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Ask the Rabbi - 296

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December 16, 2000 / 19 Kislev 5761; Issue #296

In a previous "Ask the Rabbi," we wrote about the ability to move a cursor via electrodes connected to the brain, and the implications regarding Shabbat observance.

In response, Rabbi Shmuel Globus sent us the following related article entitled "Building Heaven and Earth." It is a translation of a portion of "Hod Yosef" by the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad). In it, the Ben Ish Chai examines the halachic stance toward creating live beings on Shabbat via kabalistic means. He cites the view of the Geza Yishai that this is a Torah Prohibition, and then attempts to refute this position. Here is the abridged translation:

"Building Heaven & Earth"
by the Ben Ish Chai

To spread the Heavens and to establish the earth... (Isaiah 51:16)

There is a way to create things with words. The ancient Kabalistic work Sefer Yetzirah [attributed to Abraham] contains the combinations of words with which G-d created the world. Rabbis versed in this wisdom can create things too. Rava once created a man with it. Rav Hanina and Rav Oshayah used to study Sefer Yetzirah every Friday afternoon and would create a choice calf, which they would eat (Sanhedrin 65b, Rashi ad loc.).

Is doing this on Shabbat included in the work of Building?

The author of Geza Yishai says it is. True, the rabbis who study Sefer Yetzirah perform no physical action. They merely combine the letters of the Holy Name with which the world was created; through this a man is created. But moving their lips is itself a kind of action. Since it causes such a powerful effect as creating a man or an animal, it is considered a Torah prohibition on Shabbat to do so: It falls under the work categories of "Building" and "Kneading." (Geza Yishai, Ma'arechet Ha'alef)

This is the view of the Geza Yishai. I, however question whether the Shabbat Laws apply to creating a man. First, Sefer Yetzirah is a highly unusual way of making something. Few can do it. The Torah only forbids work performed the normal way.

Second, the laws of Shabbat are derived from the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The forms of work performed when building the Mishkan are forbidden to us; those that were not performed are permitted to us. The Talmud states this in many places. Since nothing was made for the Mishkan by combining Holy Names, such work cannot be prohibited.

The definition of Building cannot be stretched to include "building" a living being. This is the proof: Causing the creation of a child is permitted on Shabbat.... Is this not quite similar to planting wheat in the ground, which later develops into a plant and sprouts from the earth? Planting wheat on Shabbat is surely forbidden by the Torah. The Sages should have forbidden causing a child's creation as well...A living being will have been "planted" on Shabbat! Clearly, there is no such thing as "planting" a living being (insofar as the laws of Shabbat are concerned). And for good reason. Only plants were planted for the Mishkan, not people. The same goes for the work of "Building." Inanimate objects were built for the Mishkan, not living beings.

This also explains why we are allowed to create angels and heavens, which we create with our mitzvot and new Torah ideas. The same reasoning applies: Spiritual entities that exist in another realm were not made for the Mishkan.

Lastly, one who creates through Sefer Yetzirah is not really doing anything: The letters themselves are doing it. These combinations of letters performed acts of creation long ago, during the Six Days of Creation. One merely stimulates them, by pronouncing them, to create further. The holy letters are creating. Not the man who stimulated them through his speech.

  • Hod Yosef 50
  • Translation by Rabbi Shmuel Globus, soon to be published by Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom

Written by various Rabbis at Ohr Somayach Institutions / Tanenbaum College, Jerusalem, Israel.
General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
Production Design: Michael Treblow
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