Much of today’s daf is dedicated to examining a debate concerning the liability of two people who together carry an object from one domain to another on Shabbat. When two people participate in an action that is a violation, are they both equally liable? Is neither?
Rabbi Yehuda says: If one person is physically incapable of carrying an object, and two people carry it out, they are both liable. And if not, if one person is capable of carrying it single-handedly, then they are both exempt.
Rabbi Shimon says: Even if one person is incapable of carrying it out alone, and two people carry it out together, they are both exempt.
We can see that for both sages, two people carrying an object attenuates the liability. Where they differ is that Rabbi Yehuda holds the two carriers liable if the object is so large — like a sofa — it cannot be carried by one person. But more leniently, Rabbi Shimon holds that even for large objects, when two people carry together they are both exempt. Jewish law (see Maimonides‘ Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 1:15) tends to hold like Rabbi Yehuda — exemption for the carrying pair is granted only in the case of light-weight objects.
The word “exempt” here does not mean that no wrongdoing is attached to the behavior whatsoever. Rather, it indicates that the carriers have not transgressed a biblical prohibition, only a rabbinic prohibition. (The gravity of transgressing a rabbinic prohibition is significantly less severe.)
As we have seen before, many rabbinic laws are designed to be more stringent than biblical laws, in order to protect people from accidentally violating them (this is called placing a fence around the biblical law). In other cases, rabbinic laws create loopholes. The “two people in partnership” law might be considered one such loophole — and it was used in a particularly poignant way during the Second World War.
In Around the Maggid’s Table, Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells a powerful story of how some yeshiva students once applied the “two people carrying a lightweight object on Shabbat are exempt” law to a difficult situation. It was 1943 and Tuvya Goldstein and eleven additional yeshiva students from Kaminetz had been confined to a Siberian labor camp where they were forced to work seven days a week for the sake of the Russian war effort. Specifically, they had been tasked with clearing timber — including tree trunks, twigs and branches — from an area measuring around two square miles. This was a clear violation of carrying on Shabbat.
The yeshiva students cleverly devised a way to minimize their transgression by carrying branches and smaller pieces of lumber in pairs, in accordance with the rule of “two people in partnership” loophole found on today’s daf. This meant they were exempt from violating the biblical prohibition.
Unfortunately, to the Russian field director, this process looked massively inefficient and the boys were called in for discipline. They tried to explain the Shabbat violation and rabbinic loophole to the Russian officers, but few of these Russian officers related to these enthusiastic yeshiva students and their attempts to explain halachic Shabbat loopholes. Luckily, there was one Jew among the Russian officers who was sympathetic. He convinced his colleagues that the young men were working in pairs because they had not been given sufficient food and, as a result, their food rations were doubled!
In the end, this rabbinic loophole not only prevented the young men from violating a biblical prohibition, it brought them an added blessing of additional calories. For Tuvya Goldstein and his friends, what occurred in that labor camp was nothing short of a miracle — a powerful reminder that even when you think you are alone without any friends, God is helping carry your load.