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Purpose Driven Action


The Music of Halacha


Shabbat #3



In the previous essay we began to define the application of the Purpose Driven Action of Shabbat to our weekday efforts. We determined that it is not essential to consider the ultimate purpose of an action for it to qualify as meaningful. We find examples of this all over Halacha. For example, the Kesef Mishna (Laws of Tefillin and Mezuzah 5:4) teaches that “while it is true that a properly written Mezuzah will guard the house, it is not the angels, whose names are written on the outside of the parchment, who offer protection. Nor should one intend to write or place the Mezuzah for protection. One should have in mind to fulfill the commandment of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and the protection will derive from that intention.” The intention must be the immediate purpose.


Why do the Tosafot insist that the purpose is determined by the purpose in the Temple and not by the purpose of the action? Is there a difference?


In order to understand Tosafot’s opinion and its practical implications, we must go all the way back to the Mishna. This topic is the subject of a debate between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon throughout Tractate Shabbat. The two rabbis argue whether one is biblically liable for a “Melacha sh’aino Tzricha L’gufah”, or, an action that is performed for a substitute purpose.


Rabbeinu Zerachia HaLevi, taught that Rabbi Yehuda holds that any constructive action, even if the purpose differs from that in the Tabernacle, is a Purpose Driven Action. Rabbi Yehuda measures an action by its positive outcome, not by its intended purpose. Rabbi Shimon focuses on purpose. It is Rabbi Shimon who is taking us on our journey. He teaches us that our actions are measured by their purpose, not by their outcome. Rabbi Shimon derived his approach to creative action from the construction of the Tabernacle. He is the one who determined that our lives are shaped by Purpose Driven Actions. In fact, Rabbi Shimon holds that it is impossible to determine whether an action is constructive or destructive unless we first define its purpose! Rabbi Shimon teaches us that we must lead a purpose driven life, and we can measure our lives only in light of our purpose. Whether we are discussing our observances or our lives in general, we must always identify the purpose of our actions. The laws of Shabbat begin by asking us to know why we are doing what we are about to do. Eventually we will be able to identify the overall purpose of our lives.


. There are four major opinions as to how to define this category of action. See Merkevet Hamishna, Laws of Shabbat, Chapter 1; Mishna Berurah 278:3. Our discussion follows Tosafot’s understanding of Rabbi Shimon.

Charcoal was necessary for smelting metals for the construction of the Tabernacle. The craftsmen would scorch wood to create charcoal. They would extinguish the flames in order to produce the charcoal. Their intention was for a positive purpose. The wood was improved, for their purposes, when they put out the fire. An Other Purpose Action would be to blow out a candle, extinguish the flame, in order to darken a room. Rabbi Shimon held that one is not biblically liable for blowing out the candle. Rabbi Yehuda held that the person would be liable.

Ba’al Ha’Maor, Rif, Shabbat 37b.

This debate is related to another debate between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda regarding the biblical liability for damaging someone by wounding them on Shabbat[iv]. Rabbi Yehuda holds that one is not liable, in terms of Shabbat laws, for causing such a wound. Rabbi Shimon disagrees.

One of the only two of the 39 categories of prohibited Purpose Driven Action on Shabbat is making a fire. The verse actually specifically refers to imposing the death penalty by fire on Shabbat.(Maimonides, The Laws of Shabbat) It addresses taking someone’s life, yet it is considered constructive because of its purpose.

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