Rabbinic “Mercy” - Shabbat 70
But we are interested in the Talmud less for its concrete conclusions than for its process and discussions. Most interesting today is another example of what could be called “rabbinic mercy.” Many of the harsh punishments laid down pretty explicitly in the Torah are modified, softened, and even categorically transformed by rabbinic interpretation. The Talmud begins by trying to explain why one may be liable for several sin-offerings for several actions that were committed while knowing that it was Shabbat but unaware that the particular action was forbidden. And even though the Torah repeatedly says that someone who violates Shabbat should be killed (cited here from Exodus 31:14 and Exodus 35:2), the fact that the first citation uses the emphatic form of “be killed” [mot yumat – “will surely die”] while the second does not [yumat – “will die”] is an opening to interpret that an unwitting offender should “die by money” [yumat bamamon] – that is, be financially penalized by offering a sacrifice.
On one hand, we can be glad that the rabbis softened what is a blanket Torah condemnation of any Shabbat violation. On the other, we can admit that rabbinic cleverness doesn’t completely soften the original harshness. This is the difference between interpretation of a founding document and having the courage to clearly amend or object to parts of it. The Rabbis of the Talmud will say elsewhere that courts that condemn even a few people to death in several years are wicked courts – but following the Bible’s legislation explicitly would lead to every court being very wicked. Thank goodness they didn’t, but too bad they weren’t willing to assert their own values more explicitly.
Rabbi Adam Chalom