One of the challenges of reading Talmud is the technical language. This becomes more complicated by the fact that the various texts woven together in the Talmud span some 500 years and many generations — and so the meaning of these words can evolve. A discussion on today’s daf shows that even the rabbis themselves can get a bit confused. This provides a good opportunity for us to get a bit technical and learn some key talmudic terminology. In particular, the words chayav (liable) and patur (exempt).
In its exploration of individual categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat, the Mishnah regularly identifies actions for which one is chayav (liable) and others for which one is patur (exempt). You might think these are direct opposites, but it’s a bit more complicated. As Shmuel teaches on Shabbat 107, the term patur does not imply that the action is permitted:
All rulings of patur (exempt) pertaining to Shabbat are patur aval asur (exempt but prohibited), except for… three cases which are patur u’mutar (exempt and permitted)…
To clarify, when the rabbis declare one to be chayav for a particular act, it means that the act is forbidden by the Torah and one who inadvertently commits such an act must bring a sacrifice (intentionally violating these acts incurs more significant penalties). When the rabbis declare one to be patur, it means that the act is not prohibited by the Torah, and one who performs it inadvertently is exempt from bringing a sacrifice. This doesn’t make it ok, though! Such actions are still prohibited by rabbinic decree.
As Shmuel notes above, there are a very small minority of acts that are patur u’mutar, exempt and also permitted by rabbinic law. These are three obscure ones: (1) joining a person who is sitting in front of a door trapping a deer in a house and remaining seated after the “door blocker” leaves, (2) draining fluid from an abscess and (3) trapping a snake to protect oneself from being bitten.
Understanding this distinction between hayav (in violation of biblical law, required to bring a sacrifice) and patur (in violation of a rabbinic decree, exempt from having to bring a sacrifice), is important for understanding today’s daf which contains two mishnahs on tying and untying knots:
And these are the knots for which one is chayav (liable): A camel driver’s knot and a sailor’s knot. And just as one is liable for tying them, so too is one liable for untying them.
You have knots for which one is not chayav as one is for a camel driver’s knot and a sailor’s knot. A woman may tie the opening of her robe, as well as the strings of her hairnet and her girdle. Also, one may tie the straps of a shoe or a sandal, as well as the spouts of wine jugs.
The Gemara raises the following objection: When the second mishnah says that there are knots for which one is not liable, this implies that though there is no liability from the Torah for bringing a sacrifice, they are still prohibited by the rabbis. And yet, the mishnah doesn’t seem to have this view! Rather, the mishnah states that one is permitted to tie them, even with forethought.
Here’s how the Gemara resolves it:
This is what the (second) mishnah is saying: There are knots for which one is not chayav as one is for a camel driver’s knot and a sailor’s knot. And what are these? A knot with which one ties a strap to the camel’s nose ring and a knot with which one ties a rope to the fixed ring of the bow of a ship, for these there is no liability, but there is a rabbinic prohibition. And, there are knots that are permitted to be tied on Shabbat. Which are these? “The knot that a woman uses to tie the opening of her robe, etc…”
Shmuel’s teaching reminds us that, most of the time, the mishnahs of tractate Shabbat differentiate between actions for which one is chayav (in violation of biblical law) and those for which one is patur (in violation of rabbinic decree). On today’s daf, we have a rare mishnah that, as the Gemara notes, does not follow this pattern; it identifies actions that are in fact fully permitted.