Weekly Talmud Lesson with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz
B. Shabbat 150a
Mishnah. A man must not hire laborers on Shabbat, nor instruct his neighbor to hire laborers on his behalf . . .
Talmud. Why should he differ from his neighbor?
-said R. Papa: a gentile neighbor [is meant]. R. Ashi objected: [surely] an order to a gentile is [forbidden as] a shevut? Rather said R. Ashi: one may even say [that] a Jewish neighbor [is meant]. The Mishnah informs us that one may not say to his neighbor, 'hire laborers for me,' but one may say to his neighbor, 'well, we shall see whether you join me in the evening!'
In the above passage we move beyond the thirty-nine primary forbidden categories of labor. Each of those labors, now quite familiar to you from Mishnah Shabbat 7:2, was termed melakhah and is considered by our Sages to be prohibited by Torah. Here we introduce a new category: shevut. This is labor permitted by Torah but prohibited by Rabbinic tradition.
A bit of background first: it is remarkable what is not included on the list of thirty-nine primary forbidden categories of labor. Exchanges of money for goods or services, hard physical toil, measuring and weighing out produce are all omitted from the Mishnah's list of labors prohibited by Torah. What would Shabbat look like if only melakhah and nothing else were prohibited? Workers could be hired to do menial tasks, so long as they fell outside the definition of prohibited labors. All sorts of conversations about business could be freely conducted. Stores would stay open and transact business. Shabbat would quickly be reduced to a day like any other. The Rabbinic tradition was the inheritor of a range of prohibitions, some going at least back to the late Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These prohibitions grew out of a pious desire to protect the spirit of the Sabbath day.
In the above passage, the Mishnah states that one may not hire workers on Shabbat, even if the work will not be performed on Shabbat. This prohibition is a shevut, prohibited by Rabbinic tradition rather than by Torah. The Mishnah further states that one may not have a neighbor do so on his behalf. The Talmud asks what the purpose is of this additional law? Why should it be any more permitted to his neighbor than to him? R. Papa answers that a non-Jewish neighbor is meant, to whom the prohibitions of Shabbat don't apply. R. Ashi disagrees, stating that having work performed by a non-Jew is also a shevut. R. Ashi explains that by mentioning the neighbor, the Mishnah permits one to schedule a business meeting with another Jew for after Shabbat, so long as the discussion remains implicit and the purpose of the meeting is not explicitly stated. Why should such a conversation be permitted? Because we do not prohibit thoughts. Our Sages were not thought police. Our physical acts (including speech) are subject to Shabbat, but our mental states are our own to work on.
1. What are some contemporary behaviors we should forgo to preserve the spirit of Shabbat?
2. Though no thoughts are prohibited on Shabbat, how can we use the demands that Shabbat places on our speech to hone our mental states?