June 19, 2020

Shabbat 2

The first Mishna of Massechet Shabbat (Shabbat 2a) discusses the prohibition of transferring an item from one area (eg. private) to another (eg. public) by giving a practical example of a poor person standing in a public space just outside a private home who then puts their hand into the private home either to give or take from the hand of the homeowner. As the Mishna explains, in such an instance the poor person is liable and the homeowner is exempt. But the question I would like to consider is why, when addressing these laws of transferring items on Shabbat, the Mishna decided to use the example of a poor person? To answer, I believe that we need to take a step back and consider what Shabbat is meant to achieve.

In his exquisite ‘Foreword’ to the Soncino edition of Tractate Shabbat, Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz describes the way that Shabbat is meant be a day of rest for all people: ‘The Sabbath banished care and toil, grief and sorrow. On that day, the despised and rejected of men was emancipated from the oppression and tribulation and degradation of this world; he felt himself a prince, a member of a great, eternal, holy people’. Simply put, Shabbat is supposed to provide respite for even the poorest in our community, with those blessed with employment, food, and housing being responsible to provide for the poor before Shabbat so that they too can feel emancipated ‘from the oppression and tribulation and degradation of this world’.

In the example discussed in our Mishna this did not occur. In the hours prior to Shabbat the homeowner remained in his home, and the poor person remained on the street, and only once Shabbat began did the poor person find their way to the door or window of the homeowner. Of course, had the homeowner truly prepared for Shabbat and considered the needs of the poor in their neighbourhood, and had the poor person considered his or her needs prior to Shabbat, this situation would not have arisen. Significantly, all the other Mishnayot in Chapter 1 address the possibilities and limitations of actions on Erev Shabbat, and I believe that this Mishna fits this theme and teaches us that we must consider the needs of others and ourselves on Erev Shabbat, and not wait until Shabbat to address those needs.

Finally, it is significant that the first case addressed by the Mishna involves the poor person putting something into the hand of the homeowner, as opposed to the homeowner giving something into the hand of the poor. As numerous commentaries explain, this serves as a reminder how the act of providing for the needy gives more to the giver than they give, and thus the poor person ‘gives into the hands of the homeowner’ when the homeowner concerns themselves with the needs of the poor.

Overall, Massechet Shabbat begins with a simple yet powerful reminder that while it is our duty to honour and protect Shabbat, we must not forget to honour and protect people – especially the most vulnerable – as well.
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