Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tractate Shabbat: In and out and in and out...

Massekhet Shabbat discusses, of course, the laws of Shabbat. The beginning of the massekhet is structured chronologically, starting with the laws of Friday afternoon, then candle lighting on Friday evening, then cooking and insulating Friday night. The basics of the 39 melakhot don't come up until the middle of the seventh perek. The rest of the 24 perakim then flow from topic to topic.

But amidst this structure, a surprising topic dominates the first half of the massekhet: hotsa'ah, the melakhah of carrying between a private and public domain. Eight out of the first eleven chapters of the massekhet contain mishnayot about hotsa'ah, and it is the sole topic of five of those chapters: 5, 6, 8, 9, and 11. And most strangely, the very first mishnah of the massekhet is a total non sequitur to the rest of the first perek—a mishnah about, you guessed it, hotsa'ah.

Adding to the surprise, when the Mishnah lists the 39 melakhot in the seventh perek, hotsa'ah is last on the list. And the first Tosafot on the first amud calls it a melakhah geru'ah, an "inferior" melakhah.

So why the focus on hotsa'ah? Why does it get so many chapters? Why is it tacked on to the beginning of the tractate?

As for the beginning mishnah, Tosafot cite an explanation from the Riyva:

ותירץ דהוצאה חביבא ליה לאקדומי משום דממשנה זו שמעינן כמה דברים הוצאה והכנסה דעני ועשיר ודבעי' עקירה והנחה ושנים שעשאוה פטורין וידו של אדם חשובה לו כד' על ד' וידו של אדם אינה לא כרה"י ולא כרה"ר

The first mishnah wasn't chosen for its topic, since indeed it doesn't fit, but because it contains a lot of interesting insights. The composer chose it as a hook.

Other commentaries explain how hotsa'ah is one of the first issues to come up on Shabbat, so it fits chronologically [me: but before Friday afternoon?], or that the source for hotsa'ah in Ex. 16:29 is the first of the sources in the Torah on Shabbat.

The Rambam writes in his commentary on the Mishnah as follows:

ומה שהצריכו להתחיל בדיני הוצאה מרשות לרשות ואע"פ שהיא מנויה בסוף אבות מלאכות כלמר המוציא מרשות לרשות, לפי שמלאכה זו מצויה הרבה ובה נכשלים על הרוב, מפני שאינה צריכה כלים, ושנית ללמדנו שהיא מלאכה ואע"פ שנראית שאינה מלאכה, לפיכך הקדימה לחזוק הענין לפי שהיא מדרשא אתיא כמו שיתבאר.

There are two reasons here: first, it's a common activity that many people mess up [me: but more than borer or bishul?], and second, it's here to teach that hotsa'ah is a melakhah even though it doesn't look like one. All you're doing is moving an object, which doesn't seem like such a creative activity.

The Steinsaltz commentary (freely available for Daf Yomi!) expands on this idea:

Hotza'ah is unique in how it "emphasizes the essence of the rest on Shabbat." The forbidden melakhot do not correlate with effort or productivity. As the Ramban comments on Lev. 23:24, in a passage the late Aharonim really liked, it's possible to turn Shabbat into a busy workday without violating any melakhot. Rather than physical effort, the melakhot are defined by their mental creativity. Melakhot are acts of intention that cause conceptual changes in the world.

Hotza'ah is a prime example of this, because all you have to do is step out your front door with something in your pocket. It's your intention of transferring the something from your private domain to the public domain makes the act a creative melakhah.

But I'm still not satisfied that hotsa'ah should deserve to dominate the first half of Massekhet Shabbat. It's a tough question in general: why did Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi focus on some things in the Mishnah more than other things? Was hotsa'ah a hot topic among the tanna'im for some reason?

In fact, the issue of carrying on Shabbat also gets the entire Massekhet Eruvin with ten perakim. That's fifteen total perakim! So I think there still must be a better answer out there for why the tanna'im gave this issue so much attention. Maybe the concepts of hotsa'ah form a paradigm not just of Shabbat, but of halakhah in general, in the way that they create a conceptualization of the physical world (as in Halakhic Man by Rav Soloveitchik). Or maybe there's a mundane historical reason behind it that Google won't reveal to me. Tsarikh iyyun.

Update, 10/8/2012: Is the Mishnah's coverage of hotsa'ah really disproportionate? Here's some math.

The Mishnah has 5 plus change perakim on hotsa'ah and 10 on eruvin, out of 34 total about Shabbat. It's 39 total if you include Massekhet Beitzah on Yom Tov, but I won't. The Rambam has 6 chapters out of 30 in Hilkhot Shabbat on hotsa'ah, and eight chapters for Hilkhot Eruvin. The Tur/Shulhan Arukh has 21 simanim on hotsa'ah and 30 on eruvin out of 175 total simanim on Shabbat.

So percentage-wise: The Mishnah has 44 percent of its chapters on Shabbat dedicated to hotsa'ah or eruvin. For the Rambam it's 37 percent and for the Tur/Shulhan Arukh it's 29 percent.

As for historical circumstance, it occurred to me that nowadays, we hardly ever have to think about hotsa'ah on Shabbat. Most of our communities have an eruv, which shoves the whole issue out of the picture, sometimes thanks to fancy halakhic footwork. And if there is no eruv or you don't accept the one that's up, you just have to make sure your pockets are empty and you're pretty much (but not totally!) fine. Not such a big inconvenience compared to, say, electricity or cooking.

So, I bet the contemporary handbooks on Shabbat (I don't have any available at this moment to check) devote much less space to hotsa'ah then the classical and medieval codes did. It could be, then, that hotsa'ah was simply a bigger deal in past societies than it is today.

Update, 10/16/2012: Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen has six volumes on the practical laws of Shabbat, published by Artscroll. They contain about 1500 total pages. In The Shabbos Home he has 57 pages on hotsa'ah, mostly about what you can have on your body outside an eruv. So that's less than 4 percent.

Rabbi Dovid Ribiat has about 3200 pages in his four-volume The 39 Melachos, not including the endnotes. He has 141 pages on hotsa'ah, with a much more lomdish discussion than Rabbi Cohen's, with sugyos about reshuyot and eruvin. That's still less than 5 percent.

So that was a good bet.

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