What Melacha did the Wood Gatherer Violate?
The Torah records one case of Sabbath violation followed by a death penalty.
לב) וַיִּהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַֽיִּמְצְא֗וּ אִ֛ישׁ מְקֹשֵׁ֥שׁ עֵצִ֖ים בְּי֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת: לג)וַיַּקְרִ֣יבוּ אֹת֔וֹ הַמֹּצְאִ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ מְקֹשֵׁ֣שׁ עֵצִ֑ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאֶ֖ל כָּל־הָעֵדָֽה: לד) וַיַּנִּ֥יחוּ אֹת֖וֹ בַּמִּשְׁמָ֑ר כִּ֚י לֹ֣א פֹרַ֔שׁ מַה־יֵּעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ: ס לה) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר י-הוה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מ֥וֹת יוּמַ֖ת הָאִ֑ישׁ רָג֨וֹם אֹת֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה מִח֖וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה:לו) וַיֹּצִ֨יאוּ אֹת֜וֹ כָּל־הָעֵדָ֗ה אֶל־מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיִּרְגְּמ֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ בָּאֲבָנִ֖ים וַיָּמֹ֑ת כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה י-הוה אֶת־ מֹשֶֽׁה:
32 Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. 33Those who found him as he was gathering the wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. 34 He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. 35 Then Yhwh said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” 36So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as Yhwh had commanded Moses (Num. 15:32-36; NJPS with adaptations.
Considering the serious consequences of violating Shabbat and this is the only narrative in the Torah with a description of a Shabbat violation (there are other examples in Nach), it would seem that wood gathering is a good representative example of a biblical definition of a melacha [labor].
What is “laborious” about gathering wood? A straightforward answer might be that it is tiring to go out and collect stuff. If Shabbat is about resting, gathering wood or sticks from the forest is not restful. Baruch Levine, in his Anchor Bible commentary (ad loc.) suggests that gathering wood is an act preparatory to starting a fire, which is explicitly forbidden to do on Shabbat (Exod. 35:3). As both the story of the wood gatherer and the fire prohibition likely derive from the same source (P), this suggestion works nicely.
Nevertheless, according to the rabbinic list of melachot in the Mishna (Shabbat ch.7), gathering is not one of the forbidden labors. In other words, the only example of Sabbath violation in the Torah is not actually a Sabbath violation according to rabbinic definitions! To solve the problem, the Rabbis attempt to discern what melacha the wood gatherer actually performed in their classification.
ר’ חייה בר גמדא שאל מקושש משום מאי מיחייב משום תולש או משום קוצר נישמעינה מהדא [במדבר טו לב] ויהיו בני ישראל במדבר וימצאו מלמד שמצאוהו תולש עצים מן הקרקע.
Rabbi Chiya bar Gamda asked: “What did the wood gatherer violate? Was it detaching (tolesh) or was it reaping (kotzer)? Let us learn from this quote: “when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon [a man gathering wood].” This teaches that the found him detaching wood from the ground.” (j. Sanhedrin 5:1).
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: מקושש, מעביר ארבע אמות ברשות הרבים הוה.
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Samuel: “The mekoshesh carried [the wood] four cubits in a public domain.”
במתניתא תנא: תולש הוה.
A Tannaitic source taught: “He chopped [the wood] off [the tree].”
רב אחא ברבי יעקב אמר: מעמר הוה.
Rav Acha son of Rabbi Jacob said: “He bound them together.” (b. Shabbat 96b).
Between the two Talmuds, there are four suggestions of what labor the wood-gatherer may have violated. The first suggestion is “carrying” (ma’avir), the second “detaching” (tolesh),the third reaping (kotzer), and the fourth binding (me’amer).
Why the confusion? Why not simply posit that gathering wood violates Shabbat?
It seems that once the system of 39 forms of melacha became fixed, additional broad categories of labor could not be added. Thus, when it came to explaining what the wood gatherer did wrong, they were required to recast his actions to fit with a similar melacha that was part of their list.
Nevertheless, the question still stands, why wasn’t gathering included in the original list? Whenever the list of melachot was created, why didn’t those who designed or derived it include the one and only case law example of Sabbath violation in the Torah?
If we look again at the list of melachot that the rabbis posit the mekoshesh violated, the melacha of me’amer stands out. This form of labor is about gathering and binding sheaves together. Although in its current halachic definition, a person must actually bind the sheaves in order to violate Shabbat, perhaps me’amer was once more fluid and would have included just gathering, even without binding. It should be noted, in support of this, that the root ע-מ-ר means “bringing together” and need not include binding. If this is the case, then the original list of melachot did actually include the wood gatherer, but as the system took on a life of its own, it inadvertently left the biblical case law behind in the proverbial dust (wood dust in this case).
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June 12, 2014
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