Shabbat 45

Times of pressure.

Today’s page continues a detailed debate about the prohibition of muktzeh — items that may not be moved on Shabbat (or festivals) for various reasons. Items that are muktzeh include: instruments that are typically used for forbidden labors (for example, a pen because its primary use is for writing, which is forbidden on Shabbat); items that are dirty or disgusting (such as a sooty oil lamp); items that are valuable and meant to be sold at a later date; items not planned for use on Shabbat because they weren’t expected to be ready in time (such as raisins that were in the process of drying), items that came into being on Shabbat (such as an egg laid on Shabbat).

Today we encounter a debate between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda over the extent of the muktzeh prohibition. Rabbi Yehuda holds by a rather robust definition of the prohibition, while Rabbi Shimon holds that the prohibition does not exist at all — or, perhaps, as we learn later in the page, he has a much more narrow definition of it.

The Talmud clearly sides with Rabbi Yehuda — muktzeh is a real prohibition and those who observe Shabbat need to be concerned about it. And yet, Rabbi Shimon’s position is not without value, as we learn from this anecdote:

Didn’t they raise a dilemma before Rav: What is the ruling with regard to moving a Hanukkah candle from before Persian Zoroastrian fire priests on Shabbat? (Those priests prohibited lighting fires on certain days. In order to prevent them from discovering that one lit Hanukkah candles it was necessary to quickly move them.) And he said to them: One may well do so. 

Under Persian rule, the rabbis had to be careful not to offend Zoroastrian custom, which included the prohibition against lighting a fire on certain days. Since lighting Hanukkah candles on those days would be offensive to the authorities, the rabbis removed them from sight — even on Shabbat, when the laws of muktzeh would generally prohibit moving a candle.

Rav’s students ask him whether this permission to move a candle on Shabbat, albeit under highly extenuating circumstances, means he indeed sides with Rabbi Shimon, who holds that there is no prohibition on muktzeh:

As Rav Kahana and Rav Ashi said to Rav on this matter: Is that the halacha? 

Rav said to them: Rabbi Shimon is worthy to rely upon in exigent circumstances like this one.

In other words, Rav teaches, we do not hold like Rabbi Shimon under ordinary circumstances. But in a time of danger, we can rely on his minority position and move items that are muktzeh.

This points to a broader principle in Jewish law known as she’at had’chak — literally “time of pressure.” At times when the normal application of Jewish law would lead to grave danger or require extreme measures to properly observe, rabbis are empowered to rely temporarily on less authoritative or minority opinions. All those opinions in the Talmud that we don’t follow aren’t recorded just for the sake of posterity. They can be — and often are — invoked when circumstances demand it.

Read all of Shabbat 45 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 20, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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