Sharing the Burden

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Paul Arberman 21st Oct 2015

The last of the 39 types of creative works prohibited on Shabbat (Heb. “melachot”) is carrying between a private and a public space. Why is carrying considered creative work? Are there exceptions to the rule?

The 39 types of melachot are all based on the activities that were needed to build the Tabernacle (containing the tablets of the ten commandments) in the wilderness. Carrying objects from place to place was one such activity. Carrying a heavy wooden beam certainly is laborious, but this prohibition also includes carrying anything from a private domain, (your house), into a public area, including a tallis bag, keys, a bottle of wine or even a baby.

Within a private house, a person may carry objects in any part of the house. In fact, as long as one’s property is completely fenced-in, one may also carry things outdoors (within the fence) because the fence firmly proclaims the extent and boundaries of private property. The rabbis explained that an “eruv” is a legal way of making an entire area (neighbourhood) “enclosed” or fenced-in and therefore, a private area — so that we can carry freely.

I wonder if there isn’t a psychological aspect to the carrying-on-Shabbat issue as well. We’re all carrying around major concerns and fears. We’re all carrying psychological baggage.

Maybe you know the story of the two rabbis travelling together. They come to a river bank where a young woman is standing. “Will you help me to cross,” she asks.  “Yes,” says one of the rabbis. “Climb on my back and I’ll carry you across.” They all cross the river safely and the rabbi sets the woman down on dry land.?After walking for another few miles, one rabbi turns to his colleague and says: “I can’t believe what you did — carrying that woman across the river!” His colleague replies: “My friend, I put down that woman two hours ago, you are still carrying her around.” (Modern alternative ending: “Why not, she’s a woman, I’m a woman, what’s the issue?!”)

In other words, Shabbat is a time to put down the baggage; the issues and tensions of the week. Many people say: “I don’t want to talk about business or money on Shabbat.”

Now, not all “carrying” is bad.  There is good carrying. In the Torah, God singles out the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of the Covenant. (Deut. 10:8)

But there are two different spellings used by the Torah for the Nesi’im — the princes of the tribes who helped the Levites. “Nesi’im” written with the letter Yud means “those who carry”. When the Yud is removed, the word means “those who are carried”. God was trying to teach the princes: “You think that you are going to carry the Mishkan. On the contrary, the Mishkan will carry you”.

The importance of the job, the holiness of the work made it an uplifting experience for the people carrying it. It gave the Levites and the princes honour and purpose. It reminds me of the builders on the show Extreme Home Makeover who, after working for a week without a break to build an enormous and beautiful house, THEY then thank the family for the opportunity to help them. The work of carrying the ark was probably both tedious and strenuous — but the service of God and community was a thankful task and it was uplifting as well.

My wife and I have a running argument about guests in our home. My wife feels a guest should not help to serve or to clear dishes or help to straighten up after the meal. I understand the sentiment that we should serve guests — however I also believe there are times when a guest feels uncomfortable sitting at the table (usually if they are isolated in some way — by language, or not knowing the other guests, etc.) and they very much APPRECIATE being “allowed” to help.

Isn’t it odd, that at times, for those looking for work, for those looking for a purpose after retirement, for those looking for meaning in life — we are reminded that the hardest burden to carry — is NOT hard work. The heaviest weight of all — is having nothing to carry at all.

The Talmud (Shabbos 92b) explains that the Torah law prohibiting carrying, refers to cases in which one person is carrying something that can normally be carried by one person. However, if two people together carry such an item, it is not a Torah violation but rather a Rabbinic (and thus a lesser) violation. So Rav Tuvye and his friends carried all the branches and even small pieces of lumber, in groups of two or three.

If you are carrying around a problem — remember that if two people carry on Shabbat — if you share the burden — then it is not considered carrying by Torah Law. Share your stories, ideas, or troubles with a listening ear. Unload some of the baggage before it becomes unwieldy.

I find that as I eliminate from my life prohibited things on Shabbat I connect more deeply with the only thing we are allowed to create on these days — relationships.

Rabbi Paul Arberman lives in Modiin Israel and is Rabbi of Hatch End Masorti Synagogue, which he visits about 10 times a year. 

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