A strange story is told in the Midrash of someone who once asked Rabbi Akiva, "If Hashem honors Shabbat so much, why does He allow the winds to blow, the rains to fall, and the grass to grow on the day of rest?" (Each of these are activities which are prohibited on Shabbat.
A strange story is told in the Midrash of someone who once asked Rabbi Akiva, "If Hashem honors Shabbat so much, why does He allow the winds to blow, the rains to fall, and the grass to grow on the day of rest?" (Each of these are activities which are prohibited on Shabbat. Allowing the wind to blow would seem to be a transgression by Hashem of the prohibition to carry in a public domain, while causing the grass to grow through rainfall would be included in the prohibition to contribute to the growth of plants.) Rabbi Akiva responded: Since this whole world is Hashem's domain, He is permitted to "carry" things everywhere, just as we are permitted on Shabbat to carry in a house or yard.
The laws of Shabbat are divided into thirty-nine categories of "creative labor" which are diverse and wide ranging in nature - from the prohibitions of working in the field, like planting and plowing, to the prohibitions of cooking, writing, lighting a fire, etc. In his response, Rabbi Akiva does indeed satisfy the question of Hashem carrying on Shabbat; however he takes no notice of the other activities which are equally prohibited on Shabbat! Did he adequately answer the question? Furthermore, it seems that the sages are conveying a deeper understanding into what the prohibition of work on Shabbat represents. What are the sages teaching us?
We can understand what Rabbi Akiva is saying by first examining the prohibitions of Shabbat in general, and particularly the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat in a public domain. The Torah says in this week's portion that we should observe Shabbat, "for in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day He rested" (Exodus 20:11). This means that through the observance of Shabbat, we are afforded, week in and week out, a day of recognition as to how the world and everything therein is the work of our holy Creator. As we say in the weekly Kiddush, Shabbat is a "Zikaron lema'ase bereishit" - a remembrance of the creation of the world.
In other words, after a whole week of being allowed to produce and work, we are commanded to cease from this involvement for one day. By ceasing to work - "resting" - we establish and declare that the world with which we have just spent the last six days is not really ours. We "return" the world to its Creator for the day. We recognize that the world, and everything within it, is a "private" domain of Hashem. It is His house. On Shabbat we function exclusively as His guests. This is why so many activities of work are restricted on Shabbat. Continued creative association with this world would mean involvement in an environment that is not ours. We have no right to accomplish here without permission. Working is a blatant disregard for Hashem, the true owner of the world.
In effect, therefore, by working with the world on Shabbat, we would be "removing" an item from Hashem's private domain, the world, and transferring it without permission to a domain where humans (the public) are also involved. This is the precise prohibition of carrying on Shabbat: "moving" something from the private domain to the public one. It may be concluded, therefore, that the underlying factor of the forbidden thirty-nine work categories is that they affect a "carrying" from one domain to the other.
Since the prohibition of carrying expresses the essential factor of Shabbat, we can now understand Rabbi Akiva's reply. Rabbi Akiva was saying that since the whole world belongs to Hashem, it is impossible for Him ever to be restricted in carrying on Shabbat since it is invariably His private domain, and carrying in a private domain is always permitted. If the main concern of Shabbat, carrying, is never possible, Hashem is also not confined to the other restrictions of Shabbat, which all stem from the core prohibition of carrying.
The Torah tells (Numbers 15:32) of a person who was gathering sticks and carrying them on Shabbat. Our sages teach that this violation of Shabbat was actually done in order to incur the serious consequence of this violation, thus showing the rest of the Jewish people the seriousness of the day. The man could have chosen any one of many methods of desecrating Shabbat to prove his point; the reason he chose the infraction of carrying is because carrying is the essence of the prohibitions of Shabbat.
The above sheds light on one of the greater misconceptions in Jewish law. Many people are familiar with the laws of eruv. Basically, an eruv extends the boundaries of a private domain by establishing an uninterrupted boundary for the area in question, thus allowing some leeway to carry in a public domain on Shabbat. What formerly was a public domain has in fact been transformed into a private area. A different kind of eruv allows a person to walk a very far distance outside of the city on Shabbat. (The laws of eruv are among the most complicated in Jewish law.) Many frown at the laws of eruv as being an obvious "loophole". They look upon this as being an obvious evasion of the law. However, since the real essence of Shabbat is for us to recognize a divine "private domain", the laws of eruv, through which a private domain is extended, is in consonance with that overall theme.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy Middle School.
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