In the immortal words of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Birds, deer, and fundamental change. Welcome to today’s daf. Centering around the prohibition of tzad, or trapping, the conversation raises questions about power, control, and humanity’s role in creation.
Our mishnah offers a general principle about trapping animals on Shabbat:
This is the principle: If the trapping of the animal is inadequate and it is still necessary to pursue and apprehend it, one is not liable. However, if one trapped a deer into an enclosure in which the trapping is not inadequate, he is liable.
It seems that only successful traps, traps which actually capture the animal, incur liability for violating Shabbat. The Gemara, though, goes in a slightly different direction. Instead of ruling based on the effectiveness of the trap, the focus is on the condition of the animal:
The sages taught: One who traps a deer on Shabbat that is blind or sleeping is liable. One who traps a lame, old, or sick deer is exempt.
Abaye said to Rav Yosef: What is different about these two sets of cases? Rav Yosef answered: These, the blind or sleeping deer, are likely to run away when they feel that they are being touched; therefore, they require trapping. However, these, the lame, old and sick deer, are not likely to run away and are therefore considered to be already trapped.
Most of the melachot (actions forbidden on Shabbat) effect some sort of tangible change on their object; there are physical and/or chemical changes in cooking, sewing, sowing or building. Tzad (trapping), however, does not change the physical state of the animal, but rather its status. Once an animal has been trapped, it is accessible and available for human needs, whatever they may be. Here, we see that the rabbis are more concerned with status — and rule that we do not have the right to change the status of an animal on Shabbat.
Reading this, I could not help but think of Amalek, the warrior tribe that attacked the Israelites on their journey through the desert (Exodus 17:8–16). Israel had many foes, but the divine response to Amalek — a command to wipe them out in their entirety — feels disproportionate. What is it, centuries of commentators have asked, that made Amalek worse than all the rest? The rabbinic answer: Amalek attacked the old, the weak, the infirm — the human equivalents of the deer in our sugya — the ones who could not escape or fight back. As one classical rabbinic text explains: “When you were weary and worn out, Amalek’s army met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.” (Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Amalek, Exodus 17:8)
Commenting on the melachot, the acts forbidden on Shabbat, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that most are forbidden because they demonstrate human mastery over the physical world. While this is acceptable (even desirable) during the week, on Shabbat we are meant to step back, to honor the divine role in creation, and to refrain from altering the world. We limit our power, rather than flex it. As the Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael has it, Amalek’s sin is not fearing God. On Shabbat, we strive to do the opposite. Yet the rules of tzad seem to flip Amalek on its head: the sick, the infirm, the aged — God has already transformed them and nothing we do can change their course. But for all others, we do not have the permission, or the power, to change them.
Read all of Shabbat 106 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 20, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.