Keritot 16a-b - Transgressing the laws of Shabbat accidentally

April 04, 2012


On today's daf (=page) the Gemara brings up what is, perhaps, the core of the tractate of Shabbat when it quotes the first Mishnah in Perek (=chapter) "Klal Gadol" - which includes a list of the 39 Avot Melakha that define the activities forbidden on Shabbat. The Mishnah, however, does not begin with that list, but rather with a discussion of how many sacrifices need to be brought by an individual who transgresses Shabbat accidentally.
The passages in the Torah that teach us about the punishments for performing forbidden activities on Shabbat are as follows:
Purposeful transgression:
You are to keep the Shabbat, for it is holy to you; whoever profanes it is to be put to death, for whoever performs work on it, that soul will be cut off from its nation. (Shemot 31:14)
Accidental transgression:
Now if any person sins in error from amongst the people of the land by doing one of the forbidden commandments of God and incurs guilt; or it is made known to him the sin that he sinned, he is to bring an offering a female goat for the sin whereby he sinned. (Vayikra 4:27-28)
As is clear from the first passage, if a person desecrates Shabbat on purpose, he is to be killed or to suffer karet - being cut off from the Jewish people. An accidental desecration would obligate the sinner to bring a sacrifice.
According to the accepted halakhah, accidental transgressions that take place on Shabbat over a period of several weeks are considered separate acts of Hillul Shabbat (Desecration of the Sabbath), each of which requires a separate sin-offering. The discussion on today's daf examines which cases of collected transgressions are considered to be one unified action and which are considered separate acts.
According to the Mishnah in Massekhet Shabbat, there are three types of people who accidentally transgress the rules of Shabbat:

1. One who forgets the existence of Shabbat is obligated to bring a single sin-offering, no matter how many times he performs forbidden acts on Shabbat
2. A person who is aware of the concept of Shabbat, but does not know on which day Shabbat falls must bring a sin-offering for each Shabbat that he violated. 
3. One who knows that today is Shabbat, but is not aware what activities are forbidden on Shabbat will be obligated to bring a separate sacrifice for each forbidden act that he performed.


This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.
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