The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
After the tragic incident of the scouts (Meraglim), as a consequence of which the generation of the Exodus is sentenced to live out the rest of its existence in the wilderness, we learn of the Mekoshesh, the one who collected wood on the Shabbat day:
"And the Children of Israel were in the desert, and they found a man who collected wood on the Shabbat day. And those who found him collecting wood bought him [close] to Moshe and to Aharon and to all the congregation. And they placed him in the jail, because it was not explained what should be done to him" (Numbers 15:32-34).
Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Sanhedrin 41a), says that the Mekoshesh was warned by witnesses, yet he ignored them and continued collecting wood. Although it was known that a Shabbat desecrator is sentenced to death, thus far the manner of execution had not been taught. Hashem instructs them to stone him, and the sentence is carried out.
Many details of this incident are shrouded in mystery:
When did this occur? Rashi, based on the Sifri, says that it was during the second Shabbat in the wilderness. Ramban (Nachmanides) claims, according to the simple meaning of the text, it happened after the incident of the scouts.
Who was the Mekoshesh? Rabbi Akiva identifies him as Tzelofechad (Rashi, B’midbar 27:3). Rabbi Yehudah ben Betera insists that we are not meant to know who he is.
What was his sin? The Talmud (Shabbat 96b) quotes a three-way dispute regarding the precise melakha (category of work) that he violated: 1) plucking, which is a sub-category of harvesting; 2) heaping, a sub-category of making sheaves; 3) carrying four-cubits’ distance in a public domain.
What were his intentions? A straightforward reading suggests that his wood-collecting was an act of rebellion against Shabbat. But some midrashim (including the Targum Yonatan) insist that the Mekoshesh acted l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven), in noble self-sacrifice, to show the Jewish people that the Shabbat must be observed.
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