In this week’s parshah the first ever chilul Shabbos is committed. The possuk (15,32) tells us that “Bnei Yisroel were in the desert, and they found a man mekoshesh eitzim on Shabbos”. Why does the possuk start off by reminding us of the Bnei Yisroel’s whereabouts – we know full well where they were at this stage?! We shall answer this question in different ways according to the different opinions as to what exactly this man did wrong.

Shmuel (in the gemorra Shabbos 96) mantains that the mekoshesh broke Shabbos by carrying wood four cubits in the reshus harabim. According to this, the Shagos Aryeh explains, we can understand very well why the Torah needs to emphasize Bnei Yisroel being in the desert. The gemorra Shabbos 6 says there was only one time in history that the desert was considered a reshus harabim, and that was during the 40 years that Bnei Yisroel spent in it. During this time, a desert acquired the halachic status of a place people walk in, and thus a reshus harabim. It is only thanks to this that the mekoshesh was chayav misah, and therefore the Torah precedes his story with the words “Bnei Yisroel were in the desert”.

The other opinions in the gemorra maintain that the mekoshesh did not carry; rather he broke Shabbos either by harvesting produce or by gathering it together. A desert is a place where plants cannot grow; where did the mekoshesh find anything to harvest or gather? The Medrash tells us that during the Bnei Yisroel’s sojourn in the desert, the Clouds of Glory miraculously caused the desert floor to bloom with all sorts of plants and flowers. These dried up as soon as the Jews journeyed on from that point – they were only there to beautify the path for the Bnei Yisroel. We can therefore say that the mekoshesh harvested/gathered produce from this miraculous growth. However, this raises another problem: a fundamental principle of both these forbidden works is that they are only problematic when performed with produce of the ground. The produce in the desert was miraculous in nature and did not come from the ground, so what was the problem? This can be answered with a statement of Rava in Eiruvin (55). During the time of Bnei Yisroel’s stay in desert, since they were travelling directly led and supported by Hashem, everything that happened to them is looked at halachically as permanent and normal. Therefore even though at other times harvesting and gathering miraculously-grown produce would not present a problem on Shabbos, in this situation when everything that happened to Bnei Yisroel was on a miraculous plane, such produce is considered as good old ground grown produce.

Therefore, says the Maharil Diskin in the name of his Rebi, the possuk highlights the fact that Bnei Yisroel were in the desert; this fact was the only reason why the mekoshesh was found to be deserving of the death penalty, according to all the opinions in the gemorra.

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