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Thought for the Day: Violating Shabbos on a Torah Level is Really Hard

Converts to Judaism come up with all sorts of interesting (crazy, if you prefer) questions.  There are a two basic reasons, I think.  One, committing to live as an Orthodox Jew is a huge undertaking with a myriad of details.  While a nonreligious Jew who is returning to a Torah lifestyle can take his time, a convert doesn't have that option.  To convert to Judaism, one must accept to do everything; there is no slow, steady path available.  That, of course, leads to a lot of questioning.

The other reason, though, is that a convert is in a funny situation during the learning process.  On the one hand, he needs to live 100% (well... not quite; hold your questions for now) as a Jew.  On the other hand, though, since he is not a Jew, there are many things that just aren't possible.  He can't be counted are part of a minyan nor be called to the Torah, for example.  He keeps kosher, but anything he cooks is perforce not kosher; since food cooked by a non-Jew is forbidden to Jews.  (Aside: that means that immediately after his conversion is complete, has to kasher the pots and pans that were rendered treif by the cooking he did as a non-Jew.  Good times.)

One more thing: he can't keep Shabbos.  Why?  Because a non-Jew who keeps Shabbos is חייב מיתה/committed a capital offence.  You are thinking: well, we all know that Shabbos has like a gazillion and a half rules, so it should be really easy to violate.  The issue is that since Shabbos is so important -- keeping or violating it is in some dimension considered tantamount to keeping or violating the entire Torah -- that Chazal instituted many safeguards.  Most of what we know as normative Shabbos observance is well within the protective barriers instituted by Chazal.

For example, if one performs מלאכה שאין צריכה לגופה/one of the 39 categories of forbidden labors as the side effect of something else he is doing, then (according to most authorities and is the way we hold in halacha) he has not actually violated Shabbos at a Torah level.  For example, suppose you need some dirt to cover an oil spill.  There is nothing wrong (at the Torah level) with grabbing a shovel full of dirt and spreading it over the spill.  Digging a hole, though is a forbidden labor; but only if you want the hole. Since in this case, the hole is a side effect of getting the dirt, no actual violation of Shabbos (at the Torah level) has occurred.

This led an in-flight proselytite who was having a Shabbos meal by R' Yisroel Reisman to ask the following question: In order to be sure to violate Shabbos (as he was still not Jewish), he had been told to light a match.  However, since he was not lighting the match to make a fire, but only to avoid the prohibition of keeping Shabbos as a non-Jew... didn't that make lighting the match a מלאכה שאין צריכה לגופה -- and therefore no actual (at the Torah level) violation of Shabbos had occurred.  Cool question, no?

It turns out, though, that this question has been addressed by Chazal.  Tzlafchad (the father of the famous daughters of Tzlafchad ) had died in the wilderness.  The daughters (see BaMidbar 27) only mentioned that he died of his own sin, and not because of joining with Korach.  Chazal tell us more: Tzlafchad was the one was caught gathering sticks on Shabbos and then put to death.  Why in the world a tzadik like Tzlafchad do that?  Because he thought Shabbos observance was lax, so he wanted to make a point.  Now, whether or not that was a correction course of action (an interesting question in its own right), one thing is clear: His gathering of sticks was not because he needed the sticks, but only because he wanted to violate Shabbos!  If so, how could he have been put to death by the beis din?  Seems to be the same מלאכה שאין צריכה לגופה question is R' Reisman's guest.  Cool, no?

It could be, though, that is not, in fact, a מלאכה שאין צריכה לגופה.  Why?  In the case of the dirt, he ended up digging a hole.  The digging of the hole was wholly ancillary to his purpose.  In the case of Tzlafchad (and similarly, it seems, our proselytite), the gather of sticks was his actual intent.  His reason for deciding to gather sticks may have not been because he needed sticks, but he did gather sticks with intent.  There are other answers to why it was appropriate to execute Tzlafchad, but that seems to me to be the cleanest.

R' Reisman, though, wanted to stringent, so he told his guest: "Go make yourself a cup of coffee."

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