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Mark 3: 1-6:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

The heart of this passage concerns the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over what can and what can not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus enters a synagogue and finds a man whose hand is withered. Also within the synagogue is a group of Pharisees who are closely watching Jesus’ actions for any wrong-doings. They have good reasons to do this. By this point in the synoptic gospels, the Pharisees are well aware that Jesus is a teacher whose instructions include violating Sabbath Law (Mark 2: 23-28). Further, Jesus has placed himself directly at odds with the Pharisees, and received popular approval for it in the process (Mark 2: 5-12). Indeed, his practice is heralded as a new teaching, one with authority and one that is dissimilar from that of the Pharisees (Mark 1: 27).

What they find in this case is no doubt exactly what they are looking for. It is the Sabbath day. Jesus is presented with a man who is crippled, and presumably in need of healing. According to Torah, working on the Sabbath is prohibited. Exodus 31: 15 states explicitly, “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” Knowing the observance of the Pharisees, Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath.” This question is immediately followed by a point of clarification: “to save life or to kill.”

This question can not be seen as a genuine appeal to the Pharisees for an answer, but rather a rhetorical question which appears to desire an answer from the Pharisees within the terms of halakha. But the Pharisees do not respond. Why? This lack of response on the part of the Pharisees is the most telling evidence of a logical difference between Jesus and the Pharisees. In order to understand the issue of why the Pharisees refused to enter into a discussion of halakha with Jesus, it will be necessary to examine how healing has been treated within Sabbath law.

How do we define work? According to the Gospel According to Mark, it takes Jesus no effort to heal the man. Jesus questions the Pharisees, and when they do not respond tells the man to stretch out his hand. This he does and his hand is immediately healed. We are told of only two actions taking place. First is Jesus’ command “Stretch out your hand.” Second is the stretching out of the hand. No real effort transpires on the part of either participant, and yet the Pharisees obviously see this case as a violation of Sabbath law.

We must then expand our definition of what it is to violate Sabbath law. It is obvious within the story that the restoration of the man’s hand is linked to the presence of Jesus as a resotative power in some fashion. Regardless of whether any visible evidence can be found of effort on Jesus’ part, the healing is obviously willed by him.

The tradition of oral Torah which led to the codification of the existing Rabbinic literature is certainly not opposed to healing on the Sabbath in its entirety. It is obvious throughout the literature that certain exceptions exist which allow for healing to take place. In the Mekhilta Tractate Shabbata to Exodus 31 the question arises of how the scribes know that saving life on the Sabbath supersedes Sabbath Laws.

“R. Ishmael, answering the question said: Behold it says: ‘If a thief is found breaking in,’ etc. (Ex. 22:1). Now what case does the law speak? Of a case when there is a doubt whether the burglar came merely to steal or even to kill. Now, by using the method of kal vahomer, it is to be reasoned: Even shedding blood, which defiles the land and causes the Shekinah to remove, is to supersede the laws of the Sabbath if it is to be done in protection of one’s life. How much more should the duty of saving life supersede the Sabbath laws! R. Eleazor b. Azariah, answering the question, said: If in performing the ceremony of circumcision, which affects only one member of the body, one is to disregard the Sabbath laws, how much more should one do so for the whole body when it is in danger!
...R. Akiba says: If punishment for murder sets aside even Temple service, which in turn supersedes the Sabbath, how much more should the saving of life supersede the Sabbath laws!”

This passage can essentially be summed up as follows. “If killing in self defense is acceptable on the Sabbath, so too should saving life. If you can perform circumcision which saves only one part of the body, so too should you be able to save the whole body. Finally, if executing a murderer is acceptable on the Sabbath, so too should saving life.” Therefore, saving life is more important than observing the Sabbath. Superseding the laws of the Sabbath is not only acceptable when a life is at stake, but required.

Along a similar line, Mishnah Shabbat chapter 14 and its corresponding Tosefta chapters state:

“A. He who is concerned about his teeth may not suck vinegar though them (on the Sabbath).
B. But he dunks his bread in the normal way,
C. and if he is healed, he is healed.”

Vinegar was a common healing remedy for a toothache. It was often applied to a sore tooth with the intention of helping the tooth to heal. This case describes the use of vinegar for a toothache on the Sabbath. Although it is prohibited to directly apply the vinegar to the tooth, a similar effect can be achieved by dipping bread into vinegar and eating the bread. Therefore if one encounters a healing remedy simply by living out one’s everyday life, it is acceptable on the Sabbath.

According to the Mishnah then, one can make an exception to the prohibition on healing if that healing either saves a life, or is incidental. Using these two criteria to examine the culpability of Jesus’ healing of the man with the withered hand, we find that from the Pharisaic viewpoint, Jesus is wrong on both accounts. Not only is his action conscious and deliberate, but the healing takes place when it is not necessary for saving life.

Getting back to the question at hand, it is obvious from the silence of the Pharisees that they disapprove of the act of healing, yet they choose not to enter into a discussion of halakha which would allow for the exact reason of their disapproval to be explained. In Mark, Jesus asks a rhetorical question which appears to desire a response in halakhaic terms yet does not root itself directly in the language of halakha. It is possible then that the Pharisees did not respond in halakhaic terms because they were not addressed in them, but I do not believe this to be the case. In the Gospel According to Matthew, the same story appears, yet in this case the language of Jesus’ case is rooted deeply in halakha.

“Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

The Jesus of Matthew then, appeals to the worth of an individual in relation to the worth of an animal. Jesus gives an example of when the violation of the Sabbath law not to “carry [uproot the feet of] a domestic beast” (Tosefta Shabbat 15:1) can be safely overridden. According to Jesus, it can be overridden when there is great worth involved. The logic then unfolds that if a man’s only sheep is of great worth, certainly the man would be as well. The only problem with this argument is that it simply does not stand up. No such existing examples of Rabbinic literature offer a glimpse at a teaching similar to the one Jesus refers to. Talmud Shabbat, in fact, explicitly states that the reverse is actually expected. If a foal falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, it is expected that you leave the foal there until the Sabbath day ends.

In the Gospel According to Mark, the only defense offered by Jesus for the healing can be seen within the question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” What it appears Jesus is doing is arguing with a logic that does not fit into the logic of Pharisaic law. When he makes the connection between doing good and saving life, he is not merely stating that saving life is a good act. Rather:

A. Saving life is a good act.
B. Good acts (whatever they may be) are permissible on the Sabbath.
C. Healing is a good act.
D. It too must be permissible on the Sabbath.

Jesus’ logic in this passage is that if saving life is acceptable, then all acts of doing good within the healing realm must also be. To the Pharisees, this is illogical: it does not follow. To them the issue is quite simple, and their logic is as follows:

A. If by restoring this man’s withered hand would Jesus be healing?
B. Yes, for a permanent, completed act of construction/restoration is taking place.
C. Does Jesus then have a legitimate reason for healing this man on the Sabbath? Is the healing incidental or in order to preserve life?
D. No. The healing is deliberate and the subject’s case does not appear to be worsening.
E. Then Jesus should wait until the Sabbath is over to heal the man with the withered hand.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus refers to issues which have been addressed by halakha (such as saving an animal’s life or freeing a human from bondage) in an attempt to relate his healing of the man with the withered hand to the healing of one whose life is imperiled. Thus the Jesus of Matthew and Luke is attempting to appeal to the Pharisees in order to show how the healing is legitimate, in effect creating a “yes” response to C above. This connection is self-evident to Jesus, and the fact that the Pharisees don’t see that connection is illustrative of the fact that Jesus and the Pharisees are incapable of communication with one another along the same lines. Not only do Jesus and the Pharisees have an entirely different logical system, but when there is an attempt to justify the logic of Jesus by rooting his logic in Halakhaic terms, the issue still fails. They are like two individuals walking down two separate roads that never intersect. They do not have a basis upon which to form the positive didactic argumentation that would be characteristic of Pharisaic circles. What is self-evident to Jesus is not self-evident to the Pharisees, and this forms the key to their lack of communication.

What then is Jesus doing with the issue of healing? By the healing the man with the withered hand he has violated Sabbath law designed to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and then proclaimed such activity legal. It is obvious that to Jesus it is less of a question of “Do I work on the Sabbath?” than it is “What sort of work do I do on the Sabbath?” Healing a man or woman on the Sabbath is an act of goodness, and has been pronounced as acceptable. Jesus does not attempt to fit his action within an existing loophole which would allow for oral law to be lifted. The issues of life’s imperilment and intentionality do not even arise. They appear to be unimportant in Jesus’ eyes. The man is in need of healing. That alone is enough to justify the action regardless of what day of the week it might happen to be. To Jesus the concern is first for the man who is crippled, and only later to the Sabbath.

The deep logic of the halakha on the other hand is that the Sabbath is greater than one man. As R. Nathan tells us, you can only save another’s life so that they can continue to participate in the Sabbath in the future, not merely for their own sake or their own well-being. Jesus’ deep logic embraces the exact reverse. His statement in Mark 2:27 allows us to glimpse the reversal of the halakhaic logic. In this passage Jesus tells the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” The deep logic within which Jesus comprehends the Sabbath does not allow for the Sabbath to be greater than its individual participants. Thus for a man to continue to suffer when healing is but a touch away is ridiculous.

What we find then in this particular case, is that Jesus and the Pharisees do not hold the same foundational elements of understanding. It makes sense that the Pharisees choose not to engage him in an argument of the halakha, for Jesus simply didn’t understand it. The fact that he continues to reply upon what he considers self-evident: that doing good is somehow intrinsically linked to the participating in the Sabbath, only continues to illustrate his separation from the Pharisees and their mode of thought.

Breaking the Sabbath - or Shabbat - is much more significant nowdays from an Orthodox Jewish point of view, as we still keep a large number of commandments relating to restrictions on the Shabbat.

The actual restrictions are known as the "39 Av Melachot" (literally "Fathers of Work") - 39 prohibited classes of work, based on the 39 types of work that were involved in building the temporary Sanctuary (the Mishkan) that travelled with the Children of Israel during their wonderings in the desert after leaving Egypt. There's more information on their details at 39 Melachot, but here's a quick summary list.

planting, plowing, cutting, gathering in piles, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, whitening, combing, dyeing, spinning, mounting the warp, setting 2 heddles, weaving 2 threads, removing 2 threads, tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing 32 stitches, tearing in order to sew 2 stitches, trapping animals, slaughtering, skinning, salting, tanning a hide, smoothing, cutting, writing 2 letters, erasing 2 letters in order to write 2 letters, building, destroying (for the purpose to build), putting out a fire, lighting, hitting the final blow, and carrying objects from one type of property domain to another.

Many of them are interpreted into modern equivalents. For example, the "changing" of electricity is prohibited as there is often a small spark inside switches, hence this can be considered as "lighting a fire". However, timeswitches can be used as they are non-interactive.

The key point, however, is what can be broken on Shabbat. And the short answer is "Nothing".

But of course it's not so simple. There is an overriding principle in Judaism - "V'Chai B'Chem" which means "You should live by them (the commandments)" - and not die by them. Therefore, almost any commandment can - indeed MUST - be broken to save life. Furthermore, if there's even a small chance someone's life is at risk, the commandment must be broken.

So, for example, if someone has an accident in Synagogue on Shabbat and is in urgent need of medical treatment, one is 100% allowed to phone a Doctor or call 999 (or whatever the emergency services number is in your area). And a doctor is allowed to get into his car (also usually prohibited) and drive to the patient. He is also then allowed to drive home, even though this isn't directly helping the patient, on the basis that he may then be called out again later on the Shabbat. Another example would be putting out a fire which is threatening someone's life is clearly allowed.

Back in the times of the Sanhedrin (the ancient Jewish court, consisting of 71 judges), intentionally violating the Shabbat was punishable by death. That said, you had to do it publicly, having been warned, and with independant witnesses. It was said that "A Sanhedrin who put one man to death in seven (or according to some opinions, seventy) years, was a bloodthirsty Sanhedrin". Nowdays, no such things happen (which is good, as there are many Jews who don't keep the laws of the Sabbath). It's also very easy to unintentionally break the Sabbath - say you leave a bathroom light on over the Sabbath, it's easy out of habit to turn it off as you leave the bathroom.

But the Jewish view is that sincere repentence is always accepted. And just because you break the Sabbath once doesn't mean that you might as well break it again the next week - or even later on the same day.

Nowdays, timeswitches are often used by religious Jews to turn their lights on and off on the Sabbath, and this is allowable. In the old days, religious Jews would employ someone who wasn't Jewish to come and do things such as stoke their fire on the Sabbath. This is somewhat questionable for two reasons. Firstly, it is forbidden for a religious Jew to pay anybody (Jewish or not) to work on the Sabbath. And secondly, it is forbidden to ask someone to do something which you're not allowed to do, just for your benefit. There are, however, ways around this. To avoid the first problem, the non-Jew wouldn't actually be paid for the work on the Sabbath - he would be paid to do a job during the week as well, and this pay would take into account him working (nominally) unpaid on the Sabbath. And to avoid the second problem, the non-Jew must benefit as well from the work. So if it was stoking a fire, he would be invited to sit and enjoy the warmth. Or if it was lighting an oven, he would share in the food.

As a footnote, all the restrictions on the Sabbath apply to the major festivals as well, with two exceptions - cooking and carrying. Both of these are allowed as long as it is directly related to the festival. So you can cook your festive lunch on the festival (whereas on Shabbat it has to be cooked beforehand), but you can't do general cooking for later in the week.

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