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Mountains Hanging From Hairs: The Purpose of the Melacha

Chagiga 10a

The link between the laws of Shabbat and the Mishkan not only defines the 39 Melachot that are prohibited on Shabbat, but also determines the conditions for liability. One of these conditions is intent. The other is purpose. The melacha must be performed for a similar purpose as the act performed in the Mishkan. Accordingly, one might, intentionally, perform the same act performed in the Mishkan and yet be exempt from Biblical liability if it did not have a similar purpose. For example, digging (a derivative of plowing) was performed in the Mishkan for the use of the hole itself, in which tent pegs were sunk. Therefore, one who digs for earth and has no use for the hole has not performed a melacha in the Torah sense of the term, a melachah d’oraita. Similarly, extinguishing a fire, a primary (av) melachah, was performed in the Mishkan to produce glowing embers needed to smelt metal. Therefore, one who turns off the light in order to sleep, or to save electricity, has not performed a melacha d’oraita. Such an act is known as a “melacha she’eina tz’richa l’gufa.” Although Biblically exempt from liability once performed, a melacha she’eina tz’richa l’gufa is rabbinically prohibited, a melacha d’rabanan, and should not be performed in the first place.

What, one might ask, is the difference between a melacha d’oraita and melacha d’rabanan if both are prohibited? The answer is that, generally, there is more room for leniency in melachot d’rabanan. For example, melachot d’rabanan may, mostly, be performed during twilight, bein hashmashot, on Erev Shabbat; they may, with certain restrictions, be performed by a Jew on Shabbat to alleviate substantial pain; they may, in certain situations, be performed by a Jew on Shabbat in order to avert a substantial financial loss; they may, in certain circumstances, be performed for a Jew on Shabbat by a non-Jew; and they are not themselves subject to protective legislation.

Because the melacha she’eina tz’richa l’gufa is closest to a melacha d’oraita in that it only lacks the element of common purpose, and because there is a dispute with regard to its definition, the rabbis are less lenient with it than with other melachot d’rabanan. Accordingly, it enjoys some, but not all, of the flexibility described. For example, a melacha she’eina tz’richa l’gufa may not be performed bein hashmashot. Such a melacha may, however, for the most part, be performed by a Jew on Shabbat for the sick, even the not-dangerously sick; and, in certain situations, it may be performed for a Jew on Shabbat by a non- Jew.

Based on these principles, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Braun, in his work “Sha’arim Metzuyanim Behalachah,” writes that sparks ignited by plugging in or out of electricity is akin to a melacha she’eina tz’richa l’gufa, in that it is a psik reisha delo neecha lei, an inevitable, unwanted melacha. Accordingly, to avoid substantial financial loss, one may ask a non-Jew to reconnect a well-stocked freezer that became disconnected from its electricity on Shabbat.


Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Mo’ed available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Eyal-Guide-Shabbat-Festivals-Seder/dp/0615118992 or by emailing
Raphael at [email protected].

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