Shabbat 75

The dye maker and the shellfish.

You’re holding a bowling ball in your hand. One of the nice ones, with a blue and silver swirl. A long-standing feud you have with the bowling alley owner motivates you to damage the exquisite red-and-white shoes you’ve rented. Seeing that your shoe-shod foot is directly below the ball, you intentionally drop it, damaging the shoes but also injuring your foot. Not your brightest move. Can we infer from your intention to drop the ball and damage the shoes that you also intended the easily predictable harm to yourself?

Oddly, if we follow the rabbis’ logic, maybe not.

Today’s page continues our review of the 39 melachot, categories of Shabbat-prohibited work activities or “labors,” and revisits the topic of trapping deer and other animals. Trapping animals, as we already know from the mishnah, is not Shabbat-friendly. Neither is killing an animal. So what if we’re talking about, say, trapping a shellfish and then breaking open its shell so we can drain its blood to produce a coveted bluish-purple dye? Is one liable for one or two counts of Shabbat violation?

The idea of trapping a shellfish and draining its blood to produce dye is not a random example, but in fact a very specific and important one in rabbinic culture. The Hebrew Bible mentions a beautiful blue dye (the color is called techelet) that was used for the garments of the High Priest, some of the tapestries of the Tabernacle, and woven into tzitzit. For the rabbis, the practical application of this wondrous color was tzitzit, and they were convinced it came specifically from a shellfish called a hilazon. The process involved trapping the animal, breaking open its shell, and draining its blood — but hopefully keeping the animal alive while doing so to improve the quality of the dye.

It’s certain that this process was not permitted on Shabbat. But the rabbis were at odds over whether the trapping, breaking, and death-by-exsanguination were, together, a single violation or whether separate, independent transgressions. After concluding that breaking the shell isn’t analogous to the prohibited act of threshing grain (which removes the outer husks from kernels), they debate the importance of intention in whether killing an animal breaks the rules of Shabbat:

Rava said: Even if you say that he broke the shell when it was alive, he is exempt. Since he had no intention of killing the hilazon, he is considered as one who is acting unaware with regard to taking a life.

The Gemara raises a difficulty: Didn’t Abaye and Rava both say that Rabbi Shimon, who rules that an unintentional act is permitted, agrees that in a case of: Cut off its head and will it not die, one is liable? 

In other words, you’re draining a shellfish of its blood. How could you expect that it wouldn’t die? And if you knew its death is an inevitable result of your actions, claiming that your aim was otherwise isn’t believable.

The Gemara answers: Here it is different, as the longer the hilazon lives, the better it is for the trapper, so that its dye will become clear. Dye extracted from a live hilazon is a higher quality than that which is extracted from a dead one. Rabbi Shimon agrees that one who performs an action with inevitable consequences is liable only in a case where the consequences are not contrary to his interests. Since he prefers that the hilazon remain alive as long as possible, he is not liable for the inevitable consequences.

So let’s be clear: our dye maker wants the shellfish to live — or at least live longer through the extraction process —  so that they’ll have higher quality dye. According to Rabbi Shimon, the adverse outcome counterbalances the intention, so they’re not liable for killing a shellfish, and our dye maker has broken Shabbat only once, by trapping the poor hilazon.

Back to our bowling ball: using the passage’s logic, perhaps the harm you do to your foot is sufficient punishment and mitigates any intentionality we would otherwise impute to your damaging the shoes. It doesn’t mean you couldn’t be held responsible for acting recklessly or negligently, but hey, at least we don’t fault you for doing it on purpose.

Read all of Shabbat 75 on Sefaria.

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

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