Shabbat 92

One of the 39 melachot is הוצאה (carrying from one domain to another), and in today’s daf (Shabbat 92a) our Sages attempt to define the usual way of carrying that contravenes this prohibition:

‘One who carries [in a usual manner], whether with their right or their left [hand], in their lap or on their shoulder is liable, as [this was] the way of carrying of Bnei Kehat (see Bemidbar 7:9). [But, if someone carried] in an unusual manner….then they are exempt’.

Now clearly carrying by hand is among the ‘usual’ ways of carrying. But, as Rashi implies, shoulder carrying is generally considered to be an unusual way of carrying. Given this, why does it feature in the list of the usual ways of carrying?

One possible answer initially considered by Rabbi Yaakov Falk in his Pnei Yehoshua commentary is rooted in the fact that the 39 melachot are derived from the construction and maintenance of the Mishkan. Therefore, since Bnei Kehat carried the most sacred objects of the Mishkan, it seems to be a reasonable corrollary that this form of carrying would be prohibited.

But while the logic of this answer appears attractive, Rabbi Falk rejects this reasoning given that, as Tosafot (on Shabbat 2a) points out, there were plenty of actions performed in the Mishkan that were not prohibited by the Rabbis. Consequently, Rabbi Falk suggests that the reason why this specific type of carrying is listed in the Mishna is because the service of Bnei Kehat is described in the Torah as ‘melacha’ (see Bemidbar 4:3), and since all the prohibited Shabbat actions are referred to with the word ‘melacha’, it must be that shoulder carrying is also a prohibited act.

However, there is further lesson that we can learn from this Mishna. As previously noted, the Mishna refers both to hand carrying and shoulder carrying, and it is noteworthy that when we carry things with our hand, we lift them up ourselves, whereas when we carry things with our shoulder, this is often done by others placing those things on our shoulders.

In general, most people are prepared to take the strain of carrying things that they choose to lift up, but far fewer people are prepared to take the strain of carrying things that are placed on them by others.

Reflecting on this, Rabbi Yehuda Amital explains in a fascinating essay titled ‘Attending to the Needs of the Community’ that, in our generation, there is a great need for those who assist others as Bnei Kehat did. As he writes: ‘It is important that in every society and in every family there be those who feel that the burden of society or the family rests upon their shoulders, and as a result, they will initiate and organize activities on behalf of the community. Various obligations fall upon the community, both interpersonal matters and… [religious] matters, and in order for these obligations to be fulfilled, individuals must step forward and assume the responsibility of seeing that they are carried out.’

To be clear, this does not mean that one person should solely feel an obligation to carry the burdens of others. In fact, the very example of Bnei Kehat emphasises the value of teamwork.

However, what this does mean is that ‘a person is morally obligated to feel that they are a part of the community and act on its behalf’, and by doing so, burdens are shared and, together, carried out.
What we learn from here is that just as the Mishna identifies both hand carrying and shoulder carrying as usual forms of carrying, we too need to recognise that just as we are prepared to carry the weight of the things that we choose to lift up, so too, we need to realise that we have a role to play in carrying the weight of responsibilities that others at times need us to carry as well.

Nb. a shorter version of this thought was featured on My Jewish Learning – see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-92/