On today’s daf we find ourselves, once again, engaged in a discussion about the prohibited act of carrying something from one domain to another. It is interesting to note, as we edge closer to the half-way point of this tractate, how often we have found ourselves discussing the ins and outs (please excuse the pun) of this particular Shabbat violation. We began here, of course, way back on the very first page, and in the weeks since we have never seemed very far from it. In fact, the subject will follow us right into the next tractate, Eruvin, which is all about ritual enclosures that ease the burdens of the no-carry law and allow observant Jews to transport objects outside their homes on Shabbat.
In our present moment, the return to a discussion about carrying stands out perhaps even more since just three days ago we finally, after many prior hints and references, came upon the mishnah listing the 39 primary categories of Shabbat work. At long last we saw the full list of what was prohibited on Shabbat, and we might have imagined spending many happy days learning about the varieties of reaping and sowing, winnowing and tanning. And yet, here we are, back to carrying once again.
The two mishnahs on this page are twins: one is about how much animal food one must carry into the public domain on Shabbat in order to be liable for that action and the other addresses the same issue for human food. In the Talmudic discussions of both mishnahs we get the sorts of arguments we have come to expect from the sages of the Talmud. Since the Mishnah mentioned the amount of straw for a cow and ezta (a straw from legumes) for a camel, what happens if one carries out the amount of straw needed for a cow but intended it for a camel? Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan disagree, although in the end Rabbi Yochanan reverses himself — a reversal praised by Rav Yosef and disputed by Abbaye.
In the discussion of human food, the rabbis ask whether the shells of beans count as food stuff carried out on Shabbat. (In the end, the shells of fresh beans are counted because they cook nicely along with the bean, whereas the sloughed off shells of old beans, which are not eaten, do not count.)
But why, no matter what other labors we might discuss, has carrying never been far from the mind of the rabbis? The answer may be that in many ways carrying is the most universal of the prohibited labors, the one that everyone, no matter their profession, life-station or living arrangement might easily find themselves violating. Not all of us plough or sow, nor do we all all tan hides or sheer wool (and, in the ancient world, very few wrote), but all of us carry things from one place to another.
Of all the prohibited labors on Shabbat, carrying seems the easiest to accidentally violate, precisely because the rest of the week we do it so thoughtlessly. And so the rabbis must (seemingly endlessly) discuss, debate and delineate the exact amounts, the exact types, the exact distances that constitute this violation. Because as we enter the boundary of Shabbat’s holy time, we may find it easy to lay down our hammer and plough, but we can’t detach our hands.