What may one carry on Shabbat? Are weapons like jewelry or like tools?
לא יצא האיש לא בסייף ולא בקשת ולא בתריס ולא באלה ולא ברומח ואם יצא חייב חטאת רבי אליעזר אומר תכשיטין הן לו וחכמים אומרים אינן אלא לגנאי שנאמר )ישעיה ב’ (וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה בירית טהורה ויוצאין בה בשבת כבלים טמאין ואין יוצאין בהם בשבת:
A man must not go out [of the house on Shabbat] bearing a sword, nor a bow, nor a shield, nor a lance nor a spear. And if he did go out [with one of these] he is liable for a sin offering [because he has violated the final Shabbat labor, carrying]. Rabbi Eliezer says, “these are his ornaments” [like clothing or jewelry, and therefore he should be allowed to wear them]. But the Sages say [he is liable, because these are not ornaments. Rather,] these [weapons] are shameful; as it says, (Isaiah 2:4), “they shall beat their swords into plough shares and their spears into pruning-hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more.”
The Torah is maddeningly vague about the definition of the “work” which is forbidden on Shabbat. It explicitly forbids burning fires (Exodus 35:2), and relates the story of a man executed for gathering firewood on Shabbat (Numbers ). Beyond that, the Rabbis were left to interpret the juxtaposition of verses for hints of what precisely was considered work. By studying the construction of the Tabernacle, they discovered thirty-nine forms of work that were, by comparison, therefore forbidden on Shabbat. These categories are listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2. The final of the thirty-nine categories is carrying an object more than four cubits (about seven feet) from one domain to another (e.g., from the house to the street).
One of the many challenges in defining work is that a person’s intention can determine whether an activity is permitted or forbidden. Our Mishnah seeks to determine whether carrying a weapon is like wearing an ornament, and therefore permitted, or more like carrying a tool, and therefore forbidden. Rabbi Eliezer takes the former position, but the sages reject the notion that weapons can ever be considered ornaments for a Jew.
- Does the Isaiah verse prove the sages’ point? How so?
- Would it help Rabbi Eliezer’s position if the weapon were non-utilitarian (e.g., a symbolic sword like the Kirpan worn by Sikh men today)? What about a soldier or guard? Is his or her weapon permitted as an ornament, or is it permitted because of pikuah nefesh, the obligation to protect life?
- During the Hasmonean revolt, the pious Maccabees initially refused to fight on Shabbat. After their towns were massacred, they decided that fighting in self-defense was permitted. This same policy is followed today by the Israel Defense Forces. Should soldiers be allowed to carry their weapons into synagogue on Shabbat?