I recently found myself, for some reason or another, singing “If I Had a Hammer” to my young children, who had apparently never heard it before. Setting aside that disturbing void in their cultural education to date, I found myself returning to it as we enter chapter 17 of tractate Shabbat.
The mishnah under discussion on today’s page appears on 122b, opening the chapter with a statement about what tools can and cannot be moved on Shabbat:
A person may move a hammer to crack nuts; an axe to cut a cake of figs; a saw to cut cheese; a spade to scoop dried figs.
We have already met the concept of muktzeh — an item that may not be moved on Shabbat because its primary use is a Shabbat-forbidden labor. Today, we learn that muktzeh exists on a spectrum. At one end, some items (food and books, for example) are not muktzeh at all and may be moved without restriction (within a domain, of course). On the other end, items like money are completely muktzeh because they have no permitted use on Shabbat and may not be moved except with rare exceptions.
As I often teach about the Talmud, the items that are most of interest to the rabbis exist in the grey. Today’s mishnah is all about these middle muktzeh items, like a hammer, that are usually used for prohibited labor but could be used for something permissible, like cracking nuts.
When Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer” in 1949, it was in support of the burgeoning progressive movement. With allusions to the fight for workers rights, the lyrics take symbols from the workplace and turn them into calls for action toward equality. In other words, they repurpose the tools, imagining them used in a new way. This is the heart of today’s page, the discussion of items designed for one use, put to another.
In perhaps his most famous articulation, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks about Shabbat as a palace in time. Only with careful consideration of what we need and do not need on Shabbat, what we will and will not use, can we construct the experience of Shabbat to which we are meant to aspire.
Of course, it’s never simple. The Amoraim on today’s page argue about what kind of hammer may actually be repurposed on Shabbat to crack nuts:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: It was the hammer of goldsmiths.
Rav Shemen bar Abba said: It was the hammer of spice merchants.
And then, we learn that spice merchants might not like having their hammer used for cracking nuts — later commentators explaining this is because the oils from the nuts will penetrate the hammer and later damage the flavor of the spices. Repurposing, we find, can be tricky.
In Seeger and Hays’ imagination, if we had a hammer, we’d hammer out freedom, justice and love between our brothers and our sisters. It is a lofty goal, and yet, there is something profound in imagining this sort of transformation — from ordinary to inspirational, from banal to sacred. This is the work of preparing for Shabbat — and knowing just how to wield your hammer to do so.