Introduction to Tractate Shabbat


Most of tractate Shabbat goes into great detail as to what type of work is prohibited on Shabbat.  There is not a lot of information about this in the Torah itself.  Indeed the only four activities specifically prohibited in the Torah are plowing and reaping (Exodus 34:21), fire (Exodus 35:3) and gathering wood (Numbers 15:32).  The paucity of verses and the volume of rabbinic halakhah led the rabbis to conclude that “the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging by a thread” (Hagigah 1:8).  There is a little bit of information in the prophets about the observance of Shabbath, but this does not add up to much.  However, from the literature that remains from the Second Temple period it seems that Jews were very stringent about the observance of the Sabbath.  From Josephus and the books of the Maccabees we learn that some Jews did not even want to engage in battle on Shabbat, and rather than do so gave up their lives, until Mattathias taught them that engaging in battle to save one’s life was permitted.  The Book of Jubilees, a rewritten version of Genesis popular among certain groups of Second Temple Jews is very stringent on Sabbath observance.  So too were the groups that composed the Dead Sea scrolls.  However, in this period the concept of prohibited “work” on the Sabbath was somewhat ill-defined.

In contrast, the Rabbis define “work” in great detail.  There are 39 categories of work, and anything that is considered to be prohibited from the Torah must fit somehow into one of these categories.  These will not be listed until chapter 7, mishnah two.  These are called “avot” or arch-categories of work.  Anything derived from one of these arch-categories is either an arch-category in and of itself or is a “toldah”, a derivative.  Anything that does not fit into one of these categories, and yet is still prohibited is considered to only be prohibited from “rabbinic law”—derabbanan— and not from “toraitic law”—deoraita.  I should emphasize that a law’s being “derabbanan” does not necessarily make it less important.  It only means that the rabbis could not somehow tie it into one of the 39 categories. These laws are also called “shvut” which means “rest”.  The rabbis prohibited certain activities so that a person would be able to rest on Shabbat.


There are some terms we should know before we begin learning.

1.  Liable—this means that a person who does a certain activity has transgressed a biblical prohibition.  S/he is liable to either bring a sacrifice if the transgression was done without intention, or for the death penalty if done with intention. We should not get ourselves caught up with “did this really happen/did the rabbis execute people for Shabbat infractions?”  The point of “liable” is merely to define what the prohibitions are.  Their enforcement is a totally different issue.

2.  Exempt—this almost always means that the activity is prohibited but that one who has done so has not transgressed a biblical prohibition.

3.  Permitted—this means that an activity is completely permissible.


A couple of words of warning before we begin learning.  Shabbat observance still plays a major role in the life of observant Jews.  The prohibitions that we learn about in the Mishnah are the foundations of an incredibly complex system of halakhah that is codified throughout the ages.  The system is perhaps the most complex areas of halakhah still observed today.  Learning the Mishnah is not equivalent to learning how halakhah is observed, certainly not in its minutae of detail.  Halakhah is not derived directly from the Mishnah, but rather from the Talmud and from its codifiers.  Hence, while learning the Mishnah we should refrain from expecting a direct correlation to how the Shabbat is observed today.  Furthermore, I am not a “posek” an arbitrator of Jewish law.  I will try not to answer many questions of modern halakhah in this forum and instead will refer you to other sources and especially to your local rabbi.

Second, I realize that people reading this commentary have different levels of observance.  However, this realization will not impact my commentary on the mishnah, at least not regularly.  Whether you personally “keep Shabbat” or don’t, the rabbis of the Mishnah firmly believed it to be mandatory.

Thirdly, the Conservative movement has in the past made certainly leniencies regarding Shabbat observance, most famously allowing under certain circumstances driving to synagogue on Shabbat.  This teshuvah (responsa) will not be relevant to our learning of the Mishnah.  Even those rabbis who supported this responsa would agree that a simple reading of the sources would lead to prohibiting driving on the Sabbath, mostly because of the prohibition of fire.

Fourthly, we should remember that “work” has a specific legal definition.  It is not a nebulous idea but carefully defined through exhaustive definitions.  A person who says that driving to the golf course and enjoying a game of golf, or going shopping, is not breaking Shabbat because to him/her these activities are not “work” may be stating a subjective truth, but it is a truth that does not fit into the more objective and impersonal halakhic system.   The famous example is that you can lift a heavy piece of furniture in your house and you have not performed a prohibited labor, but if you lift a feather outside and carry it four cubits you have.

Finally, the Mishnah talks almost exclusively of prohibitions.  It is my firm belief that the rabbis did not see the Sabbath only as a day of prohibitions, but also as an opportunity—an opportunity to pray, to study, to rejoice and to be with the people who one wants to be with.  These other aspects just were not as fruitful for halakhic material and hence are rarely discussed in the Mishnah.  Nevertheless, if Shabbat is to be an integral part of one’s life, it must be regarded not only as a day of things one can’t do, but a day of wonderful opportunities.  It is a time to refrain and thereby allow ourselves to experience the joy of just being.


One final note (I promise).  Throughout my commentary on the Mishnah I have mostly used the male singular—he.  For the sake of variation I will try as much as possible to use “she” at least where the mishnah does not require translating or explaining in the masculine.