The Prohibition to Carry on Shabbat: Historical and Exegetical Development
Sabbath Law in the Hebrew Bible
The case of the Sabbath presented a unique challenge to Jews in the Second Temple period. By then, the Sabbath was regarded as a day on which one ceased from particular types of work, yet, the Hebrew Bible presents minimal direction on the precise types of work proscribed.
The parameters of the Sabbath observance are most famously outlined in the Decalogue. Exodus 20:8–11 / Deuteronomy 5:12–15 assert that one must refrain from labor (melacha) on the Sabbath along with all members of one’s household. Yet no precise details are provided regarded the intended proscribed labor.
Elsewhere, several Pentateuchal passages condemn specific practices:
- Cooking (Exod 16:23)
שַׁבָּת֧וֹן שַׁבַּת־קֹ֛דֶשׁ לַֽי-הֹוָ֖ה מָחָ֑ר אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאפ֞וּ אֵפ֗וּ וְאֵ֤ת אֲשֶֽׁר־תְּבַשְּׁלוּ֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔לוּ
Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of YHWH. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil;
- Plowing and harvesting (Exod 34:21)
בֶּחָרִ֥ישׁ וּבַקָּצִ֖יר תִּשְׁבֹּֽת
You shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time.
- Kindling fire (Exod 35:3)
לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת
You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.
- Gathering wood (Num 15:32).
וַֽיִּמְצְא֗וּ אִ֛ישׁ מְקֹשֵׁ֥שׁ עֵצִ֖ים בְּי֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת
They came upon a man gathering wood on the sabbath day.
Baruch J. Schwartz explains the laconic treatment of Sabbath labor restrictions in the Pentateuch by positing that a weekly day of rest likely existed in ancient Israel, or at least was presumed to be in force, and these Pentateuchal passages seek to connect this practice, which was well-known, with divinely mandated law.
Other biblical texts outside of the Torah discuss Sabbath restrictions. These passages all take the importance of Shabbat observance as a given, and some refer to particular prohibitions, but none contains a clear, comprehensive definition of labor. A surprising number of these passages focus on business and commercial pursuits (Amos 8:5; Isa 58:13-14; Jer 17:19-27; Neh 10:32; 13:15-22), as opposed to classical melacha, suggesting that the audience of these passages recognized that at least such commercial pursuits were prohibited on the Sabbath.
Jeremiah and the Prohibition of Carrying
Jeremiah 17:19–27 condemns mercantile pursuits that involve carrying a “load” or “burden (משא)” through the gates of Jerusalem—but the passage does not define what qualifies as a “burden.” Moreover, although in context Jeremiah is condemning business practices, which he illustrates with the imagery of people carrying bundles of their wares out to the marketplace, later readers of this passage saw especially in verses 21–22 a more general proscription against carrying, and thus used it to form a more general prescriptive Sabbath law.
ירמיה יז:כא כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה הִשָּׁמְר֖וּ בְּנַפְשֽׁוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְאַל תִּשְׂא֤וּ מַשָּׂא֙ בְּי֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת וַהֲבֵאתֶ֖ם בְּשַׁעֲרֵ֥י יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם: יז:כב וְלֹא תוֹצִ֨יאוּ מַשָּׂ֤א מִבָּֽתֵּיכֶם֙ בְּי֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת וְכָל מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשׂ֑וּ וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם֙ אֶת י֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוִּ֖יתִי אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶֽם:
Jer 17:21 Thus said the Yhwh: Guard yourselves for your own sake against carrying burdens on the Sabbath day, and bringing them through the gates of Jerusalem. 17:22 Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the Sabbath day, or do any work, but you shall hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
Where Is It Forbidden to Carry?
The passage only condemns bringing items into the gates of Jerusalem (v. 21c) and out of one’s house (v. 22a). But was that the intention of the author—to limit the prohibition to this extent? Later works did not believe so, and amplified and expanded this passage exegetically so that it articulated the full range of physical spaces in which carrying is forbidden.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The prohibition of carrying is described in the Damascus Document (11:7-9), a late second century B.C.E. rule book preserved in multiple copies in the Dead Sea Scrolls:
אל יוציא איש מן הבית לחוץ ומן החוץ אל בית, ואם בסוכה יהיה אל יוצא ממנה ואל יבא אליה.
(7) Let no man carry out (anything) from the house (8) outside and from the outside into the house. And if he is in a booth (sukkah) he shall not carry out (anything) from it (9) and he shall not bring in it (anything).
Unlike the prophetic passages (like Jeremiah an Amos) or the narrative in Nehemiah, this passage offers a broad carrying prohibition.
An Interpretation of Jeremiah
While Jer 17:22a only refers to carrying items out of one’s home, the Damascus Document (abbreviated CD) interprets the words in Jeremiah to imply that the reverse action is also prohibited. Jeremiah provides the rationale and exegetical basis for this expansion. Jeremiah 17:21c (“And bringing them through the gates of Jerusalem”) does indeed condemn the carrying of items into a place.
The Damascus Document merges the general proscription regarding carrying into the city gates in Jer 17:21c with the specific prohibition regarding carrying out of one’s house in Jer 17:22a. As such, carrying into and out of one’s house is prohibited:
Business in Jerusalem
כאc וְאַל־תִּשְׂא֤וּ מַשָּׂא֙ בְּי֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת וַהֲבֵאתֶ֖ם בְּשַׁעֲרֵ֥י יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם:
21c and bringing them through the gates of Jerusalem
כבa וְלֹא־תוֹצִ֨יאוּ מַשָּׂ֤א מִבָּֽתֵּיכֶם֙ בְּי֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת
22a Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses
*Note the inverted order from Jeremiah to CD
- Law 1: House
א אל יוציא איש מן הבית לחוץ
A Let no man carry out(anything) from the house outside
ב ומן החוץ אל בית.
B and from the outside into the house.CD 11: 8–9
- Law 2: Sukkah
ואם בסוכה יהיה
And if he is in a sukkah
ג אל יוצא ממנה
C he shall not carry out (anything) from it
ד ואל יבא אליה.
D and he shall not bring in it (anything).
In the laws in CD, the first clause of each law [A, C] draws its two key textual elements (“carry out”; “house”) from Jer 17:22a. The second clause of each law [B, D] expands the law to include the restriction on carrying into one’s home, drawing its conceptual framework from the condemnation of carrying items into the gates of Jerusalem in Jer 17:21a. Unlike the first law in the Damascus Document, the second clause in the second law [D] employs the precise textual element from Jer 17:21c (“bring in”). In each law, the two passages from Jeremiah are inverted (v. 22a before 21c), a technique common in legal-exegetical reformulations of scriptural content.
Mishnah – Interpreting Jeremiah
Mishnah Shabbat 1:1 delineates two domains in which the law of carrying applies: public domain and private domain. Like the Damascus Document, the Mishnah very clearly formulates the law as applying to carrying items both into and out of these domains.
Consistent with its style, the Mishnah does not cite any scriptural sources. Yet, the use of the identical verbal root found in Jer 17:21–22 (“carrying out,” יציאות השבת) suggests that the Mishnah is aware of the exegetical connections between Jer 17:21–22 and post-biblical iterations of the carrying restriction. The list of the thirty nine proscribed labors found later in Mishnah Shabbat (7:2) may also be drawing upon language from Jer 17:22: “He who brings out an object from one domain to another (המוציא מרשות לרשות),” making use of the root י-צ-א in the hiphil form, just as does Jeremiah (and the Damascus Document).
Talmud – The Move to Melacha, Mishkan, and the Pentateuch
While the Mishnah likely follows Second Temple sources in tracing the rabbinic domains to an expansion of Jer 17:21–22, later Talmudic sources play up a possible connection to the Pentateuch at the expense of the more obvious connections to Jeremiah. The Talmudic traditions that link the carrying restriction to Pentateuchal passages exert a considerable amount of exegetical energy to make these verses say what Jer 17:21–22 says clearly. This shift likely reflects a trend in rabbinic literature to avoid relying upon non-Pentateuchal verses as prooftexts.
A tradition reported in the Yerushalmi offers two possible justifications for the statement in Mishnah Shabbat 1:1 that prohibits carrying: (y. Shab. 1:1 2b; [=y. Sheb. 1:1 32c]).
מניין שהוצאה קרוייה מלאכה?
Where is carrying out called “work”?
רבי שמואל בר נחמן בשם רבי יונתן שמע להן מן הדא [שמות לו ו] ויצו משה ויעבירו קול במחנה לאמר איש ואשה אל יעשו עוד מלאכה לתרומת הקודש ויכלא העם מהביא. נמנעו העם מלהוציא מבתיהן וליתן לגיזברים.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: “They heard it from here (Exod 36:6): ‘Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary.” So the people stopped bringing.’ The people stopped carrying [stuff] out of their houses to bring to the treasurers.”
ר’ חזקיה בשם ר’ אילא אפילו הכנסה את שמע מינה. כשם שנמנעו העם מלהוציא מבתיהן וליתן לגזברין כך נמנעו הגיזברין מלקבל מידן ולהכניס ללישכה.
R. Hezekiah in the name of R. Eyla: “Even bringing in can be learned from this. Just as the people stopped carrying stuff out of their houses to give to the treasurers, so too did the treasurers refrain from taking stuff from them and bringing it into the treasury.”
ר’ חזקיה בשם ר’ אחא שמע כולהן מן הדין קרייא [ירמי’ יז כב] לא תוציאו משא מבתיכם ביום השבת וכל מלאכה לא תעשו.
R. Hezekiah in the name of R. Acha: “We can learn all of this from this verse (Jer 17:22): ‘Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the Sabbath day, or do any work.’”
The association with Exod 36:6 in the first two positions is based on a broader rabbinic exegetical tradition that identifies the specific Sabbath prohibitions with the labor necessary to construct the Tabernacle (b. Shab. 49b). Expressing the prohibition of carrying from domain to domain as a kind of melacha grounds the law in Pentateuchal legislation. The third position follows the contours of the derasha of Jeremiah 17:22 suggested above.
The Bavli represents the next step in the evolution of the carrying prohibition from a mercantile concern of Jeremiah to a melacha based on the system of 39 melachot derived from the account of building the Mishkan. In its discussion, the Bavli offers only one origin for this law, that of Exod 36:6 (b. Shab. 96b).
הוצאה גופה היכא כתיבא?
Carrying out itself – where is this [prohibition] recorded?
אמר רבי יוחנן: דאמר קרא ויצו משה ויעבירו קול במחנה. משה היכן הוה יתיב – במחנה לויה, ומחנה לויה רשות הרבים הואי, וקאמר להו לישראל: לא תפיקו ותיתו מרשות היחיד דידכו לרשות הרבים.
R. Yohanan said: “The verse states (Exod 36:6): ‘Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp…’ Where was Moses sitting? In the Levite camp. And the Levite camp is a public place, and he says to the Israelites: ‘Don’t take and bring out from your private places (=tents) to a public place.’”
Yohanan explains the connection between carrying and Exod 36:6 by projecting rabbinic categories of public and private domains onto the Israelite wilderness camp. As does R. Samuel bar Nahman in the Yerushalmi, R. Yohanan prefers to connect the prohibition with the Tabernacle and place it into the Torah, even if that means not connecting the prohibition to the more explicit passage in the book of Jeremiah.
Both Talmud(s) follow the Mishnah – and thus also the Second Temple sources – by positing a dual direction for the proscribed carrying, but they do so through creative reinterpretation of Exod 36:6.
Jewish readers in the Second Temple period combed their sacred texts in search of sources for the prescriptive Sabbath practice. Jeremiah 17:21–22 presented these readers with what they regarded as the scriptural foundation for the carrying prohibition. The author of the Damascus Document exegetically reworks Jer 17:21–22 to reflect the developing understanding of the carrying prohibition. Later rabbinic texts likewise represent points in the historical development of the carrying prohibition and its exegetical connection to Jer 17:21–22.
Some rabbinic readers, however, assume that all legislation must be anchored in the Torah (not Prophets or Writings). Thus, Jer 17:21–22 may have been understood as expounding upon the Pentateuchal requirement to abstain from labor—in this case carrying—on the Sabbath.
From the critical perspective, it is not at all clear which Pentateuchal texts the author of Jer 17 knew; it is especially doubtful that he knew the Priestly material in Exodus that inserted the Shabbat prohibition into the story of the construction of the Tabernacle. But for the rabbis, carrying was a real and general melacha, firmly planted in the system of 39 melachot, which was associated by several rabbinic texts with Exodus, and not with Jeremiah. In so doing, the rabbis obscured the long history of exegetical reworking of Jer 17:21–22 as the basis of the carrying prohibition.
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Dr. Alex P. Jassen is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He received his Ph.D. in 2006 from New York University. He is the author of Mediating the Divine: Prophecy and Revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple Judaism (Brill, 2007), which won the 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise, and Scripture and Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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