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39 Lashes: Karaite Sabbath

Updated on January 7, 2013

Amongst Karaites the commandment to keep Shabbat as a day of rest is imperative and although it is repeated many times in the Tanach, its vital importance is probably no better stressed than in Exodus 31:12-17:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work (melakha —מְלָאכָה) therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.'

So the question that must be asked is how is it that the Shabbat restrictions can be so varied and so different between both Karaites and Rabbanites.  Even more so between the various branches of Karaism where some may still observe the Ananite tradition of sitting in darkness an entire evening though others have taken a more reasonable and practical approach.  The issue revolves around a single word.  Where the interpretations have struggled is when it comes to understanding the word (מְלָאכָה) melakha.  Traditionally it has been translated as "work" but it was never intended in my opinion to mean work as we know it.  It is very different from the common use of (עבודה) avodah  that is associated with physical type labour. Instead we can look to Genesis 2:1-3 for its true meaning.  That paragraph reads as follows:

Heaven and earth, and all their components, were completed. With the seventh day, God finished all the work (melakha ) that He had done. He ceased on the seventh day from all the work (melakha ) that he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day, and he declared it to be holy, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work (melakha ) that he had been creating to function.

Therefore it can be seen that melakha was not a term for work but a word that was in reference to the physical act of creating or the making of something new and unique.  Perhaps we can extend and extrapolate its meaning to cover starting something new as well but it is clear that it was not a reference to doing work that was already started or established.  The term is also used in Exodus 31:1-11 when God is instructing Moses about the construction of the Tabernacle and even though this was a work in progress, it would appear that He is clearly telling Moses that the work on the Tabernacle must cease on the Sabbath since all the manufacturing done by Bezalel is referred to as being melakha .  From this we can further deduce an understanding to the term melakha that it was a reference to work especially pertaining to that having a religious connotation or spiritual significance.  It may never have been intended for everyday activities.

Rabbinical Folly

It is no coincidence that the 39 lashes for transgressions has taken on a mystical significance for the Rabbanites as they list their 39 concepts of melakha.  By relating the traditional punishment to an exact number of prohibitions the Rabbis have used a very old technique of association to reinforce their policing of their own statutes.  A case of merging A and B in order to form C and give it a religious stature as if God had provided them.  Demanding that the people do not transgress in any manner their edicts the rabbis have extended their prohibition to practically everything and no longer confining it to that which is creative and which might change the environment.  Their use of the biblical threat of lashes created the impression amongst the minds of their followers that it must be the law.  But in so doing they created a fallacy of hardship that in some essences is even cruel when extended to the prohibition of saving lives as I will point out later.  Even matters which can be rectified and thereby provide a greater level of safety are banned such as the removal of small bones from fish, or the filtering of water. Are we foolish enough or gullible enough to think that God would want our health and safety placed in jeopardy so that we would not be able to worship Him?  The Rabbanites obviously think so and therefore I take exception to their regulations though I have to admit there are many Karaites that still adhere to these rules because they have not fully understood and interpreted the meaning of melakha for themselves. Those wishing to see the exact working of the thirty-nine forbidden activities of the Rabbanites, I direct your attention to the Mishna Shabbat 7:2.  

Horticultural Prohibitions

These activities include 1. Planting,  2. Plowing ,3. Reaping, 4. Binding Sheaves, 5. Threshing , 6. Winnowing , 7. Selecting,  8. Grinding,  9. Sifting,  10. Kneading, and 11. Baking.  Although it is obvious that one could not bake bread if there was no wheat planted, the question of creating as implied from the word melakha would really only extend to activities 1 and 2, since everything that follows is material that has already been generated. But since many of these other activities would distract the individual from finding time to worship God on the Sabbath as the day was intended, then perhaps activities that would involve extended lengths of time should not be engaged in. What would be the rabbinical ruling if the threat of flooding could be avoided by opening a sluice gate or closing a damn if it fell on the Sabbath, thereby preventing the loss of crops?  The answer is that they would forbid it but in so doing they have placed the lives of the people in jeopardy which is forbidden even on the Sabbath. Clearly it is evident that the rabbis have not given the act of forethought to this matter and by extending their prohibitions beyond the restrictions of creating and altering the environment they have failed to appreciate the full meaning of the Sabbath Laws. 

Wool Prohibitions

Their list continues with 12. Shearing, 13. Scouring 14. Beating 15. Dyeing 16. Spinning 17. Weaving 18. Tying two loops 19. Weaving two threads 20. Separating two threads 21. Tying and Untying, 22. Sewing two stitches 23. Tearing for the purpose of sewing.  It is clear that God did not want Bezalel working on the curtains and fabrics of the Tabernacle during the Sabbath but did this prohibition truly extend to the day to day work of shepherds and wool scourers?  Once again, if this work prevented the worker from observing the Sabbath properly and praying to God then it was not to be permitted but it should not be restricted under the context that shearing and scouring were thought of as creative acts whereas the production of coloured wool through dyeing could be. Similarly, the knotting of the wools, the subsequent looping to make a design or fabric were creative acts.   But if I tie up my horse with more than two loops, that must be considered a completely different activity than one would use when making macramé or knitting.  The first is practical, the second is creative.  The fact is that there is a distinct line between what might term as ‘creating’ and the rabbis failed to appreciate this but still enforced their regulations upon their congregations.  How fortunate for Karaites that we are entitled to use independent thought and interpret the Tanach in a practical manner.  In the early days of Karaism when it first broke away from the Rabbanites there was the matter of indoctrination by the rabbinical sabbatical laws and some thought that by making them even more stringent they could show that they were better followers of Judaism but fortunately cooler heads prevailed and over the next few hundred years Karaites began to interpret the laws more clearly and with better intent.

Livestock and Animal Prohibitions

The Mishna then moves on to prohibition  24 about trapping which the rabbis use as a reference to hunting but they are quick to say that this does not apply to domestic animals. So if I put my cattle and sheep in a pen, or my dog in a kennel, then that is not considered work but if I snare a deer then that is work.  It gets even more ludicrous when the rabbis try to explain their inconsistencies in the Meno Netziv which says that an animal that is not normally trapped (e.g. a fly, a bee, or a lizard) is not covered under the Torah prohibition of trapping. But the rabbis themselves prohibit it, so they instruct not to trap the animal unless one is afraid of the animal.  In that situation one may trap it.  That being the case, if I’m afraid of deer and do not normally trap them, then for my own security I could ensnare them.  The fact was simply that hunting was not an activity practiced by the rabbis.  It was an activity of the common man, living off nature in order to provide for himself and his family.  Something unfamiliar to the rabbis since it involved hard work, rather than living off the gifts and offerings of the community.  So it was very easy for them to pass edicts and make rules that never affected themselves directly.

 Prohibitions 25. Slaughtering, 26. Flaying, 27. Salting, 28. Curing, 29. Scraping and 30. Cutting.  These  are a mixed bag of activities, the first three having nothing to do with creating an object, especially one that might have religious significance since there are only in preparation for a meal, but the next three have to do with making leather goods and therefore are about creating an object that didn’t exist before. Since the offerings on the Sabbath did involve parts of the burn offerings that could be eaten by the priests, then would that not be considered to be similar to parts of the normal cooking process and therefore not prohibited?  Once again common sense should have prevailed and the question was not which activity was prohibited but which ones would prohibit sufficient time to worship properly on the Sabbath.

Lettering Prohibitions

We next move on to prohibitions 31. Against the writing of two or more letters and 32. Regarding the erasing in order to write two or more letters.    That being the case I must assume that the rabbis didn’t think very carefully about coded  messages with perhaps symbols instead of letters, or else code consisting of one letter that meant far more.  Let us take a more sensible approach or should I say a more Karaite approach.  The Sabbath was about praising and worshipping God.  If in doing so I chose to write a prayer, or my thanks or a psalm to God then I am fulfilling the Sabbath obligation.   It never should have been a prohibition about letters or writing but an assurance that if writing one is not doing their customary business but the business of God.  Because if writing more than two letters was seen as an evil act on the Sabbath by the rabbis then so too would have been reading two or more letters.  And that being the case then  reading a prayer book in the synagogue, especially since so many read the words without the meaning, in an act to get through the service as quickly as possible is more of a contravention of the Sabbath requirements than any writing of letters.

Construction Prohibitions

Then there is the matter of 33. Building and 34. Tearing down.  Though the first would definitely be creating an object and very time consuming the second is not a creative accomplishment but in fact a destructive one.  But again, the matter should not be which activities are prohibited in this case but what will involve copious amounts of time that prevent the proper keeping of the Sabbath.

Fire Prohibitions

Two of the key prohibitions that I will take exception to as a Karaite will be 35. Extinguishing a fire and 36. Igniting a fire. In the early days of Karaism the Rabbanites taunted us and accused us of being ‘Sitters in the Dark,’ a reflection of some of Anan’s early laws in which he would not permit a fire to be lit before the Sabbath so that there would be light in the home during the Sabbath evening. Perhaps a little too zealous in his interpretation and preserved for a long time by those that were part of the Ananite sect, at least common sense prevailed and by the time of Kirkisani the acceptance of candles lit before the Sabbath was reinstated. So let’s put the first prohibition into its proper perspective since the restriction should have been about lighting fires not putting them out. If a fire has the potential to cause serious destructive damage, then it also by implication has the potential to be life threatening. The failure to extinguish any unsafe, uncontrolled or monitored fire is by itself a failure to perform an act that ultimately would result in great environmental change. And since it was the rabbis themselves that said environmental change on the Sabbath was forbidden, then their ruling in this case is in error simply because it violates their own restriction. Exodus Chapter 35 שְׁמוֹת clearly states the following:

א וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם.

1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: 'These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.

ב שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת.

2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.

ג הַשַּׁבָּת. לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם,

3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.

Once again as in Chapter 31 the word for work used is melakha and this was not intended to be interpreted as every day type work otherwise there would have been a tremendous number of people being executed for meaningless tasks in those days. And in the third sentence it was explicitly forbidden to ‘kindle’ a fire in the home on the Sabbath. The act of kindling meant that it did not apply to having a fire already lit in the home, only of starting a new one. Obviously it was the igniting a flame which was strictly prohibited in the Torah and there are no ifs, ands or buts. The kindling of a fire in the home was given a specific ordinance because of its use in other religions as not only part of their temple worship but what would have been their house sanctuary as well . This especially was true for Moloch worship and later in Zoroastrianism. It was probably also true for Aster or Ishtar worship with fire seen as part of the purification rites. We know from the Greeks and Romans they two had their little home sanctuaries in which they would light numerous candles and incense as part of the ancestor worship ceremonies. In prohibiting such a practice it would become immediately evident if someone was practicing these rites from other religions and that is why they would be put to death.

The rabbis failed to understand and appreciate this restriction and have distorted it even further with their prohibition of flicking a light switch in our modern age. But let’s be perfectly clear, fire and electricity are two entirely different processes. So when the rabbis extended the prohibition to electricity they in fact were in error because they lacked the knowledge of appreciating these differences. We know now that fire is a chemical reaction involving the release of energy through the consumption of oxygen but electricity is the flow of an electric current, movement of electrons and is therefore a physical reaction. Rather than admit their error the rabbis have insisted that electricity is still forbidden as it involves construction or building (i.e., the building and completion of an electric circuit). No this is not true, the circuit already exists, it’s just a matter of whether it is open or closed and therefore is not a case of creative work.

The Finishing Touches Prohibition

If one wishes to split hairs, then they can look at Prohibition 37 which involves applying finishing touches, or bringing something into a state of final use.  Yes, one can say this is an act of creating and therefore the ban applies.  But again, more importantly is not the act of making finishing touches but the fact that to do so the individual is not praying to God, is not giving the day its proper religious respect and is not putting aside his own personal interests to appreciate what God has given him.

The Travel Prohibition

Prohibition 38 is the transferring between two domains which can be one of the most confusing of all the rabbinical prohibitions. In Chapters 1 and 11 of the Talmud tractate Shabbat it deals with what the rabbis called the melakha of transferring from one domain to another. Let’s put this into more practical language and refer to it as it actually was or what we would commonly refer to as carrying an object even if that object is yourself. The tractate distinguishes four domains: private, public, semi-public and an exempt area. It holds that the transfer of an article from a private to a public domain is Biblically forbidden; transferring an article between a semi-public to a private or public domain is Rabbinically prohibited; transferring of an article between an exempt area and any other domain is permissible; and carrying an article about 1.7 miles may be forbidden in a public or semi-public domain and permitted in a private domain or exempt area; but carrying inside a private domain or between private domains may be permissible. For these purposes "transferring" means "removing and depositing", so that carrying an article out of a domain and returning to the same domain with it does not constitute transferring. This may fall into the category of "wearing". But the rabbinical definition of public and private domain is related to the number of enclosures and has nothing to do with actual ownership of the tract of land. If you’re already confused by this list of restrictions then imagine those that tried to live by them. Of course these very confusing restrictions are all related to the commandment of Exodus 16:29, which states, "Let no man leave his place on the seventh day." How one interprets this commandment may certainly differ but what the rabbis have done with it in regards to the prior restrictions is sheer nonsense and spin doctoring to the point of massive confusion. How I interpret it is at its most simplistic of meanings and I think the way God intended it to be interpreted. God was referring to someone starting a trip on the Sabbath. Placing their own desires or needs, whether it be business or pleasure before that of attending to worshipping God on that day. So ‘his place’ as it is referred to had a much broader concept as indicating that no man should set himself upon the highway or a ship, and thereby making it impossible for himself or his family to tend to their keeping of the Sabbath day. There was no restriction on distance as long as the individual could provide the time to worship properly. Common sense was all that God wanted to prevail, something which is clearly lacking in the last prohibition by the rabbis that I will now discuss.

Saving of Certain Lives Prohibition

Finally but definitely not least is the 39th prohibition the one which I take the greatest exception with as it is a clear display of not only the failure of the rabbis to interpret properly but of their prejudice and improper advice that has led to the persecution and death of our people for almost two thousand years by those this prohibition actually affects.  This final prohibition involved the saving of human life of which more information can be found in the Pikuach Nefesh of the Talmud.  If there is a human life in danger on the Sabbath then it is not a violation of the Sabbath to save that life, an interpretation which is not only correct but inviolate, but the rabbis could not help themselves but to turn this one infallible statement into a controversy.  They had the audacity to speak for all of us and say that it only pertained to Jews and was not applicable to the saving of a Gentile’s life on the Sabbath.  In the writings of Maimonides (1137-1204), he said, “As for the gentiles, the basic Talmudic principle is that their lives must not be saved, although it is also forbidden to murder them outright.”   This is further emphasized by the writings of Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Eidels (1555-1631), who said in regards that the release from the prohibition only applies to Jews, "That any man who saves one soul in Israel, and it is intentionally specified 'one soul in Israel', in the singular form, as this is the image of God, the Singular one of the world, and Jacob's [Israel's] form is His likeness ... but Kuttim [non-Jews] do not have the form of man, only the form of other creatures, and whoever brings about the loss of a soul among them does not lose the world, and whoever saves a soul among them neither adds nor diminishes anything in this world." Rabbi Eidels comments were in regard to many of the sayingsin the Talmud including the one that says non-Jews are neither to be lifted out of a well nor hauled down into it if found on the Sabbath. If leaving them in the well is not being complicit to murder, I do not know what is.  Sadly this flawed thinking was taken to Israel’s Chief Rabbi Untermann in 1966 and although he said that it would be acceptable to violate the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew it was only made so under the codicil expressed by the orthodox religious authorities that it was not based on democratic ideals, but instead only to protect the Jewish religion (and the life-saver) from possible retaliation and therefore in essence had nothing to do with the Gentile at risk but the fact that it could ultimately save Jewish lives if the act was performed.

In Conclusion

Obviously,  I am greatly saddened by what these rabbis had to say and their subsequent malicious interpretations.  They certainly are not my interpretations as I have clearly made evident and although my own personal interpretations may differ from my fellow Karaites, they are mine and they are as God intended; for each of us to find our own path to his words.  But what these 39 prohibitions are, when we closely examine them,  are certainly  not the way of Judaism and they certainly are not the voice and words of God as He intended. These men had neither the right to speak on behalf of the Jewish people nor propagate this evil intent as a manifestation of the Torah. One of my Karaite colleagues has recently opened up a forum on Facebook calling for debate with the Rabbanites.  Yes, debate should be encouraged, but how do you argue with men that are so deficient in their thinking?  How do you rationalize with men that think there are Jews created in the image of God and all the rest that are creatures not worthy of saving?  How do you reconcile what God has given to Moses and what men of their own volition perverted to their own cause? Perhaps there is no debate only condemnation and the warning that those that have pronounced themselves as the upholders of Judaism are nothing more than the most vile of men that have ever betrayed Judaism.  Let us look to our next Sabbath not only as the day to give God praise but as the day we take back the Sabbath from these rabbis and their prohibitions that were never God’s intended message to us. Let us make the world aware that 'yes' we have been relatively silent for the past six centuries but we will be quiet no longer. 


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