Shabbat 91

Original intention.

Today’s daf explores the concept of intent in a very unusual way. Once again, the rabbis are engaged in debate about the prohibition of carrying in the public sphere on Shabbat. They bring up the case of a man who carries a seed — one he had initially intended to plant (a forbidden form of labor) — on Shabbat.

We have seen that small volumes of certain items are exempt from the “no carry” rule. But even though the seed is tiny, smaller than the usual amount that would render one liable for transgressing the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, the rabbis say that the man is liable. Because he originally intended to plant the seed, there is no permissible reason for him to be carrying it on Shabbat.

But, the rabbis go further. Even if the man no longer remembers why he kept the seed, simply because he originally intended to plant it, he may not carry it on Shabbat:

Lest you say that in doing so his original intention is completely nullified, since when he carries it out he is no longer conscious of the reason that he stored it, the sage of the mishnah teaches us that anyone who performs an action with an object with which he had dealings in the past, performs the action with the original intention in mind.

We are familiar with the importance of intent in interpreting actions. In our secular legal system, a person’s intent can affect their guilt. (This is the difference, for instance, between murder and manslaughter.) In the Talmud, original intent adheres tightly to an object — even when that intention changes. The rabbis are not simply concerned with a person’s intent in a given moment, but rather their original purpose for an item — even if they no longer remember what that purpose was!

The idea of our original intent adhering to an object, even if we have forgotten what that intent was, seems odd. After all, an object does not store our original plan for it! But, upon reflection, the rabbis’ conceptualization of intent offers incredible wisdom. It forces us to be more mindful of the way we have thought about and used our possessions in the past. Sometimes, that mindfulness can cause us to reckon with uncomfortable truths about the person we once were. Sometimes it can help us to think about how we have grown and changed since our original intention. And perhaps most importantly, remembering our original intent for an object can help us refocus our energies toward a goal that might have gotten lost along the way.

Mindfulness about our original intentions for the objects we own is a way of taking stock of where we were, where we are now, and where we someday want to be.

Read all of Shabbat 91 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 5, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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