Rabbi Charlie Mahashavoth
153 White Meadow Road | Rockaway, New Jersey 07866 | 973-627-4500 | firstname.lastname@example.org | Calendar and Candlelighting Schedule
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Here’s a passage from the Mishnah’s opening teaching on the laws of Shabbat:
[Forbidden acts of] transporting [from one domain to another] are two which are four for one [who is inside], and two which are four for one [who is outside]. Howso? [If on Shabbat] a poor person stands outside and the householder inside, and the poor person extended his hand inside and placed [a beggar’s bowl] into the hand of the householder, or if he took [something] from inside and brought it out, the poor person is liable, but the householder is exempt….
Actually, if we examine this passage carefully – and if we were to read the rest of the teaching – we would probably not find the logic of the argumentation difficult. Indeed, if one studies Mishnah, one can relatively quickly learn to decipher its rhetorical style. What I would like to focus on, however, is the unusual example the Mishnah provides: that of a poor person and a householder. Why would the Rabbis choose this example to illustrate the laws of carrying on Shabbat? I believe they chose this example to subtly convey certain religious perspectives.
Some people reading this passage may immediately respond: "Carrying on Shabbat? Who cares about the details of Shabbat laws? It’s more important to give tzedakkah." This response usually comes from a perspective that can only place traditional observance in the background. Moreover, it sets up a false dichotomy: it assumes that purposeful observance is purposeful ignorance of others and their feelings, that "ritual" always trumps ethics. Perhaps it reflects someone’s unconscious need to justify his/her own non-observance: "Even though I don’t follow x or y practice, I am really just as good a Jew because I care about people’s feelings."
Let me give an example. One of my friends in university – let’s call her Irene – became more observant. Because Irene would no longer travel on Shabbat and holidays it required a bit more planning for family events. Her mother felt that "family is more important" than a picayune detail of Shabbat law, and Irene’s observance was a rejection of her mother. Actually, Irene’s observance was likely due to the very Jewish education and experiences that her mother had provided for her. Irene was more than willing to do what was necessary to be with her family – without compromising her commitment.
There are many other examples where another person’s observance is felt to "interfere" with plans, or to cause unnecessary "inconvenience." Unfortunately there are many Jews who are far more understanding of someone’s weight loss diet than another Jew’s observance of kashruth. Indeed, criticism of religious practice often reveals the critic’s own insecurity over observance and commitment.
Our Mishnah presents the opposite perspective. It is addressed to people who take both Shabbat and tzedakkah seriously, and who do not see a conflict between the two. Our tradition does identify two categories of mitzvoth: those between a human being and God, and those between human beings. However, a look at the laws of the Torah, the discussions of the Talmud, and the statements of our codes demonstrate that these two categories are inextricably linked. Each of us may have a different understanding of the mitzvoth, how to define them and their observance. Whatever our understanding, may we observe them with commitment and passion – and respect for those whose commitment is expressed differently.