Shabbat 18

Can your utensils work on Shabbat?

This summer my son returned home from camp on a Friday afternoon with a plastic bag containing a wet, tie-dyed t-shirt and a note that read: “Please leave the shirt in the bag for 24 hours while the dye sets.” This instruction meant that the dye would seep into the clothing and become permanent during the hours of Shabbat. Is this okay? Can we use the 24 hours of Shabbat to dye fabric? This exact debate can be found on today’s daf!

In the mishnah at the bottom of Shabbat 17b, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai ask the following: Can I start an action on Friday afternoon that would be forbidden on Shabbat itself knowing that the action/activity will continue into Shabbat? In other words, can we set something up before Shabbat and let the work unfold over the course of the day?

Beit Shammai say: One may only soak ink and dyes (and vetch) adjacent to Shabbat, if there is clearly sufficient time for them to soak for their designated purpose while it is still day (before Shabbat begins, and their continued soaking on Shabbat will have no effect). And Beit Hillel permit doing so. 

Today’s daf offers several analogous examples where the same principle is in play:

  • Can I open a canal and let the water irrigate my field throughout the day?
  • Can I place incense over coals and let the fragrance perfume a fabric above them all day long?
  • Can I place a salve and bandage before Shabbat and allow the wound to heal over shabbat?
  • Can I set up a fish hook with bait on Friday afternoon?
  • Can I set a pot of food over a fire that will continue to cook past sundown? (Cholent anyone?)
  • Can I set my tub of fermenting fruits or veggies before Shabbat and return to pickles on Saturday night?

What is at stake in these questions is how much we think our utensils need to rest. Hillel is more lenient, whereas Shammai is more prohibitive:

Rav Oshaya said Rav Asi said: Who states that the obligation of resting utensils on Shabbat is by Torah law? Beit Shammai and not Beit Hillel. Consequently, according to Beit Shammai, whether the utensil performs an action or whether it does not perform an action, it is prohibited. And according to Beit Hillel, even though it performs an action, it is nevertheless permitted.

So, can we make cholent? Can we plug in our phones to charge just before Shabbat starts? Can we set the coffee maker beforehand? Drop off clothing at the cleaners on Friday afternoon and pick up on Sunday morning? It seems like Hillel would say yes, but in truth it is still a subject of debate.

Read all of Shabbat 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 24, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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