Shabbat 73 - From One to Many
The Mishnah lists “forty minus one” avot melakhot [major work categories], from agricultural to handicrafts, creating or destroying, writing or erasing, kindling or extinguishing fire, and the last we saw at the beginning of our Talmud tractate: carrying from one domain to another. The Talmud then takes each category and describes which tasks are subsumed under that general category. Thus where the Mishnah says “Sowing,” the Talmud claims that sowing, pruning, planting, and grafting are all one labor.” Or “Reaping,” because it is a harvesting of food, should also include collecting grapes or gathering olives, dates, figs, or other cultivated food.
One can imagine what today would be called a “strict constructionist” objecting to this line of Talmudic argument – if it says “reaping,” they meant “reaping” only! And that would certainly limit the reach of these prohibitions. But we can also understand how general terms can be used to define broader areas of law – banning murder but ignoring accessories, or criminalizing armed robbery but ignoring embezzlement would not make sense.
Of course, a systematic law code would begin with texts just like this, and then proceed to specific examples. Tractate Shabbat began with the specific case of carrying from one domain to another, and took much space to get to the general pronouncement. This is just one more example of what makes the Talmud a distinctive document – one meanders to and through the law in a way that one is forced to understand halakhic reasoning and debate instead of simply getting the rules in a list. It’s not an accident that the word Talmud is related to the word talmid [student].
Rabbi Adam Chalom