Masechet Shabbat - An Introduction to the Tractate

May 05, 2005

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud. It is also featured on the website of the Orthodox Union (OU) at
To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi joint venture with the OU, click here.

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"And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work which God had created to make." (Genesis 2:3)

"Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you do work and accomplish all your work. But the seventh day is Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work ? you, you son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, your animal, and your convert within your gates." (Exodus 20:8-10)

"You shall observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; its desecrators shall be put to death, for whoever does work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among its people." (Exodus 31:14)

"If you restrain your feet, because of the Sabbath, from attending to your affairs on My holy day and you call the Sabbath 'delight,' the day made holy by the Lord 'honored,' and you honor it by not following your customary ways, refraining from pursuing your affairs and from speaking profane things?" (Isaiah 58:13)

"So says the Lord, Take heed to yourselves and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem." (Jeremiah 17:21)

"And if the people of the land bring ware or any food on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the Sabbath, or on a holy day; and that we would forego the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt..." (Nehemiah 10:32)

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Masechet Shabbat is the first ? and longest ? tractate in Seder Mo'ed (the "Order of Appointed Times," or festivals); it deals with the rules and regulations related to the holiest of days ? Shabbat.

There are a myriad of Halahkot (laws) connected with Shabbat, both positive and negative, Biblical, Prophetic and Rabbinic. In Aggadic (narrative) terms, God bestowed the gift of a holy day of rest, on Israel, His chosen people.

While Shabbat is presented in Halakha and Aggadah from a variety of perspectives, there is one central theme, that of "Shabbaton" ? resting from Melakha (work). It is only by developing a deep understanding of this concept that one can correctly comprehend Shabbat and its rules, ranging from the most basic Biblical commands to the regulations promulgated by the Rabbis throughout the generations.

Rest and forbidden labor on Shabbat is rooted in creation itself ? beginning, conceptually, with the six days of creation and God's rest on the seventh day. Shabbat, as commemorated by the Jewish people, is a continuation and attempt to mimic God's rest, which is the source for the spiritual nature of the day.

Not only did God rest from creative activity on Shabbat, but He also commanded the Jewish People to refrain from constructing the Mishkan ? the Tabernacle ? in the desert on the holy Seventh Day. There are two basic conceptual parallels in these activities that form the conceptual foundation for "Melakha" ? work ? as defined in Hilkhot Shabbat:

1. It must be a physically creative act, and
2. It must be done with specific intent for that act.

We find references to these definitions in such rules as:

  • that one is not liable for a destructive act ? unless it serves a productive purpose (Shabbat 105b), or
  • that the Torah only forbade a planned-out activity (Beitzah 13b).

Given that this is the basis for defining Melakha on Shabbat, it seems that forbidden work is neither defined by the amount of effort put into a given act, nor by the profit or gain resulting from it. Therefore, even activities that involve little effort, or those that are done for pleasure, may be Biblically forbidden (e.g. writing or lighting a fire), since they are planned, productive acts.

The vast majority of the 39 Avot (basic proscribed activities) and Toladot (activities that are similar to them) are simply specific definitions of these general principles. By forbidding activities that might lead to Melakha, Rabbinic ordinances come to strengthen and solidify the concept of Shmirat Shabbat (keeping the Sabbath) so that such activities will not take place.

There is one exception to these rules in Hilkhot Shabbat, an act that is not itself productive, yet falls under the category of Melakha on Shabbat ? that is, Hotza'a (transfer from one domain to another). This Melakha often does not involve significant effort, nor is it, in itself, an act of creation. It appears to be a unique Melakha, forbidden by the Torah in order to emphasize the Shabbaton ? rest ? aspect of Shabbat. Shabbaton demands a cessation of the creative activities of the six working days; it also implies a need for quiet, an end to the drive and vigor of the six active days. It requires a separation between the public and private domains to the extent that the public thoroughfare should reach a state of calm. To accomplish this, specific boundaries for Shabbat were established ? boundaries that do not apply to other realms of Halakha ? that aim to separate the different domains. Moving objects within the public domain is forbidden, as well.

While a major part of Shmirat Shabbat involves the negative commandments of avoiding creative activity, there are also positive commandments ? aside from the sacrificial service of the day ? that fall under the category of "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy". This command has a variety of different aspects to it, ranging from the basic Mitzvah of Kiddush on wine when welcoming the Shabbat, the special prayers recited on this day, and on to the tradition of naming every day of the week according to its place in reference to Shabbat. Included, as well, is the prophetic demand of "Oneg Shabbat" to add to the enjoyment and pleasure of the day through festive meals and the like.

According to the oral tradition, beginning in the time of the early prophets, additional prohibitions ? called "shvut" ? were added to the rules and regulations of Shabbat. These additions aim to guard the spirit of Shabbat rest. Examples include the prohibition on business activities and inclusion of semi-public domains to the rules of transferring of objects. Similarly, the category known as "Mukzeh" that limits the use of utensils and raw materials whose usage is primarily for creative efforts, is an example of a "shvut". Rabbinic prohibitions on "weekday activities" were also added due to their lack of appropriateness for a day of rest.

The halakhot of Shabbat ? its general principles, foundations and specifications, as well as exceptions to the rules, such as Pikuah Nefesh (life and death situations) or Brit Milah ? are all explained in the 24 chapters of Masechet Shabbat.

Next: Shabbat 2a-8b