Welcome to tractate Shabbat!
This tractate turns our attention to the many and detailed rules of Shabbat, most of them governed by one overarching principle: no work (מלאכה melacha) may be performed on the day of rest. This is an explicit biblical commandment. Just as God rested on the seventh day after laboring six days to create the world, so too Jews are commanded to rest every seventh day: Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor. (Exodus 34:21)
The Bible does not offer a detailed description of what is meant by “work” when it comes to the Shabbat prohibition. It alludes to some things we might intuit to be work, like field labor (Exodus 34:21 and Numbers 15:32-36), and others that are less obvious like kindling a fire (Exodus 35:2-3) or even gathering sticks (Numbers 15:32-36). The rabbis, who love to clarify such ambiguity, rush to fill the void — in copious pages of legislation whose basic, underlying question is: what is work?
You might suppose the rabbis would begin this tractate by laying out the framework for their basic definition of “work” (spoiler alert: there are 39 categories of it). Strangely enough, however, we don’t get a full list of the primary prohibited forms of work until daf 73! And unlike the tractates that discuss Passover or Yom Kippur, which begin with descriptions of how to prepare for those holidays, tractate Shabbat also does not begin with Sabbath preparations.
Instead, the Talmud jumps right in with the rules regarding just one category of forbidden labor: hotza’a (הוצאה), “carrying out” — which our daf defines as “any act that involves lifting an object from its place and transferring it to another domain.” (In this case, the two domains the mishnah has in mind are the private domain, like an individual’s home, and the public domain, like a street.)
The Tosafot (a set of Medieval commentators, mostly Rashi’s grandchildren) suggest a whole host of reasons Shabbat begins with this mishnah, and one of their reasons, put forward in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Asher HaLevi, is that this mishnah is incredibly rich and evocative, teaching us not just the rules of carrying out and carrying in, lifting up and putting down, but also the status of hands, shared activities, and the interactions between the rich and the poor.
I find the presence of “homeowner” and “poor person” on our daf particularly striking. The mishnah’s case begins:
The poor person stands outside, in the public domain, and the homeowner stands inside, in the private domain.
And then the mishnah goes on to describe various ways they might transfer an object from one domain to the other: the homeowner, the literal insider, standing inside the home and the poor person, the literal outsider, standing outside. The mishnah considers the perspectives of each of them in enumerating all of the possible types of prohibited “carrying out” that can occur between two people standing in two different domains.
It quickly becomes clear that this dynamic of insider and outsider is rife with opportunity for Shabbat violation, even though, notably, the mishnah never assumes or suggests that the wealthy insider turn away the poor outsider empty-handed.
In a later mishnah on Shabbat 126b we catch a glimmer of the ideal solution: hospitality.
On Shabbat, one may move even four or five baskets of straw and baskets of produce, due to the guests, who require a place to sit.
In discussing that mishnah, which we’ll get to in about three months’ time, we find on Shabbat 127a:
Rav Yehuda said that Rav said on a related note: Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence.
Our tractate begins with a discussion of domains and the “carrying out” of objects between them. This discussion of the domains of Shabbat continues not just throughout this tractate, but also dominates the next, Eruvin. From the outset, we cannot forget that these domains and their attendant rules have the potential to also draw lines between people. So as we attend to these domains, we need to stay vigilant and always ask ourselves, “who is outside of my domain?” and “how can I bring them in?”