When it comes to law, one might imagine there is always a definitive rulebook. For example, one cannot run a red light — it’s never legal. At the same time, if the common citizen is driving to the ER at 3 am, it is hard to imagine a police officer issuing a ticket.
When it comes to Jewish law, we have seen throughout our study of Shabbat that one may violate Shabbat in order to save a life (pikuach nefesh). And yesterday we saw that law becomes more lenient in times of difficulty or danger.
But in addition, perhaps contrary to our intuitions about how law works, there are acts in today’s Gemara whose legality depend not on the act itself but on the intention of the individual performing said act. This is an important component of the laws of muktzeh, which we have been studying for several days. (As a reminder: an item that falls into the category and status of muktzeh may not be handled on Shabbat as doing so may cause someone to unintentionally violate Shabbat.) The items explored include a bridal canopy, an assortment of candelabras and lamps, and an undercarriage.
In regard to lighting elements, the concern is that the lamp will be accidentally extinguished in the process of moving — a violation of Shabbat. For this reason, there is no problem moving an unlit lamp:
With regard to the halachot of moving lamps on Shabbat, Rav Yehuda said: With regard to an extinguished oil lamp, it is permitted to move it.
But when it comes to an actively burning lamp, where there is a possibility of accidentally extinguishing the light, there is more confusion. Rabbi Shimon clarifies:
Rabbi Shimon says: A person may drag a bed, chair, and bench on the ground, as long as he does not intend to make a furrow in the ground [digging is a forbidden Shabbat labor]. Even if a furrow is formed inadvertently, one need not be concerned. Since that was not his intention, there is no prohibition.
Consequently, according to Rabbi Shimon, there should be no prohibition in moving a burning candle, even though it may be extinguished. Since that is not the intention of the one moving it, no prohibition would be violated.
As all of the laws of Shabbat, both categories of observing and remembering, are meant to invoke a certain state of mind for rest and reflection. I appreciate the importance and value of intentionality in its implementation. It is not always about if or how we do, but also why we do.