Shabbat and the Noahide, part IV-B: The Maharsha, cont’d

Though it’s been a long time since the last installment in this series, real life, along with an immense amount of time for research (which ultimately boiled down to only a few paragraphs in this installment), delayed the completion of this installment for several weeks. Now, let’s get on with it.

In the last installment in this series, we examined the Maharsha’s analysis of Shabbat as the bride of Israel, and anyone outside the nation of Israel observing Shabbat as interfering in the “marital” relationship between Israel and the Almighty, a capital offense. The Maharsha cited a number of passages from Chazal — our Sages of blessed memory — to this effect.

[The Maharsha goes on to deal with a passage in Maimonides’ code of law which we have yet to examine, so we will save that portion of the Maharsha’s comments for after we’ve had a chance to look at that passage in Maimonides.]

In the last section of his comments, Maharsha addresses the issue of how to understand Genesis 8:22 (emphasis added):

ונראה מה שהביא לדרוש לא ישבותו אבני נח ולא אששת עתים דכתיב לעיל מיניה נראה כמ”ש הרא”ם שהשבות בכ”מ הוא מנוחת הפועל ממלאכתו ולא מנוחת הפעולה והחום והקור כי הם הם פעולת המזלות כו’ ולא תפול בהם שביתה עכ”ל ע”ש

And it appears to me the reason [the Talmud] expoundsthey shall not cease’ to refer to the sons of Noah and not the six time periods written earlier [in the same verse] is as the Re’em (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi) wrote, that [the verb] ‘to cease’ (שבות) in many places means for the actor to desist from his activity (melachto, lit. ‘his work’), and not for the activity to desist. ‘Heat’ and ‘cold’ [etc.], since they are the product of the cosmic bodies, ought not to be described as ‘ceasing.’

The Maharsha here cites the commentary of the Re’em (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi) to explain why the word for cessation used in Gen. 8:22, from the same Hebrew root as the word “Shabbat” (שבת), more appropriately refers to man rather than the time periods mentioned in the same verse. This Hebrew root word refers not to an action stopping, rather that an actor stop performing an action.

Let’s examine if this can be confirmed through analysis of the usage of this word in Scripture. Interestingly, I discovered 10 instances in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), aside from Genesis 8:22, in which the verb שבת — “to cease” (the same Hebrew root as the word “Shabbat”) — is used. In 9 out of 10 instances, the verb clearly means for an actor to cease performing an action:

  1. Genesis 2:3: “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He ceased (שבת) from all His work which God in creating had made.” The Almighty is the actor and He is described as ceasing from His work.
  2. Exodus 5:5: “And Pharaoh said: ‘Behold, the people of the land are now many, and will ye make them cease (והשבתם) from their burdens?'” The people of Israel are the actors and they are described as ceasing from their burdens (i.e. their work).
  3. Exodus 16:30: “So the people ceased (וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ) on the seventh day.” The people ceased, i.e. rested, from work on the seventh day. And so on…
  4. Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor (תִּשְׁבֹּת).”
  5. Exodus 31:17: “and on the seventh day He ceased (שָׁבַת) from work and was refreshed.”
  6. Exodus 34:21: “but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor (תִּשְׁבֹּת); you shall cease from labor (תִּשְׁבֹּת) even at plowing time and harvest time.
  7. Leviticus 23:32: “from evening until evening, you shall keep (תִּשְׁבְּתוּ) [lit. ‘you shall cease’] your sabbath.
  8. Leviticus 25:2: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep (ושבתה הארץ) a sabbath unto the LORD.” [Here the land itself is the actor, ceasing from the work normally performed upon it.]
  9. Leviticus 26:34: “then shall the land rest…” (תִּשְׁבַּת)

In only 1 instance in the Torah is this verb used to mean something ceasing to be:

  1. Leviticus 26:6: “and I will cause evil beasts to cease (וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי חַיָּה רָעָה) from the land.”

And even in that one case, the verb is in the causative form, meaning that an actor is causing the cessation to happen. So though it is not the actor ceasing an action, but the existence of the “evil beasts” is ceasing, there is still an actor causing cessation to something else.

Now, in light of that usage, when we return to Genesis 8:22, and see the same verb — לא ישבתו — “they shall not cease” — what is more likely to be the meaning? That the time periods will not cease to be, or that someone will not cease to do their work? Based on the comparison with the usage of the same verb everywhere else in the Torah, why deviate from its regular meaning? Since it always means an actor ceasing an action, it should mean the same here. That is the basis for the Talmud’s understanding that Gen. 8:22 indicates that mankind should not cease their work for any complete day and night period, according to this explanation of the Re’em cited by Maharsha.

When we look back at Rashi’s commentary now, we see that even he is sensitive to this, and frames his reading Gen. 8:22 in this format:

לא ישבתו SHALL NOT CEASE — None of these shall cease to take their natural course.

Rashi rephrases the verse so that the time periods are the actors and “taking their course,” is the action. They shall not cease taking their course. Then the verb fits the subject.

However, the stance of the Talmudic Sages is that there is at least an alternative reading in which the verb “to cease” refers to a more normative actor, i.e. people, rather than the amorphic time periods as actors.

 

In summary, the Maharsha offers a brilliant insight into why Gen. 8:22 is rightly understood by the Talmudic Sages to refer to men and not to time periods. The Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 58B stands as a powerful source of the prohibition against a Noahide observing any complete day of rest.

Next, we will explore some of the source material cited by Maharsha in the comments we analyzed last time.

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