Today’s daf opens with the rabbis discussing the mishnah’s listing of cases in which someone violates the prohibition on transferring objects on Shabbat. As we saw yesterday, one of the categories of forbidden labor on Shabbat is hotza’a — “carrying out.”
The mishnah had listed a number of situations in which two people — one standing in public and the other in a private home — transfer objects between those domains. According to the rabbis, if the transfer was completed entirely by one person, that person is liable for violating a Torah commandment. But if two people joined in the act of transfer by passing the object between them, it does not violate a Torah prohibition, only a rabbinic one.
This principle is derived from the rabbis’ reading of a verse in Leviticus 4:27: If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt. The rabbis understand “any person” to mean one person — not two. And they understand the phrase “doing any of the things” to mean fully doing something — not in cooperation with another person.
The distinction between a Torah law and a rabbinic one is important. Both types of laws are traditionally understood to be binding, but Torah laws carry more severe penalties than rabbinic ones if they are violated. Also, as we’ll see tomorrow, when one is faced with a situation where a law has to be broken, it’s typically preferable to violate a rabbinic one to avoid violating a Torah prohibition. So it’s important to know which laws are which.
In fact, as we have seen already, protecting against the possibility of breaking a Torah law — an idea known as building a fence around the Torah — is one of the major reasons for rabbinic laws to begin with. In the case of Shabbat, to avoid even the possibility of violating the Torah commandment of one person fully transferring an object of Shabbat, the rabbis instituted a prohibition on “half-doing” the transfer in partnership with another.
The rabbis also erected fences around fences — measures intended to protect not against a possible Torah violation, but even against rabbinic ones too. According to the rabbis, if you are standing in your backyard and someone throws a ball from the street on Shabbat, you shouldn’t catch it. This is true even though there’s no risk of violating the Torah because you didn’t throw the ball.
On today’s daf the rabbis introduce the notion that someone could even be penalized for violating a rabbinic law that carried no potential of a Torah violation. This idea is based on a kind of counterintuitive logic. The rabbis felt that in some cases the risk of violating a Torah prohibition was itself a sufficient deterrent. Someone who knows they might violate the Torah would be exceedingly careful. But with a rabbinic law, they may be a bit more lax — after all, they might reason, it’s only a rabbinic law. So the rabbis made rabbinic laws punishable too — which in turn protects Torah law even more.