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The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 16: The Creativity of Choice

I confront the same problem each week: Shabbat has begun and there are piles of books spread all over the desk, chairs and floor of my study. I need all the books in order to learn and to prepare my classes, columns and podcasts. However, things pile up. I may have used five or six sefarim to prepare an answer to What is the Reason and simply added them to the Reason pile on my floor. I still have my Purim books out, just next to my Parah books. Can I replace the piles of different books into their proper shelves? Perhaps not!

One of the 39 Categories of Thoughtful Creative Action on Shabbat is “Borer”, or Sorting. After the wheat was threshed, a mixed pile of waste matter remained on the threshing floor together with the grain kernels. There would often be pebbles and similar debris mixed in. The pebbles were too heavy to be separated by winnowing, and too small to be sifted out. They had to be sorted and removed by hand. This process is “Borer” or Sorting.

Any form of selecting from, or sorting of, a mixture or combination, may be Borer. This includes removing undesired objects or matter from a mixture or combination.

As I reach for each book and sort one from the other I am treading on Borer.

The Talmud, Shabbat 73b, clarifies the distinctions between Borer – Sorting, Zoreh – Winnowing and Merakaid – Sifting. They all deal with different forms of separation between what I desire and what I do not. I believe that each of these Melachot deals with a different aspect of decision-making and choice.

I hope to use the next series of The Music of Halacha, with a break for the laws of Passover, to focus on these three Melachot and the lessons they can teach us about making choices.

My basic premise is that Choice is actually considered a creative act. The physical action of sorting between what I want – Ochel – and what I do not want – Pesolet, and between good and bad is sufficiently creative to be considered one of the 39 categories of prohibited work on Shabbat.

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