For much of this tractate, we have kept returning to the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat. We have seen previously that ordinary carrying is a violation, but carrying in an unusual way is not. Today, the rabbis ask what constitutes an “unusual” way of carrying.
We’ll start with the mishnah:
One who carries in a usual manner, whether with their right hand or their left hand, in their lap or even on their shoulder is liable, and this final clause is because carrying on the shoulder is recorded by the Torah as being the way of carrying of the sons of Kehat (Numbers 7:9). But if someone carried in an unusual manner, then they are exempt.
The sons of Kehat (himself one of the sons of Levi), were workers in the tabernacle who carried its most sacred objects by lifting them on their shoulders. The rabbis of the mishnah understand this to be a forbidden method of carrying on Shabbat.
And yet, Rashi, the preeminent medieval Talmud commentator, is troubled: Wouldn’t this method — lifting objects on one’s shoulders — in fact constitute an unusual way of carrying, and therefore be permitted?
Rabbi Yaakov Falk (1680-1756), author of the Pnei Yehoshua Talmud commentary, offers Rashi an intelligent reply. After all, Rabbi Falk reminds us, the Shabbat prohibitions are all derived from the construction and maintenance of the tabernacle. He argues that since the sons of Kehat carried the most sacred objects— namely the ark, table, menorah and altar — it seems to be a reasonable corollary that this form of carrying would be prohibited on Shabbat.
But while the logic of this answer is attractive, Rabbi Falk immediately rejects this reasoning (yes, he rejects his own first answer to Rashi!) since, as Tosafot on Shabbat 2a points out, there were plenty of actions performed in the tabernacle that were not prohibited by the rabbis.
Now Rabbi Falk offers a second — and in his view, better — reason this specific type of carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. He explains that because the service of the sons of Kehat is specifically referred to as “melachah” (“labor”) in the Torah (Numbers 4:3), the same word used for all Shabbat violations, then shoulder carrying must be a prohibited act.
Today’s page might inspire us to imagine another distinction between carrying with one’s hand and carrying with one’s shoulder — the difference between choosing to lift things up and having objects placed on us. Inspired by the sons of Kehat, the 20th-century Talmudist and thinker Rabbi Yehuda Amital offers a beautiful contemporary commentary on the distinction between these two. Most of us, he writes in an essay entitled “Attending to the Needs of the Community,” are prepared to take the strain of carrying things that we choose to lift up. However, far fewer of us are comfortable carrying things that are placed on us. Rabbi Amital notes that there is a need for people to be more like the sons of Kehat — to graciously shoulder involuntary burdens. It is the only way to make sure that the physical and spiritual needs of others can be met.