So far in this tractate, we have dipped our toe into the rules of hotza’a, carrying an object from private to public domain (or more than four cubits within a public domain). And we have seen the discussion become enormously fine-grained and detailed. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is that violating a Shabbat prohibition is serious business. Deadly serious.
The Torah makes clear that working on Shabbat is a violation worthy of capital punishment. For instance, consider Exodus 35:2:
On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.
Or, this story from Numbers 15:32-36 about a man gathering sticks:
Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death — as the Lord had commanded Moses.
In this case, the community hesitates to execute the full punishment for the man caught gathering sticks (pun intended). And their leaders, Moses and Aaron apparently hesitate as well, keeping him in custody, until God orders Moses to put the man to death.
If this is all somewhat troubling to us, it was to the rabbis as well. Perhaps this is one reason they build their fence around the Torah, creating a web of additional laws to ensure no one transgresses Torah prohibitions. But we can also see that they find ways to significantly soften the Torah’s austere line of punishment. From today’s daf:
One may not carry out from the private domain to the public domain, and one may not carry in from the public domain to the private domain. But if he did so unwittingly, he is liable to bring a sin-offering. If he did so intentionally, and there were no witnesses to his act, and he was not forewarned, he is liable to receive the punishment of excision (karet). If he was forewarned and there were witnesses to his transgression, he is punished with the court-imposed capital punishment and stoned.
This is much more nuanced than what we find in the Bible. The first assertion here is that one who accidentally violates the Shabbat prohibition against hotza’a is not punished by death, but merely pays for the violation with a sacrifice. No fellow human being will lay a hand on the accidental transgressor, and he or she alone is responsible for atoning for this particular mistake.
Furthermore, even if a person violates the law intentionally, if that person is not fully warned about the violation immediately prior to committing it, and if there were not also two witnesses to the violation, then the punishment is karet — the meaning of which is unclear, but was understood by the rabbis to be a punishment only enacted by God. So, in this case too, no fellow human will punish the Shabbat violator.
Only in the most extreme case — in which a person is both forewarned against committing the Shabbat violation and there are two witnesses to the violation — is the Sabbath violator in fact stoned to death.
This is a familiar rabbinic treatment of a capital offense. The rabbis famously created tall legal bulwarks around the practice, and though they did not strike it from the books, their interpretation of Jewish law minimized its use. Rabbinic texts make clear that this was wholly intentional. Mishnah Makkot 1:10 explains:
A Sanhedrin (rabbinic high court) that puts a man to death once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says “Even once in 70 years.” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said, “If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no death sentence would ever have passed.”
Though the rabbis are obsessed with the laws of Sabbath observance (including the next 150 pages of this tractate and also the next one), unlike God as portrayed in the biblical texts we examined today, they are not eager to execute punishment on those who disobey.