Shabbat 122

You scratch my back.

Today’s daf brings us back to the question of what labors a gentile may or may not perform on Shabbat for a Jew who is forbidden from performing the same labors. Back on Shabbat 19, we learned that an act that violates Shabbat may not be performed solely in order to benefit a Jew, and mentioned that nonetheless the tradition accreted loopholes that would allow Jews to benefit from actions performed by their gentile neighbors. Indeed, some are found in today’s mishnah which provides three examples of ways that a Jew may benefit from gentile labor on Shabbat:

If a gentile kindled a lamp on Shabbat for his own purposes, a Jew may use its light; and if the gentile kindled it for a Jew, the sages prohibited the Jew from using its light. 

If a gentile drew water from a well in the public domain to give his animal to drink, a Jew may give his own animal a drink afterward from the same water; and if he drew the water initially for the benefit of a Jew, it is prohibited for a Jew to give his animal a drink from that water.

If a gentile made a ramp on Shabbat to disembark from a ship, a Jew disembarks after him; and if he made the ramp for a Jew, it is prohibited.

At first read, these appear to be three examples of the same rule, namely: if an action that a gentile performs for their own benefit happens to benefit a Jew on Shabbat (though that is not the primary intention), the Jew is permitted to benefit from said action. But the Gemara, which views the sacred text of the Mishnah as containing no superfluous verbiage, doesn’t read this as three examples of the same loophole, but rather three slightly different principles. Let’s start with the Gemara’s comment on the lamp example:

The light of a lamp for one is the light of a lamp for one hundred people. There is no need to kindle multiple lamps for multiple people; the light of one candle suffices for many. Therefore, it is permitted to use the light of a lamp kindled by a gentile.

Since the lamp simultaneously benefits the gentile and the Jew with no extra effort on the part of the gentile, the Jew is permitted to use its light on Shabbat. When it comes to a behavior like drawing water, however, the Gemara sees an important distinction because, unlike lamp lighting, water drawing is incredibly labor intensive. (We know this from the biblical story of Rebecca and Eliezer (Genesis 24:15–22); Rebecca was chosen for Isaac’s hand in marriage because she went the extra mile to draw water for Eliezer and his camels.)

With regard to water, there is room to issue a decree against benefitting from the gentile’s efforts, lest one come to increase the amount of water he draws for a Jew, even without stating that intention.

While the lamp of the first example generates a constant amount of light, and the gentile would have gone to the same effort to light it for himself or for himself and the Jew, the one drawing water might well have gone to significant extra effort to draw water both for herself and her Jewish companion. The Gemara explains that this example teaches us that even though this extra effort is a possibility, the Jew may still benefit from the labor of the gentile.

Next, the Gemara asks why the mishnah added the third example of the boat ramp. Initially, it seems the same logic of kindling lamps applies to building or setting up a ramp. As with the lamp, the gentile would not go to any additional effort to make the ramp available to the Jew. So what, asks the Gemara, does this example teach us?

The Gemara raises an objection based on the Tosefta: Rabban Gamliel said to them: Since he made it not in our presence, we will disembark on it. 

The only reason Rabban Gamliel felt it was acceptable to use the gentile-built ramp on Shabbat was because he was certain, since he was not present, that the motivation to build the ramp was not to benefit him or the other Jews on board. In other words, we must be certain that the gentiles performing labor on Shabbat are not doing it solely for the benefit of their Jewish neighbors.

I love this line of thinking. While history offers us plenty of accounts of conflict between Jews and gentiles, here we learn of gentiles who are happy to perform actions that benefit their Jewish friends. I like to think of this as a heartwarming window into the historical context of rabbinic times. Jews may have suffered oppression from the government, but they also benefited from the kindness of their non-Jewish neighbors.

Read all of Shabbat 122 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 6, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 72

Another rabbinic reversal.

Gittin 61

The ways of peace.

Gittin 80

Who's in charge?