Like Pulling Teeth
In honor of the Aseres Hadibros:
Question #1: Pulling Teeth
May I pull teeth on Shabbos?
Question #2: Clipping Fingernails
Does clipping fingernails on Shabbos involve a Torah prohibition?
Question #3: Digging Up
On Yom Tov, may I dig up earth to perform the mitzvah of kisuy hadam?
Each of our opening questions involves a complicated and often misunderstood concept of the laws of Shabbos, called melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. This topic is the subject of a machlokes between the tanna’im Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon, as to whether it is forbidden min haTorah or miderabbanan: Rabbi Yehudah contends that it is prohibited min haTorah, and Rabbi Shimon rules that it is prohibited only as a rabbinic decree. I deliberately did not yet translate the term melacha she’einah tzericha legufah, since this might bias the reader toward one interpretation over another.
What we do need to understand is that the laws of Shabbos and Yom Tov are qualitatively different from most other mitzvos and prohibitions of the Torah; regarding these laws the motive is a factor as to whether an action is prohibited.
At this stage, the basic questions we must resolve include:
- What is the definition of melacha she’einah tzericha legufah?
- Since all opinions agree that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah is prohibited, what difference does it make whether the prohibition is min haTorah or miderabbanan?
As is typical, the Gemara does not define melacha she’einah tzericha legufah, but does provide numerous instances of the principle. This article will present some of the cases and endeavor to illustrate how some rishonim explain the concept. I will then explain some of the halachic differences that result.
Here are some cases that the Gemara cites of melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. In all of them, Rabbi Yehudah ruled that they are prohibited min haTorah, whereas Rabbi Shimon prohibited them only miderabbanan.
- Carrying a corpse out of a building so that a kohen may enter (see Mishnah Shabbos 93b).
- Extinguishing a fire to help someone fall asleep (Mishnah Shabbos 29b and Gemara Shabbos 30a). In modern times, we would talk about turning off a light for the same purpose.
There are also some cases that most, but not all, authorities consider to be cases of melacha she’einah tzericha legufah:
- Lancing an infection to allow the pus to drain (Shabbos 107a).
- Catching a snake to prevent it from biting someone (Shabbos 107a). All agree that this is permitted if it is a life-threatening emergency. The case in question is where the snake bite cannot kill, but may be very painful.
In the last two cases, some contend that these are permitted only in a life- threatening emergency, whereas others contend that the prohibition is only rabbinic, and therefore permit it. This is because, when the prohibition is only a rabbinic injunction, Chazal permit these measures for safety or medical reasons, even when the situation poses no threat to life.
At this point, I will provide three approaches to explain melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. Tosafos (Shabbos 94a s.v. Rabbi Shimon; Chagigah 10b s.v. meleches) explains that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah means that the activity was performed for a purpose that is different from the purpose of this melacha when the Mishkan was built. For example, in the Mishkan, all carried items were transported because they were needed in the place to which they were brought. Thus, carrying an item in order to remove it from its current place, and not because you want it in its new location, qualifies as a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. Therefore, when you want a kohen to be able to enter a building and, to allow this, you carry the meis outdoors, that is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. Your reason for moving the meis is not so that it will be outdoors, but rather so that it will not be in the house.
Clipping fingernails and all other cases of removing something from a living thing are prohibited on Shabbos because of the melacha of gozeiz, shearing sheep; building the Mishkan required wool. In the Mishkan, sheep were shorn in order to use the wool. Therefore, removing the horn of a rhinoceros or the tusks from an elephant, in order to use them, is prohibited min haTorah as a form of gozeiz. (There is discussion among halachic authorities whether gozeiz applies if the animal is dead. According to those who contend that it does not, you would be in violation of gozeiz only by removing horns or tusks from living rhinos or elephants — probably not such a good idea, even on a weekday.)
In the case of clipping nails, the melacha “benefits” the body, not the nails, which is different from the melacha of gozeiz as performed in the Mishkan. Therefore, Tosafos explains that, according to Rabbi Shimon, clipping fingernails on Shabbos is prohibited only miderabbanan,but not min haTorah. (We should note that another rishon,the Rivosh, agrees with Tosafos’ definition of melacha she’einah tzericha legufah, but disagrees with this application. He contends that clipping fingernails is prohibited min haTorah, even according to Rabbi Shimon, because some cases of gozeiz in the Mishkan involved benefit to what is being shorn and not exclusively to the item being removed – Shu”t Harivosh #394.)
According to Tosafos, the words melacha she’einah tzericha legufah mean a melacha that was not for the purposes of the Mishkan.
Although some rishonim understand melacha she’einah tzericha legufah the way Tosafos does, most do not. The Ramban (Shabbos 94b) explains melacha she’einah tzericha legufah as: you are not interested in the specific result. In the case of carrying the meis out of the house, although you are carrying it from an enclosed area (a reshus hayachid) to an open area meant for public use (a reshus harabim), your goal is to remove the meis from the house. If you could have it disappear completely, your immediate needs would be addressed. You are carrying the meis into a reshus harabim only because this is the simplest way to resolve the issue, not because you have any interest in performing an act of carrying into a reshus harabim on Shabbos.
The subtle difference between Tosafos and the Ramban can perhaps best be explained by providing an example: According to the Ramban, clipping fingernails is prohibited min haTorah, even according to Rabbi Shimon, because your goal is to remove the nails from your fingers, and that is what you are doing. The fact that, in the Mishkan, this melacha was performed to use the item clipped off is not relevant. According to the Ramban, the words melacha she’einah tzericha legufah mean that the person doing the melacha she’einah tzericha legufah gains nothing from the result of the melacha activity. He is doing the act of the melacha to remove a problem, not because he has any need for the result.
Here is another case in which Tosafos and the Ramban would disagree: Let’s say someone picks a fight with an enemy on Shabbos and mauls him with a mean uppercut, drawing blood. According to the Ramban, this is prohibited min haTorah, according to all opinions. The reason is that his goal when he punched was to draw blood, and he successfully accomplished his purpose. However, according to Tosafos, this is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah, since in the Mishkan the purpose of drawing blood was to make the animal into a useful “implement,” which is a different intent from that of the puncher.
Here is a case where both Tosafos and the Ramban agree on the halacha, but disagree as to why this is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. Building a fire or burning wood, according to both of them, does not qualify as a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah; it is prohibited min haTorah, even according to Rabbi Shimon. The reasons Tosafos and the Ramban conclude this are slightly different. According to Tosafos, the reason is because kindling and burning were performed in the Mishkan in order to process the vat dyes that were used: techeiles, argaman, and tolaas shani. Therefore, burning wood to cook is a similar activity to what was performed in building the Mishkan. According to the Ramban, Rabbi Shimon considers this a melacha min haTorah because the goal when performing the melacha is to burn the wood, and that is the forbidden outcome.
Opinion of the Baal Hama’or
A third opinion, that of the Baal Hama’or (Shabbos 106a), is that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah means a melacha performed when the improvement occurs not to the item on which the melacha is performed, but to a different item. In his opinion, the words melacha she’einah tzericha legufah mean an act in which the item upon which the melacha is performed does not improve because of the action.
Thus, clipping one’s nails is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah and, according to Rabbi Shimon, is not prohibited min haTorah, since the nails are not improved by the clipping. Thus, in this particular case, the Baal Hama’or agrees with Tosafos and disagrees with the Ramban.
On the other hand, here is a case that the Baal Hama’or and the Ramban agree that even Rabbi Shimon considers a violation of Shabbos min haTorah, whereas Tosafos disagrees. Among some populations, livestock are used for an interesting harvesting operation. The owners draw blood, which is a highly nourishing beverage, from their livestock, in a way similar to the method in which we humans donate blood. They then drink the blood, either straight or mixed with milk. (By the way, it is permitted for a non-Jew to harvest and drink blood this way, which is a topic for a different time.) Our question is whether this action would violate melacha on Shabbos min haTorah or only miderabbanan.
According to Tosafos, since blood was not drawn for this purpose in the Mishkan, it is prohibited miderabbanan, according to Rabbi Shimon. However, according to both the Baal Hama’or and the Ramban, this is prohibited min haTorah even according to Rabbi Shimon, although there is a subtle difference as to why. According to the Baal Hama’or, this is prohibited min haTorah because the melacha is performed on the blood, and this is a positive result (from a human perspective) because you now have access to the blood. According to the Ramban, this is also prohibited min haTorah, because the perpetrator’s goal is to have blood at his disposal, and he has accomplished this.
Here is an example where all the opinions quoted agree that it is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah: Moving an item that has a bad odor from a reshus hayachid, an enclosed area, into a reshus harabim, an open area meant for public use. Although moving something from a reshus hayachid into a reshus harabim constitutes the melacha of carrying, moving the foul-smelling item from a house to a reshus harabim does not constitute a melacha min haTorah, according to Rabbi Shimon, because the purpose of the carrying for the Mishkan was to move the item to an accessible location. However, when removing a foul-smelling item, there is no significance attached to the place to which the item is moved; one’s goal is only to distance it from its current location. The public area does not constitute the goal of one’s act, but rather a convenient place to deposit unwanted material. I note that although all three rishonim that I have quoted are in agreement regarding this ruling, there is at least one early authority, Rav Nissim Gaon (Shabbos 12a), who disagrees and considers this action to be a Torah prohibition even according to Rabbi Shimon.
At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: Does clipping fingernails involve a Torah prohibition on Shabbos?
According to Tosafos’ understanding of Rabbi Shimon’s opinion, and also according to the Baal Hama’or,this is prohibited only miderabbanan. However, according to the other opinions we have mentioned, this is prohibited min haTorah, even according to Rabbi Shimon.
In practical halacha, the question is: When there is a pressing but not life-threatening need to clip or trim nails on Shabbos, is it permitted to have a non-Jew do so? (See Nekudos Hakesef, Yoreh Deah 198:21; Biur Halacha 340:1 s.v. vechayov.)
I am limiting this discussion about melacha she’einah tzericha legufah to these three approaches, notwithstanding that there are many opinions how to explain the concept, with many differences in halacha (see, for example, Rav Nissim Gaon, Shabbos 12a; Tosafos Rid, Shabbos 107b and 121b; Meginei Shelomoh, Shabbos 94a; Mirkeves Hamishneh, beginning of Hilchos Shabbos; Yeshu’os Yaakov, Orach Chayim 319:1).
How do we rule?
Does the halachic conclusion follow Rabbi Yehudah or Rabbi Shimon? This, itself, is a major dispute among the rishonim. The Rambam and others rule that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah is prohibited min haTorah, following Rabbi Yehudah, while others rule that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah is prohibited only miderabbanan, following Rabbi Shimon. It is even unclear which way the Shulchan Aruch and the later poskim rule.
What difference does it make?
We find that Chazal were lenient in several halachic issues that involve melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. For example, under certain circumstances, because of pain or illness, they permitted performing a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. (Those who rule that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah violates a Torah law permit this only when the situation is life threatening, or because of a different halachic reason).
Here is another situation in which many halachic authorities are lenient. As we are aware, most food preparation activities are permitted on Yom Tov, at least min haTorah. We may find it strange, but it is permitted to shecht on Yom Tov. Prior to the discovery of refrigeration, this was the easiest way to supply fresh meat for Yom Tov. (Although this may sound a bit pessimistic, life is the world’s best preservative.)
The halachic question we will address is the following: When shechting fowl or deer (or any other species of chayah), the halacha requires that we perform a mitzvah called kisuy hadam, which means covering the blood of the shechitah, both below and above, with earth or something similar, such as sawdust. The question is whether it is permitted to dig up earth, under certain circumstances, in order to perform kisuy hadam on Yom Tov.
If melacha she’einah tzericha legufah is prohibited min haTorah, as is the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, or if the act does not qualify as a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah but is a regular melacha activity, it is prohibited to dig up earth in order to perform the mitzvah of kisuy hadam. However, if we rule according to Rabbi Shimon, one would be allowed to dig up earth (which is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah) to perform the mitzvah of kisuy hadam, at least under certain circumstances (Maharsha, Beitzah 8a s.v. Tosafos ve’eino; Machatzis Hashekel 498:25; Nesiv Chayim ad loc.).
At this point, we can return to our opening question:
May I pull teeth on Shabbos?
Let us first analyze whether this is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. According to Tosafos’ opinion, the melacha in the Mishkan this would fall under is gozeiz, and gozeiz was performed only to use the item being shorn. In my experience, a tooth is never pulled in order to use it. Therefore, this is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah and prohibited only miderabbanan according to Rabbi Shimon. However, should the market price on tooth enamel go through the roof, and someone choose to remove his tooth for his huge resale value, pulling the tooth would be prohibited min haTorah.
According to the Ramban, the tooth is being pulled because it is painful, not because I want the tooth itself. If I could get the tooth to disappear, that would be even more helpful, since I would avoid the pain and risk of infection that pulling it entails. Thus, the Ramban also categorizes this as a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah.
According to the Baal Hama’or, no benefit is gained from the tooth, and so, just as we explained according to the Ramban, this is a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. As mentioned above, should circumstances change such that the removal of the tooth is performed for fnanical benefit, the act would become Torah prohibited also according to the Ramban and the Baal Hama’or.
Thus, all three rishonim we quoted do not consider pulling a tooth on Shabbos to be a Torah violation. Therefore, in a situation where a dentist wants to pull a tooth and the patient is in intense pain, all three of these rishonim would agree that this is permitted, according to Rabbi Shimon, even if the dentist is Jewish.
We also need to deal with the bleeding that will, undoubtedly, result when pulling a tooth. Again, according to Tosafos, this bleeding is not comparable to the reason that this melacha was performed in the Mishkan. According to both the Baal Hama’or and the Ramban, this would also qualify as a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah.
Thus, it would seem that according to those rishonim who rule that melacha she’einah tzericha legufah is prohibited only miderabbanan, this should be permitted (Mishnah Berurah 316:30; Biur Halacha ad loc.; Nimla Tal, Shocheit #53; however, cf. Magen Avraham 328:3).
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos, in order for it to be a day of rest. He points out that the Torah does not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha, activities or actions that achieve purpose and accomplishment. The concept of melacha she’einah tzericha legufah bears this out. It is no harder to perform a melacha hatzericha legufah, which is prohibited min haTorah according to all opinions, than to perform a melacha she’einah tzericha legufah. Yet, according to Rabbi Shimon, the latter is prohibited only because of a rabbinic injunction. This is because this action is not considered to provide “purpose,” as explained above.
Shabbos is a day when we refrain from altering the world for our own purposes, and the melacha she’einah tzericha legufah type of activity is not considered our own purpose. The goal of Shabbos is to allow Hashem’s rule to be the focus of creation, by refraining from our own creative acts.