Archive for June, 2012

Driving a Car on the Sabbath? Halachic Considerations on Travelling for the Sake of Fulfilling a Mitzvah


by Geert ter Horst

[Note: This article is only published for the purpose of study, and neither it nor its author do claim halachic authority. Questions regarding one’s personal situation and rule of observance to be followed in this matter should be directed to one’s local Rabbi.]

Many Messianics, as well as many traditional Jews who try to return to a Torah observant lifestyle, face the difficulty that to attend a worship service on the Sabbath they have to travel. Since travelling is one of the biblical Sabbath prohibitions (Ex. 16:29) and having a “holy convocation” on that day is one of the biblical Sabbath commandments (Lev. 23:3), it seems that they are on the horns of a dilemma, i.e. in a position that leaves only a choice between two transgressions.

The following considerations are meant as an exposition of what is halachically involved in travelling on the Sabbath in modern circumstances. From the outset I want to make clear that this exposition is not meant to rebuke or condemn anyone’s sincere practice in this matter. I know about the problems involved and I fully concede that there are no easy solutions. Especially for families with children growing up it is essential to have a worship service in the context of a community on the Sabbath.

One of the causes of our difficulties is that most Messianics were not born in observant families that belong to an established community. An orthodox Jew, born in an orthodox family and a member of a traditional community doesn’t face these difficulties. If, for example, he intends to apply for a new job in another town, his first thing in mind will be: where is there a Shul over there? And if he finds out that there is no Shul in that place he will cancel his plans to move to it.

From a halachic viewpoint modern ways of travelling, such as driving a car or going by train give more complications on the Sabbath than the travelling prohibition per se. In fact modern ways of travelling cause a fourfold transgression of the biblical and traditional Sabbath restrictions: kindling (and extinguishing) fire, travelling itself, carrying and handling money.

First, one cannot drive a car without kindling fire. This isn’t only about turning on and off the engine. Adding fuel to an existing flame, which occurs by touching the accelerator — or any direct handling of a flame by whatever means — is considered as a transgression of this commandment. Simply to transfer a fire that was lit before the Sabbath constitutes a transgression on the rabbinic level, since it causes a fire to be in a place where before it was not, which is one of the ways of “making” a fire. This transferring of fire of course happens continually when driving a car.

One should further consider that handling electric devices is a manner of making fire. This means that to open the car doors is already a transgression of the Sabbath — since this action causes an electric circuit to function and a light to turn on — as are numerous other things done while driving, e.g. turning on the radio, turning on and off the car lights. The reason why all these things are seen as transgressions is twofold: 1) a spark of genuine fire is generated by turning on and off an electric switch that opens or closes an electric circuit; 2) electric devices are used for generally the same purposes today as was fire in earlier times and using them constitutes creative work. In today’s halachah electricity and fire are treated as almost completely identical phenomena, and for good reasons.

If one chooses to travel by bus or by train one can avoid the kindling of fire that is involved in starting a car. However, one cannot avoid using electric devices, such as for instance turning on and off switches to open doors. This is prohibited even in the case of automatic processes that are set in motion when one runs into an electric circuit. The common halachic ruling is that the making of the fire is to be ascribed to the person who runs into the circuit, and thus causes the device to work. Thus, to give an example, a person who runs into the domain of an electric detector that causes a light or any other electric device to turn on, from a halachic perspective is making fire.

Oftentimes the opinion is expressed that in biblical times making a fire was a laborious work, and that this is the reason for the biblical prohibition. I don’t think, however, that the amount of work, or the level of exertion, is decisive here, and there are no indications to this in the texts. Work as defined in relation to the Sabbath (melachah) is about prohibited actions that are independent of the amount of work involved. The reasons for the prohibition of kindling fire are not given by the Torah, but one can easily suspect that it is a profanation because it is a creative action. Making a fire on the Sabbath destroys the idea of that day as being the perfect goal or end of creation. Kindling a fire on the Sabbath carries the message that the Sabbath isn’t perfect and is in need of additional perfection. Making fire actually shows a resemblance to what G-d did on the first day of creation, making light (Gen. 1:3).

Sometimes the argument is brought forth that fires may be lit for the sake of a Sabbath service in Shul because fire was lit in theTemple and nowadays the Body of Messiah is the Temple. This argument is not valid. Although the Assembly of Messiah is a spiritual Temple, this doesn’t imply that a messianic Shul service possesses or should possess — or by any means is able to possess — the levitical levels of sanctity and purity that were required for theTemple. The Temple is a very special and sacred domain and it is extremely difficult to make valid inferences from this sacred domain to secular places as a Shul. One cannot compare the travelling needed to attend a Synagogue service to any legitimate activity in the Temple.

Second, driving a car normally means going out of town and travelling a greater distance than permitted by the Sabbath borders. Since travelling itself is prohibited on the Sabbath it doesn’t matter much — from a practical perspective — whether a person travels by car or by other means, e.g. by walking. One transgresses the commandment of travelling as soon as one crosses the Sabbath limits. Only the number and categories of the transgressions involved are greater in the case of going by car or by train. One might think that in ancient times it was possible to travel on horseback or so, but this is clearly excluded, even within the Sabbath limits. Animals may not be used at all on the Sabbath. They are explicitly mentioned in the commandment of Ex. 20:10.

Third, if one travels by car or by train one has to carry things, which is prohibited on the Sabbath (Jer. 17:21-22). Examples of this are carrying the keys of the car and the drivers licence papers, which must be brought from inside the home to the inside of the car and back. This often implies carrying these items through a public domain, either at home or at the place of destination. Even if one has his car parked in his own place at home, it is often impossible to park the car within the precincts of the destination building, i.c. the Shul. If one goes by train or by bus one has to carry money and ones train tickets.

Fourth, also a person travelling by car has to keep money with him for a number of reasons. Money — which of course includes credit cards — is muktzeh on the Sabbath and may not be touched. Although touching it is only a rabbinic prohibition, it is clear that in an observant social context it doesn’t make sense to touch money on the Sabbath, since no transactions can be performed. When driving a car, however, one oftentimes even has to perform real money transactions, for instance if one has to park at a spot that must be paid for. Real transactions are of course unavoidable if one travels by train. One has to buy tickets.

For all the reasons stated above it thus seems impossible to travel in a legitimate manner during the Sabbath. However, by choosing not to travel many people will miss the opportunity to attend a worship service. And we have already seen from Lev. 23:3 that we are commanded to have a holy convocation on the Sabbath day. This raises the question whether the prohibition of travelling can be set aside for the sake of fulfilling the commandment of having a holy convocation.

The answer to this question must be that this cannot be done. The halachic tradition generally doesn’t allow for the transgression of a scriptural commandment in order to fulfil another scriptural commandment. One can easily see that such as “solution” threatens to dissolve the whole structure of the Torah. The halachic tradition is that it is not permissible to transgress in order to fulfil, for to do so would defy all logic. If for the sake of having a worship service on the Sabbath it is permissible to transgress the prohibition of travelling, then why is one still obligated to have a service? If one Sabbath commandment can be set aside all Sabbath commandments can be set aside. This is the real difficulty of the dilemma.

One of my sympathetic correspondents referred to Hosea 6:6 as a possible solution for this dilemma: “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of G-d more than burnt-offerings”. She pointed to Yeshua’s citation of this verse in his discussion about the Sabbath with some Pharisees in Mt. 12:1-8. Her main point was the following syllogism.

Major: Sacrifices supersede the Sabbath, which is proved by the fact that “the priests in the Temple profane the Sabbath — e.g. by bringing sacrifices and by lighting the menorah — and are blameless” (Mt. 12:5, cf. Num. 28:9-10).

Minor: Mercy and knowledge supersede the sacrifices, according to Hos. 6:6: “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of G-d more than burnt-offerings”

Conclusion: If sacrifices supersede the Sabbath prohibitions and if mercy and the knowledge of G-d supersede the sacrifices, then a Torah service in Shul, which teaches and instils the knowledge of G-d, supersedes the sacrifices. And thus according to a kal v’chomer or a fortiori reasoning a Torah service certainly supersedes the Sabbath prohibitions, since it already supersedes the sacrifices.

Is this reasoning valid, and is it sufficient for demonstrating that in certain cases it is permitted to transgress some of the Sabbath prohibitions in order to perform a major Sabbath mitzvah, such as having a holy convocation? Let us try to analyse it.

It must be clear that the saying found in Hos. 6:6 doesn’t mean that it was permissible to neglect or override the Temple service in order to study Torah or to perform acts of mercy. An animal dedicated for sacrifice couldn’t return to its owner, not even for the sake of selling it to perform an act of mercy or tsedakah with the money. Similarly, this verse doesn’t mean that one could set aside the Temple service for the sake of Torah study. What then does the prophet intend to say? The basic point seems to be here that the Torah is an undivided and interdependent whole, and that to neglect one part of it does harm to the other parts as well. In the words of the Apostle James: “whosoever shall keep the whole Torah, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jm. 2:10). One can argue that mercy and the knowledge of HaShem are to be reckoned under the very goals of the Torah, since these virtues are akin to those of the Great Commandment. And thus to perform the ritual commandments, for instance the sacrifices, in a manner that despises with the demands of mercy and fear of HaShem is to miss the mark completely. Hosea possibly refers to those who misused the institutions of the sin and guilt offerings to atone for merciless and unrighteous behaviour without repentance and without any intention to repair the damage done. His prophetic cry is directed against religious hypocrisy.

In Yeshua’s ministry we meet this same cry, now directed against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Yeshua’s point seems to be that the goal of Torah observance is not to be sought in the perfect execution of the ritual demands on a technical-halachic level. The pericope of Mt. 12:1-8 also contains an argument taken from the Temple service, while the whole tenor of Yeshua’s conclusion circles around the fundamental values of mercy and compassion. It can be expected, therefore that this pericope is relevant for our understanding of the case of driving a car on the Sabbath for the sake of attending a congregational worship service.

The first thing that strikes us in Mt. 12:1-8 is that we are told that Yeshua’s talmidim were hungry: “At that time Yeshua went on the Sabbath day through the corn; and his talmidim were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat”. This walk through the cornfields probably took place during the Sabbath afternoon, and the hunger of the talmidim would signify that nobody had invited the Master and his talmidim for a Sabbath meal after the morning service in Shul. And now the Pharisees come and complain against Yeshua that his disciples transgress the Sabbath laws. According to a strict interpretation of the law they may have argued that what the disciples did — plucking ears and rubbing them in their hands according to the parallel passage in Lk. 6:1 — should be classified as reaping and threshing respectively. These were understood as belonging to the activity of harvesting, which was clearly prohibited on the Sabbath (Ex. 34:21). Reaping and threshing were among the 39 basic Sabbath prohibitions which were logically derived from the types of work prohibited on the Sabbath while the Mishkan was being built (cf. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, pp. 44-45).

Yeshua’s answer to the charges of the Pharisees begins with a reference to the incident of David and his men eating the shewbread (Mt. 12:3-4): “Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the House of G-d, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?”. From this history, recorded in I Sam. 21:1-6, we learn that for the sake of feeding the hungry David and his men the divine commandment concerning the shewbread was set aside. How much more, seems to be Yeshua’s inference, may a rabbinic commandment be set aside for the same kind of necessity.

One could argue against this explanation that the analogy between the situation of David and his men and the situation of the Yeshua and his talmidim doesn’t hold. While David and his fellows were hungry fighters on a dangerous mission and therefore needed to eat something, to all probability there was no real danger of life or of health involved if the talmidim had abstained from eating.

This argument may actually lead us into a deeper issue of the conflict. Yeshua’s reproach of the Pharisees doesn’t seem to be directed against their classification of the 39 categories of melachah and he doesn’t dispute the rule that one shouldn’t reap or thresh on the Sabbath day. We have seen above that activities that can be classified as harvesting are clearly prohibited by the Torah itself. The real point of conflict might be in the interpretation the Pharisees gave to this prohibition. From a common sense viewpoint nobody would describe the casual plucking and rubbing done in passing-by, by the categories of reaping or threshing, or harvesting. And this common sense perspective might be confirmed by the Torah, in its permission to pluck and eat from the standing corn of one’s neighbour, in Dt. 23:25: “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbours standing corn”. Moving the sickle unto the corn would constitute an instance of harvesting, since the Torah connects the use of the sickle with the beginning of the harvest, in Dt. 16:9. The opinion of the Pharisees, that considered any accidental plucking and rubbing as prohibited on the Sabbath could thus be refuted on pure halachic grounds. For this opinion presupposes that if this plucking and rubbing occures on a weekday it still counts as harvesting.

The Torah, however, does not classify these acts as harvesting, which can also be inferred by the injunction found in Lev. 19:9: “…when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field”. This injunction limits the acts of harvesting and reaping to “your land” and “thy field” respectively. It doesn’t say “…when ye reap the harvest of your neighbour’s land…”, for, obviously, a person is not supposed to harvest his neighbour’s field.

Thus Yeshua’s talmidim didn’t transgress the Torah when they plucked and rubbed ears. With the permission of their Master they only set aside a prohibition of the Pharisees which was based on an over-scrupulous interpretation of a Torah commandment. And they did this for the greater good of honoring the Sabbath. For according to the common and overriding tradition nobody should be hungry on a feast day or Sabbath. And for that reason the inference drawn by Yeshua from the example of David and his men eating the shewbread should be considered as valid. If David and his men were permitted to transgress a commandment of the Written Torah and eat of the holy bread because they were weakened and hungry, then certainly the talmidim were permitted to transgress an aggravating interpretation of the Written Torah for the sake of giving proper honour to the Sabbath.

As to the argument from Hosea 6:6, it faces two difficulties. The first difficulty is that using this text involves making halachot on the basis of the prophetic writings. However, since Yeshua does this we cannot object to it. The second difficulty is that it is doubtful whether attending a Synagogue service is in the category of an act of mercy. It can be argued that a service is in the category of “burnt offerings” mentioned in this text, since a service is primarily an act of worship. An act of worship is in the category of the ritual acts (i.e. the acts which have HaShem as their immediate object)  and not — at least not primarily — in the category of the moralacts (which have our fellow men as their immediate object). One could say, though, that there is some value in this argument, if one explains it as a permission to travel on the Sabbath because of a person’s ‘hunger’ to be nourished with the word of G-d. Such a permission would fit in with the demand of mercy.

It is true that such a permission would be an act of compassion. Yet it is far from sure whether such compassion is permitted if it leads to a direct transgression of the Torah on a regular basis. Both the case of David’s men and the shewbread and Yeshua’s application of Hosea’s text to this case deal with exceptional and unique situations. Yeshua’s appeal to Hosea is in the context of mercy since the disciples were hungry. Probably no one had invited Yeshua and his disciples for a Sabbath meal!

My personal view is that the most consistent way of reconciling the two demands of abstaining from travelling on the Sabbath and having a holy convocation on that day is through the principle that one shouldn’t transgress a commandement in order to fulfil another commandment. This reconciliation sets priorities and gives greater weight to the Sabbath rest than to communal worship and fellowship on that day. It seems to me that this principle rightly prioritizes the Sabbath rest as the more fundamental aspect of the Sabbath (cf. Gen. 2:2-3). The Sabbath rest is a precondition of the Sabbath worship and to overstep the boundaries set by this this precondition seems to overthrow the divine order of things and not only to damage the Sabbath rest but also the sabbatical nature of our worship on that day. Nevertheless, I understand the considerations of those who, for serious practical and communal reasons, don’t follow this principle and decide otherwise.

When facing a dilemma that cannot be escaped by the halachic device of “avoiding the situation” and in which one faces serious difficulties on both sides, one has simply to follow one conscience in the fear of HaShem and in trusting his mercy. This doesn’t imply, in my view, that one can use Hosea 6:6 as an excuse to escape the Sabbath prohibition of travelling. I actually don’t think the verse can be used for making a halachic rule. What I’m saying is that an appeal to this verse is perhaps possible in situations in which all rules fall short. There will always be situations that cannot be covered by rules, and rule-making itself, though necessary, only goes so far. In the end of the matter it is always the fear and love of HaShem that are decisive.  The problem of travelling on the Sabbath in order to have a holy convocation because of one’s particular circumstances should be dealt with in this spirit and as a matter of one’s personal conscience. And I think this is in accordance with what Yeshua taught in Mt. 12:3-8. However, one should never accept the dilemma one faces here as normal and be prepared to make serious efforts to move to a location which has functioning congregation.