Talmudic pages

Shabbat 74

Sifting and sorting.

I have been called a borer (בורר) fundamentalist. Borer, sifting wheat from chaff, is one of the prohibited activities of Shabbat. It is my favorite area of Shabbat law because it demonstrates how meaningful conversations about the nature of Shabbat can be hidden among seemingly overzealous stringencies or striking leniencies of legal debate.

The conversation on our daf cites an incomplete early source allowing some acts of sifting but not others:

The Rabbis taught: If a person has different types of food in front of him, he selects and eats, selects and puts aside. One may not select, and if one did select, he is obligated to bring a sin-offering.

Later rabbis fill in the blanks, suggesting that perhaps, for example, one can sift by hand but not using utensils, or one can do so for immediate use but not longer-term use. Each of these suggestions are actually attempts to limit the effectiveness of the act, preventing one from getting a head start on chores meant for after Shabbat.

The discussion in the Talmud around borer is related solely to food items, but later rabbis extend the concept — broadly construed as sorting — to non-food items as well. Later on our daf, Rava says that one who makes a jar (on Shabbat) is liable for seven sin-offerings, and one who makes an oven is liable for eight; Abaye says that one who makes a basket is liable for eleven, and if one sews the mouth shut they are now liable for thirteen. Rava and Abaye might not have had in mind specific lists of seven or more forbidden acts (the claim of so many violations was perhaps rhetorical), but the preeminent Talmud commentator Rashi takes it upon himself to list what acts the person has violated in all these cases and includes borer among them. Making a jar, he surmises, involves removing stones from clay, and making the basket requires one to select nice reeds.

Later halachic decisors continue to debate whether borer in fact applies to non-food items or only to food. The centuries-long debate surrounding borer is a way of discussing the nature of Shabbat itself, and it invites us to do the same. Let’s take the example of sorting clean laundry. One might say that sorting clothing is something that one should do to prepare for Shabbat, to create a calm, relaxed environment, where one doesn’t feel pressured to do weekday chores. One could enforce this idea by classifying the clothing sort as an act of borer — forcing people to abstain on Shabbat. But what about those who find sorting and tidying clothes relaxing — an ideal Shabbat activity? Those people would be likely to limit borer to food items onAs a person who experiences cleaning as a chore, I lean more toward the opinion that borer does apply to non-food items, thus the label “borer fundamentalist.” But beneath any legal terminology and debate over technical details lies a substantial conversation about how best to celebrate and enjoy Shabbat, which is why I am drawn to the details of the topic.

Read all of Shabbat 74 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 19, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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