(A) “Those who profane it (Shabbat) shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:14). Why is this said? Because it says, “Whoever does work on the day of Shabbat shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:15).
(B) We have thus heard the penalty. But we have not heard the warning. Scripture says, “But the seventh day is Shabbat unto Adonai your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work” (Exodus 20:10).
(C) I thus know only the penalty for and the warning against work on Shabbat during the daytime. How do I know that there is also a penalty for and a warning against work during the nighttime of Shabbat? Scripture says, “Those who profane it shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:14). From this however we only learn about the penalty. But we have not heard any warning. Scripture says, “But the seventh day is Shabbat unto Adonai your God” (Exodus 31:15). Scripture only says “Shabbat” to include the nighttime in the warning. These are the words of Rabbi Achai in the name of Rabbi Yoshayah.
(D) Rabbi Yehudah ben Bateirah says: Suppose the nations surrounded the cities of Israel and the Israelites had to profane Shabbat [in self-defense]. The Israelites should not in such a case say: Since we had to profane part of Shabbat, we might as well continue to profane the rest of the day. Scripture says, “Those who profane it shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:14) – even those that profane it for one moment shall be put to death.
Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Shabbata, on Exodus 31:12-17 (6 of 13)
Understanding the Midrash:
The midrash opens with a question about the purpose of the statement “whoever profanes Shabbat shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:14). I’ll trace the thread of the argument through each of the paragraphs lettered above.
In (A), the midrash connects the prohibition with that of the next verse, where the death sentence applies to one who works on Shabbat. To work on Shabbat somehow profanes it, that is, negates its holiness.
But then, the midrash wants to know in (B) where the warning for this punishment comes from. They identify Exodus 20:10, where work is prohibited on the seventh day.
Having linked profaning Shabbat with working on Shabbat, and linking the punishment to its warning, the midrash should be finished. But, being a midrash, it notes that the warning only mentions (hyper-literally) the day of Shabbat. Paragraph (C) thus shifts gear to understand how we know that the nighttime of Shabbat similarly includes a prohibition on work.
We turn back to our original verse as the proof of punishment – if you profane it (no qualifying day or night so therefore including both), you shall be put to death (Exodus 31:14). And once again the midrash wants a warning, which comes in the next verse, Exodus 31:15, where we are to understand that when it says “the seventh day”, this refers to daytime, while “Shabbat” is also mentioned specifically to include nighttime. All of this is attributed to Rabbi Achai in the name of Rabbi Yoshayah.
Rabbi Yehudah ben Bateira joins the conversation to teach about what seems like an obscure case study. We’ve already learned that Shabbat can be suspended to save a life, and one’s own life counts. So, if you are attacked on Shabbat, you can fight back even if it counts as work. No punishment will come your way for protecting yourself. In Yehudah ben Bateira’s example, a whole city has been attacked, and its residents fought successfully in self-defense. However, what concerns him is the aftermath of the Shabbat violation. The Israelites, who may have fought all morning before winning reprieve, decide that they’ve already lost Shabbat and so won’t observe the rest of the afternoon. To this, Yehuda ben Bateira says, even one moment’s violation of the prohibition on work (in a non-life-threatening situation) deserves the punishment of death. No rest for the weary, or in this case no work for the weary. The moment it is safe to observe Shabbat, the stringencies return in full force.
For those of us who do not observe Shabbat law strictly, what are we to learn from this unremitting message? In a midrash concerned with warnings and punishment, I think we can find a glimmer of generosity and a wise teaching for any practices we choose to assume in our lives today.
Rabbi Evan Moffic, in his recent book The Happiness Prayer (2017), urges us to cultivate generous commitment to our practice. This means, “cutting yourself a little slack – not so much slack that the commitment evaporates, but enough that you can remain engaged with the practice you’ve chosen (or, maybe, the practice that has chosen you)…generous commitment always comes back to discernment, to noticing.”
Yehuda ben Bateira then might be saying something similar to us. Taking this midrash as a paradigm, Shabbat becomes a stand-in for any practice of ultimate concern, a practice that matters deeply to your aspirations and your integrity. In his case study, he urges, the Israelites (read: us) are beginning to observe Shabbat (read: take on a practice) when they are attacked by outsiders (read: anything that distracts us from our practice, whether inner resistance or external circumstances), and may feel we might as well give up, since we failed to be consistent. Yehuda Ben Bateira (and Evan Moffic) tell us, do not give up so easily! We can return with a generous awareness of the break in our practice, cutting ourselves some slack in that regard, and recommit to the practice.
This perspective restores honor to the imperfection that we will necessarily experience in every aspect of life. Imperfection, interruption, and distraction are not experiences that undermine our practice; they are a part of our practice. Learning to cultivate generous commitment in the presence of imperfection may in fact be the ultimate practice.