1. And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of
together, and said to them, These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. 2. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death. 3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day. (Ex 35:1-3) Israel
In Torah there are only two real prohibitions, and by consequence of someone’s actions a third. In Exodus 16:22-30 we are told essentially God doesn’t cook on Shabbat and no one is to gather Manna on the seventh day. In this week’s portion we are told not to light fires. Numbers 15:32-36 had a man put to death for collecting sticks on Shabbat. Beyond this we have no Torah injunction of what we are supposed to do and not do on Shabbat.
We have in the later prophets and writings prohibitions on stamping grapes and commerce both with other Jews and with non-Jews. But the actual rules are still sparse. To understand what can happen in this circumstance, let me give a parable. Once on a lonely mountain, a princess and a prince met and fell in love. Yet after that moment the princess was taken away to a castle with walls impossible to get into. Before she was taken away she told the prince to send her messages through a very small hole in the wall. The prince gets to the castle and knows to roll up a small bit of paper and stick it in the hole to the courtyard on the other side. But he wonders what he should put on the paper, if anything at all. He remembers his moment with her and writes of her hair and her eyes, and other bits about that moment in time.
In the same way do we take a mitzvah, like Shabbat and infuse it with a greater structure, in order to turn the mitzvah, the love note to God, into more than a slip of paper, to really say “I love you.” Our writing on that note is known as the halacha, the rules that exist around the mitzvot in order to perform them. They are essentially of human origin, and in a few cases of the original oral law, believed to be transmitted to Moses orally by God. Moses then began a line of oral transmission up to the time of the rabbis. Yet no oral chain is ever exact, and there is the human hand in what we do have. The rabbis, using this and Torah, came up with a set of ways, halacha, adapted from both to fit their circumstances. Halakah undoubtedly has a human hand. They are the words on that love note, words we get from our experience as recorded in Torah.
For Shabbat for example, the rabbis took this the beginning of this week’s passage, which has nothing to do with anything else in the passage, and figured the reason it was there was to imply that it was all of the work necessary to build the Mishkan, which is referred to as malakah. Since God ended from all the malakah that he made [Gen 2:1] it must be human malakah that was prohibited on Shabbat, as defined by the Mishkan building project. On that basis the rabbis came up with thirty-nine primary prohibitions of work on Shabbat. But since they came up with primary prohibitions, it figured that there were secondary prohibitions, subcategories of those thirty nine which provide us with even more prohibitions.
I’ve been thinking lately about one of those possible subcategories of prohibitions, which in a strict sense I may be violating. Indeed I violate many. There’s no question I violate a direct mitzvot by driving an internal combustion engine to synagogue on Saturday mornings. So it’s surprising that there is a small thing that I think a lot about: Painting on Shabbat. It is part of my ritual practice of Erev Shabbat to sit in a restaurant, pull out my watercolor box, paints, and a photo reference and paint. I’m so serious about this I break other halacha just to do this. When last year I was given a choice between going to services and painting, I picked painting. I’m not sure sometimes if it’s a ritual practice or a guilty pleasure.
There are all kinds of issues with painting. Some are not just Shabbat prohibitions either. With my love of figurative painting, there is one that I find particularly interesting:
Our Rabbis taught: The writing under a painting or an image may not be read on the Sabbath. And as for the image itself, one must not look at it even on weekdays, because it is said, Turn ye not unto idols. How is that taught? — Said R. Hanin: [Its interpretation is,] Turn not unto that conceived in your own minds. [Shabbat 149a]
Not only looking at a painting is prohibited, but reading its caption on Shabbat! Yet here the issue is clearly idolatry. Many images with captions are not of a secular nature, and the caption may be prayer to other gods. So the first issue is that painting images of any kind as mentioned in many places are considered idols. More to the point on Shabbat we have this prohibition:
It was taught: He who bores, however little, he who scrapes, however little, he who tans, however little, he who draws a figure on a vessel, however little, [is violating Shabbat]. [Shabbat 103b]
For a painting prohibition, it is based on one of the thirty nine primary prohibitions found in the Mishnah:
He who writes two letters, whether with his right or with his left hand, of the same designation or of two designations or in two pigments, in any language, is culpable. [Shabbat 102b]
The Mishnah in the name of R. Yose, continues by clarifying this. While one mark does not convey meaning, two marks convey meaning. During the building of the Mishkan, that they marked the boards with the two letter abbreviations of the tribes as they worked to match up boards correctly. There is another text, a bit earlier concerning building which might also be significant in terms of its general principle:
If one builds how much must he build to be culpable? He who builds however little, and he who chisels, and he who strikes with a hammer or with an adze, and he who bores [a hole], however little, is culpable. This is the general principle: whoever does work on the Sabbath and his work endures, is culpable. [Shabbat 102b]
The general rule might apply to paintings. Paintings are permanent, and thus endure. It looks like there's not much chance for me to follow a halacha of painting.
I could make a philosophical argument of course, one many in the liberal Jewish community have made at one time or another. Basically it’s based on that definition of Malakah again, this time defining it as occupation. Shabbat is to rest from what you do for a living. If one gets enjoyment from something that does not have to do with your living, then go ahead and do it and enjoy yourself. An extension of this argument is that Shabbat is the witnessing of creation. God spent the six days creating the world, and on that seventh, sanctified day, we are to stop and appreciate it. An artist takes that creation and appreciates it by putting it on paper or canvas.
However, there’s something about creating a halakic argument that exempts painting that makes the act more sacred. Part of that is to follow a part of the tradition that the argument above does not: rabbinic thinking. The rabbis for many reasons found exemptions and ways around problems which restricted too much. For example, our prohibition on kindling a fire. The Karaites, who rejected the rabbinic authority, came up with their own halacha that no fire were to be lit on Shabbat. You spent from sunset to sunset on Shabbat without light and heat. The rabbis were far more lenient. If you lit the fire before sundown, gave it enough fuel to last a while and then didn’t touch it again, it could continue to burn throughout Shabbat. They then took that precedent and applied to several other circumstances where things began before Shabbat but were completed during Shabbat.
One takes from these and other sources and tries to come up with an argument, based on precedent of the classical sources, to create an exemption. Like the case of the fire, that one may not add more fuel, there may be stipulations and restrictions even to the exemptions.
Given the texts mentioning the prohibitions, there are two texts which might help in providing an exemption. The first is the rebuttal to the Shabbat 103 passage above:
R. Simeon said: [He is not culpable] unless he bores right through or scrapes the whole of it [the skin] or tans the whole of it or draws the whole of it! [Shabbat 103b]
The other, mentioned in two places, describes God as an artist, based on the prayer of Hanna:
There is none holy as the Lord, for there is none beside thee (I Sam 2:2). R.
b. Menashia said: Read not bilteka, ‘beside thee’], but read lebalotheka [‘to survive thee’]. For the nature of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that of flesh and blood. It is the nature of flesh and blood to be survived by its works, but God survives His works. Neither is there any rock [zur] like our God(ibid.). There is no artist [zayyar] like our God. A man draws a figure on a wall, but is unable to endow it with breath and spirit, inward parts and intestines. But the Holy One, blessed be He, fashions a form within a form and endows it with breath and spirit, inward parts and intestines. [Megilah 14a, Ber 10a] Judah
Taking these texts, can we come up with a halakic exemption for painting, or art in general? This week, I’m not going to tell you here. Vayakhel is half of a double portion. On non-leap years, it is paired with Pekudei. This year, is a leap year and they are read separately, so in that spirit, I’m going to do the same thing and split this commentary into two parts, using a verse in Pekudei (Exodus 39:32) to help out. But I’ll give you a few hints. The major hint is the questions I ask myself when I get into a situation like this. Think about these this week, the sequence I thought them up, and how I could use the passages above to come up with that answer and next week, I’ll give you my answer:
1. Should I do art on Shabbat?
2. Is Art Work (vftkn)?
3. When is Art Work (vftkn)?
4. Is building the
5. Are there loopholes in that Mishnah?
6. What are the distinctions between my art and building the
7. Under what circumstances could art be done on Shabbat?
8. What restrictions would I have to have the exemption?