Friday, October 19, 2018

Abraham’s Moving Test

The 39 prohibited labors of Shabbat are derived via the Biblical juxtaposition of the 39 creative labors that were employed in the building of the tabernacle, the Mishkan, and observing the Sabbath.  The 39 acts are divided into categories: sowing seeds in order to form bread; turning wool into string and tapestry; transforming animal hides into useable skins. These acts are biblically prohibited only when they are constructive. Tearing, as an example, is only violated biblically when one tears in order to mend. One who becomes angry and rips something, does not violate the Sabbath on a Biblical level, since it is not a productive act.

But, the sages identified one act that does not seem to be constructive, yet is Biblically proscribed: the prohibition of removing or uprooting something from its domain (known as hotza’ah). The biblical prohibition of hotza’ah would be violated when any one of the following acts are performed in a public domain: carrying, pushing a carriage, throwing an object from one domain to another and walking with objects in one’s pockets. The Tosafists (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 2a) identify hotza’ah as a m’lacha ge’ruah, a lower level act, an unproductive activity. Why is this act, included in the list of 39 activities, ask the Tosafists, when all the other actions are considered constructive and productive?

The rabbis offer various answers to this famous Talmudic question, but one pertains to this week’s Torah portion of Parashat Lech Le’cha, which opens as follows: “And the Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1). 

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Old City, explains that God’s command to Abraham to re-locate himself, demonstrates that movement from one domain to another can indeed be the most constructive act, not so much because of the action involved, but because when one changes their location, their luck can change for the better. Look at the blessings Abraham received for himself and his progeny by uprooting his home. What can be more productive than that?!


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