Shabbat 38

Intention matters.

Yesterday, we learned in a mishnah that one should not cook food on Shabbat — only reheat it. The concern was not about cooking per se, but about being tempted to stoke a flame and therefore violate the biblical prohibition on lighting a fire. In other words, the mishnah constructed a very high fence around the Torah.

We also saw that at least some later rabbis felt the mishnah’s fence was too high and permitted cooking on Shabbat under certain circumstances (provided, of course, one does not stoke a flame) — leading to a kind of halachic pluralism.

Today’s Gemara adds to the complexity by layering in the question of intentional cooking versus unintentional cooking:

They raised a dilemma before Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba: If one forgot a pot on Shabbat eve atop a stove and it cooked on Shabbat, what is the ruling in that case? Is one permitted to eat that food, or not? 

He was silent and did not say a thing. 

The next day, he emerged and publicly taught them the following halacha: With regard to one who cooks on Shabbat, if he did so unwittingly, he may eat it, and if he cooked intentionally, he may not eat it; and the halacha is no different.

Intention matters greatly to the rabbis, one of whom is asked: What if I accidentally leave a pot of food on the stove over Shabbat and it cooked? Am I permitted to eat it?

When faced with this question, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba does not respond right away. He gives it a full day’s thought and then finally rules that yes, it is permissible to eat accidentally cooked food. But we can infer from the delay that he is finding it a difficult question to answer. And the final portion of his answer is a bit cryptic: the halacha is no different. No different than what?

The Gemara searches for an answer:

Rabba and Rav Yosef both said to interpret the phrase permissively: One who cooks is one who performs an action. If he did so intentionally, he may not eat what he cooked. However, this one who forgot the pot on the stove, who does not perform an action, even if he intentionally left the pot on Shabbat eve, he may also eat the food. 

Rabba and Rav Yosef understand Rabbi Hiyya to mean that even if a person intentionally leaves a pot on the stove, if that person’s intention was not to cook the food — perhaps only to heat it and yet it accidentally did cook — that food is permitted. But another answer is also proposed:

Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak interpreted it restrictively: One who cooks who will not come to deceive. Therefore, if one cooks unwittingly, he may eat it. However, one who would come to deceive, intentionally leaving the pot on the stove and saying: I forgot it, the Sages penalize him and decree that if he did so unwittingly as well, he may not eat it.

Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak believes Rav Hiyya meant to restrict the application of his rule rather than expand it, ruling against those who would exploit his ruling by claiming they left a pot on the fire to cook accidentally when, in fact, their intention all along was to cook the food. In such a case, Rav Nahman says the food would not be permitted.

Either way, for halachic purposes, it’s what’s in the heart that truly matters.

Read all of Shabbat 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 13, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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