabbis understood this. Faced with a growing body of work on Shabbat and few texts to point to as the basis for this expanding corpus, they famously wrote, “The laws concerning Shabbat…are like mountains hanging by a hair since there is scant scriptural basis but many laws” (Chagigah 10a). To understand how this mountain of material formed, we must first observe this hair in more depth. Perhaps the most significant command concerning Shabbat appears in the Ten Commandments, where we have two versions of the law. The first appears in the book of Exodus (20:8-11) and tells us to remember the day, reminding us that because God rested on the seventh day of creation, we and our whole household should as well. The second appears in Deuteronomy (5:12-15). Here we are told to observe Shabbat and, “do no work” because we were once slaves in Egypt and God freed us “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” How the Exodus and Shabbat are linked is another essay entirely, although two rationales come to mind. One classical interpretation is that Shabbat is a sign that the only “master” the Jewish people should have is God and thus we will never again be subjugated by another human. The other rationale is that only free people get a day to rest from hard labors.
However, as important as these two laws are for establishing the spirit of Shabbat, they do little to add to our understanding of what we can and cannot do on the day. To return to our metaphor, they tell us why the mountain is worth climbing but do little to hold it up. To find this, we must turn to another important commandment. Exodus 35:2-3 reads:
On six days, work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.
Here the Bible adds a little more information to what we can glean from the Ten Commandments. There are punishments for transgressing Shabbat and Shabbat ‘rest’ should be “holy” (kadosh) and “complete” (shabbat shabbatone). Finally, one should avoid kindling fire on Shabbat. However, this small text became the proof for the bulk of later laws for the day. Although seeming unrelated, without it, one would not have this statement by the rabbis:
The primary labors [prohibited on Shabbat] are forty less one: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, flaying, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, and carrying out from one domain to another. These are the forty primary labors, less one. (Mishnah Shabbat 7:1).
How does a simple text from Exodus provide the proof for this litany of Shabbat prohibitions? The rabbis have a hermeneutical principle called hekeish that teaches that adjacent texts, though seemingly unconnected, may share important features. Here, the command to observe Shabbat falls directly before a lengthy section detailing the materials and specs for the building of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place in the desert. Therefore, in trying to figure out which actions are considered “work” they turned to the construction and upkeep of this holy site. The agricultural prohibitions (threshing, winnowing) were created because these were important acts one would do to prepare the flour offerings and showbread (see Exodus 35:13) used in the Tabernacle. The more artistic prohibitions (dyeing, spinning) came about because these actions were needed to make the priestly garments as well as the hangings and tapestries.
If these broad categories weren’t enough, the rabbis added additional criteria onto these 39 prohibited categories of work (av melochot). It wasn’t enough to abstain from building, plowing, or kindling; one also had to abstain from acts that appeared to be like these. Called toldot, or decedents of the primary categories, these rules are derived from the spirit of the action. Therefore, if the ultimate aim of plowing is to make soil better and more fertile, then anything that enhances the quality of the soil, even if it is not plowing per se, would be a toldah and thus prohibited. It follows then, that on Shabbat, it is also forbidden to weed, remove stones, or level the ground because it serves a similar purpose to plowing. Likewise, not only is sheering sheep prohibited, but so is getting a haircut or clipping one’s nails, since all acts permanently remove a part of a human or animal’s body.
However, the command “do no work” extends even further than av melochot and their toldot. Fearing that certain actions might lead one to transgress one of the laws, the rabbis “built a fence” around the Torah, prohibiting acts that on the surface are permitted but may lead one to accidentally do work. Dragging a heavy chair across a lawn may not appear to be a transgression, but because it could cause furrows in the ground in the same way one might while plowing, the rabbis prohibited it. Likewise, anything that helps a plant grow is considered “sowing.” Thus, the toldah of sowing would be watering, pruning, or grafting. However, although normally permitted on Shabbat, opening shutters with the express purpose of providing sun to plants is prohibited because it too helps a plant to grow.
Hopefully, by now, it is clear just how large this mountain really is. However, the hair that holds it up is also significant. Because it appears in the Ten Commandments and because many of the other commandments appear at strategic places in the Torah, like before the building of the Tabernacle, Shabbat is considered a pillar of Jewish practice so much so that it ranks among the two most important commandments for Jewish self-definition. Avoiding idol worship is the other (Chulin 5a). It might seem hard to imagine that over the course of Jewish history, the command to observe Shabbat went from “do no work” to “drag no heavy chair” or “open no blinds” but that’s the beauty of the Jewish legal process. From one tiny hair can come mountains upon mountains of laws.
Rabbi Marc Katz is a newly ordained Rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He will begin as the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY on July 1st.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah