May I Take Lives?

Introduction

One of the 39 melachos on Shabbos is netilas neshamah, literally, taking a life. Although we may not want to consider this to be a constructive activity, we recognize that the animal world was placed under our control to use it responsibly and respectfully. This article will discuss some of the details of the halachos of Shabbos that are included in this melacha.

When listing the melachos, the Mishnah, refers to it as hashocheit, meaning he who slaughters. (Later in the article, I will discuss why the Mishnah refers to it in this manner, rather than the more technically accurate hanoteil neshama.) To quote the Mishnah, “One who traps a deer, one who slaughters it, one who skins it, one who salts the hide, one who tans the hide, one who scrapes off the hair, and one who cuts it to size” (Shabbos 73a). Performing any of these activities on Shabbos violates one of the 39 main categories of desecrating Shabbos, what we call an av melacha. As we will see shortly, there are also tolados melacha, subcategories of these 39, which also involve a Torah violation of Shabbos.

An obvious question is that the Mishnah lists “salting the hide” and “tanning the hide” as two different melachos, which is strange, since salting is one of the stages in tanning, and, therefore, does not comprise a separate av melacha. The Gemara notes that this is indeed true, and that “salting” should therefore be deleted from the Mishnah. Since this would result in the Mishnah listing only 38 melachos and not 39, the Gemara explains that a different melacha, called mesarteit, should be included. Mesarteit means “marking,” which, according to Rashi, refers to scoring or marking leather in order to know where to cut it (Shabbos 75b). According to the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 11:17), mesarteit is scoring paper or parchment in order to be able to write on it neatly. The Rambam explains that a toladah of this melacha would be to mark lumber prior to sawing it. Marking a precious stone in order to decide how to cut it is another application of mesarteit (Minchas Chinuch). An interesting contemporary example might be when a surgeon marks a patient’s skin where he intends to make his incision.

Purpose of shocheit

Returning to shocheit, this melacha was necessary to prepare materials for the construction of the Mishkan, such as the hides of the rams and the techashim, the unusual species that appeared on earth so that its hide could be used in the construction of the Mishkan and then became extinct (Shabbos 28b).

Chilazon catching

There is halachic discussion regarding whether the melacha of shocheit was necessary to create the dyes prepared from the chilazon, the fish from which the techeiles was made. Allow me to explain. The Gemara (Shabbos 75a) quotes a beraysa, a teaching dating to the era of the Mishnah, that there is a machlokes tanna’im regarding someone who catches a chilazon and squeezes out its liquid used for dyeing. Does he violate only the melacha of trapping or is he also liable for extracting the dye, which would violate the melacha of dosh, threshing. The Gemara then asks why this process does not also violate the melacha of netilas neshamah. The Gemara quotes two answers to this question:

Rabbi Yochanan explains that processing dyes from a live chilazon indeed violates netilas neshamah, but the beraysa omits this fact, because it is discussing a case where the chilazon is already dead.

Rava answers that the beraysa may indeed be discussing someone extracting dye from a live chilazon, yet he does not violate netilas neshamah because the dyer is trying to keep the chilazon alive while he extracts its dye, since it produces better color when it is alive (Shabbos 75a). Notwithstanding the fact that the extraction will kill the chilazon, since the dyer is trying to keep it alive, he does not violate a melacha for killing it, according to this opinion.

Bleeding

Causing a person or animal to bleed on Shabbos is a Torah violation of shocheit. Which of the 39 melachos does this violate? This is the subject of a major dispute among the rishonim, many of whom conclude that one violates the melacha of netilas neshamah. A question already raised by the rishonim is that if netilas neshamah is the taking of life, why does one violate it when all he did was cause a loss of blood?

The answer is that since the posuk states, ki hadam hu hanefesh, that blood is life, causing bleeding is considered, for the purposes of this melacha, the same as taking life (Tosafos, Kesubos 5b s.v. Dam and Shabbos 75a s.v. Ki).

Causing what we call a black-and-blue mark, which means that there is some form of bruising or superficial bleeding beneath the skin, also violates shocheit min haTorah (Shabbos 107b and Rashi).

As we have learned, the concept of meleches shocheit is taking the life of an animal. It refers to the instances in which it was necessary to take an animal’s life (netilas neshamah) in order to prepare materials for the construction of the Mishkan. However, this netilas neshamah did not require ritual slaughter. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 11:1): “One who slaughters is obligated for desecrating Shabbos, and not only one who slaughters, but anyone who takes the life of any living creature, be it a mammal, a bird, a fish or a creeping creature; whether he took its life through shechitah, nechirah, or by beating it.” I will explain shortly what the word nechirah means.

Drowning

Several later authorities conclude that drowning an animal on Shabbos similarly violates netilas neshamah min haTorah (Shu”t Chavos Yair #164; Nishmas Odom 31:3).

Fish out of water

Removing a fish from water violates netilas neshamah (Rashi, Shabbos 107b; Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 11:1). To quote the Gemara, “Shmuel said, one who removes a fish from water is guilty of desecrating Shabbos once a coin-sized part of its skin has dried out” (Shabbos 107b). The Gemara then adds that this is true when the dried-out area is between its fins, since, once the fish has dried out this much, it will die, even should one return it to water.

One who catches a fish and hauls it out of the water violates both trapping, tzad, and taking its life. If it was caught from before Shabbos, but left in the water until Shabbos, one who removes it from the water is in violation only for killing it. Someone who trapped the fish on Shabbos and placed it into a bucket of water violated tzad, but not killing it.

Wrong name

At this point, I will discuss a question alluded to earlier. Although when we use the word shechitah, we ordinarily mean the halachically accepted method of preparing an animal for the Jewish table, the word can be used as a translation for any instance in which one would use the word slaughter in English. (See, for example, Yirmiyohu 52:10.) Why, then, does the Mishnah call the melachahashocheit,” rather than the broader and more accurate term hanoteil neshamah, “one who takes the life of an animal?”

The answer is that, in truth, the melacha is killing an animal and not necessarily shechting it. However, the Mishnah (Shabbos 73a) uses the term “hashocheit” because it chooses, for its own educational reasons, the example of a deer (“one who traps a deer, one who slaughters it, etc.”), and prefers expressing the name of the melacha in the context of processing it for kosher food.

Baking or cooking?

This is similar to another case in the same Mishnah, regarding the melacha that we usually call bishul, cooking, which the Mishnah calls “ofeh,” baking. The “cooking” performed in the construction of the Mishkan was the heating of dyes in vats, in which cloth was placed for dyeing. Nevertheless, the Mishnah calls the melacha ofeh, baking, since it fits the Mishnah’s pedagogic style better to refer to the baking of bread, notwithstanding that no baking was involved in the construction of the Mishkan (Shabbos 74b).

Nechirah

We quoted, above, the Rambam’s statement that someone who kills an animal by means of nechirah has violated the av melacha of netilas neshamah. What is nechirah?

In Modern Hebrew, the word nechirah means stabbing an animal to death, a common method of non-kosher slaughter. However, there is no evidence in traditional sources that this is what the word means. From the Mishnah (Bava Kama 7:5; Chullin 5:3; 6:2), we see that the word nechirah refers to a means of killing an animal, but it is unclear exactly which method is intended. Further complicating matters is that Rashi, in two different places, presents two contrary approaches. In Chullin (85b) he explains nechirah to mean choking an animal to death, whereas in Bava Kama (78b), he understands it differently, relating the word nechirah to the Hebrew word for nostril, nechir, which has the same root.

The Rambam could not have understood nocheir to mean choking, because he explains (Hilchos Shabbos 11:1) that choking an animal is a toladah of netilas neshamah, whereas he explains that nechirah is the av melacha itself. Since he wrote no other description, we cannot ascertain what he understood nechirah to mean. Thus, we are left with no definitive conclusion regarding what constitutes nechirah.

Av versus toladah

The statement of the Rambam that I just quoted raises a different question: Indeed, why is choking an animal only a toladah of netilas neshama and not the av melacha itself? Perhaps this is because choking withholds something vital from the animal (air) rather than directly killing it (Nimla Tal, Meleches Shocheit #32).

Dyeing or dying?

In this context, we cannot ignore a seemingly very strange passage of Gemara (Shabbos 75a-b, as explained by Tosafos). “Why is slaughtering on Shabbos a punishable offense for desecrating Shabbos? Rav said because of dyeing, and Shmuel said because of taking a life.” The Gemara then asked of Rav, is slaughtering only a violation of dyeing and not of taking a life? To this, the Gemara replies that Rav meant that slaughtering violates two prohibitions on Shabbos, one for taking a life and the other for dyeing. The Gemara then explains why Rav contends that the shocheit also violates dyeing: The butcher wants part of the hide of a freshly slaughtered animal to look bright red, because it attracts customers interested in purchasing fresh meat. This is an adequate reason to consider the slaughtering a melacha of dyeing.

Dies after Shabbos?

What is the halacha if someone removed a fish from water towards the very end of Shabbos, but the fish did not die until Shabbos was over? Has the person violated Shabbos min haTorah, since his action was performed on Shabbos, or has he not, since the fish did not die until motza’ei Shabbos? This subject is debated by several late authorities (see, for example, Rashash, Shabbos 73a; Minchas Chinuch 298:8; Tzafnas Paneiach, Hilchos Shabbos 9:1; Eglei Tal, Meleches Zorei’a 8:8).

Positive purpose

A general principle regarding the melachos of Shabbos is that they are prohibited min haTorah only when they provide a positive benefit, what we call a tikun (Mishnah Shabbos 105b). Performing a melacha activity whose direct result is negative is called mekalkeil and does not violate Shabbos min haTorah. For example, digging a hole on Shabbos only because one needs some earth with which to cover a spill is not a violation of the melacha min haTorah, but only miderabbanan. The reason is that the hole is itself not an advantage. One violates the melacha of choreish, plowing, only when one creates a furrow or something similar, such that the digging itself results in something beneficial.

A consequence of this principle is that violating netilas neshamah min haTorah requires that the result is positive – it creates or is a stage in the creation of meat, leather, dye or something similar. (Although there is a tanna, Rabbi Shimon, who rules that netilas neshamah is an exception to the general rule of mekalkeil [Shabbos 106a], the halacha does not follow his approach [Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 8:8, 12:1; Rashi, Chullin 40a s.v. Shalosh; Tosafos, Chullin 29b s.v. Kegon].)

Killing insects

The halacha that a melacha activity is prohibited min haTorah only when its results are positive affects the following common question: Is killing annoying insects on Shabbos prohibited min haTorah? If it is prohibited min haTorah, the only reason to permit eliminating these insects is when they pose a threat to life. However, if the prohibition is only miderabbanan, there may be other grounds upon which to permit this, under extenuating circumstances. Although we will leave details of this for a different time, we now realize that a Torah prohibition is involved only when someone intends to put the insect remains to good use.

I will now present a more detailed discussion about this idea, which requires an introduction germane to a different, seemingly unrelated topic.

Value added

It is prohibited min haTorah to have any benefit from something that was used to worship idols. The Gemara (Chullin 8a) rules that, notwithstanding this law, one is permitted to perform the act of shechitah with a knife that was designated for idol worship. How can this be permitted?

The Gemara assumes that an animal is worth more in the marketplace when alive than after shechitah. This was certainly true in the time of the Gemara, when a living animal could be used for hauling or other employment, something difficult to get it to do after shechitah. The Gemara explains that since an animal is worth more alive than dead, no value was added when the prohibited appliance changed the animal from employee to food. Thus, shechitah did not add any value, and the shechitah knife’s contribution is considered negative. In other words, this act is considered mekalkeil. And this is halachically true, even if you are a butcher with a long line of customers waiting to purchase fresh meat.

The Gemara then states that, although we have established that the avodah zarah knife may be used to shecht the animal, it is forbidden to use that knife to slice up the meat after shechitah has been completed. This is because, at this point, cutting up and slicing the meat add financial value.

The animal is sick

There is an old Yiddish proverb: When a poor man eats chicken, one of them is sick. This proverb can be used to explain the next passage of the Gemara that we have been studying: Rava explained that sometimes it is prohibited to shecht with this avodah zarah knife. When? In the case of a sick animal whose life is in danger, but it is not a tereifah, meaning that its illness does not affect its kashrus status. In this instance, slaughtering the animal, thus permitting its meat for Jewish consumption, increases the value of the animal, since a sick animal cannot work and may die without the benefit of shechitah, which would severely decrease its value. Thus, this shechitah adds financial value, and, as a result, may not be performed with an avodah zarah knife.

Honored guest

The next point in the Gemara is that although we have just established that one may not slice up meat with an avodah zarah knife, there is a situation in which this is permitted. When is this? If it is a nice cut of meat that would be suitable to serve to an honored guest, but one chooses to cut it up. Although this may make it more serviceable for your family, on an objective level it has decreased the value of the meat, since upper echelon people would no longer purchase it. Since the slicing in this instance reduces the commercial value of the meat, it is considered mekalkeil, and therefore permitted to be done with an avodah zarah knife.

Isn’t all shechitah mekalkeil?

On the basis of this Talmudic discussion, Tosafos (Shabbos 106a) asks: Should not every act of shechitah qualify as mekalkeil, whenever the animal is worth more as a work animal? If that is true, then most acts of shechitah will be exempt from desecrating Shabbos, something that the Gemara, in the above-quoted dispute between Rav and Shmuel, should have noted, but did not.

There are several answers to this question. Some assume that the two mitzvos, Shabbos and avodah zarah, follow different rules. Regarding avodah zarah, there must be a financial net gain for it to be considered that one “benefited” from the prohibition. Regarding the laws of Shabbos, a person’s subjective interest that this animal becomes meat is enough reason to render the melacha a tikun (Sefer Yerei’im).

Conclusion

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos in order to provide a day of rest. This is incorrect, he points out, because the Torah does not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha, which implies work with purpose and accomplishment. On Shabbos, we refrain from altering the world with our own creative acts and instead emphasize Hashem’s role (Shemos 20:11). We thereby acknowledge the true Builder and Creator of the world and all that it contains.

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