Mishnah Shabbat 6:3-4

Should weapons be seen as men’s ornamentation?
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Legal text
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Shabbat 6:3-4


These passages from Mishnah Shabbat discuss objects that Jews are not allowed to bring from a private domain (i.e. home) into the public domain during Shabbat. In Chapter Six of tractate Shabbat, the Mishnah assumes that a person may go between public and private spaces with clothing, jewelry, and ornaments, namely articles that are worn or fastened in a way that prevents them from coming loose and falling. This chapter also restricts women from going out on Shabbat with jewelry that they might be inclined to remove and show to their neighbors (cf. Tosefta Shabbat 4:11, which states that women may go out wearing any type of jewelry or ornament; takhshit). The two passages analyzed here distinguish between items that belong to women, particularly ornaments and perfumes (3), and those that are associated with men, featuring various types of weapons (4). As Ishay Rozen-Zvi and Dror Yinon note, a similar analogy between women’s ornaments and men’s weapons also appears in Mishnah Kelim 11:8, which considers their ritual purity (“Male Jewels/Female Jewels,” p. 57, note 6; see also Sifre Zuta on Deuteronomy 22:5, Kahana edition, p. 332-337; more on the contrast between women’s and men’s attire in Kraemer, “Adornment and Gender”). The halakhic discussion in Mishnah Shabbat on the permissibility of bringing weaponry into the public domain on Shabbat conveys contrasting views among the sages on how to evaluate weapons: Do they symbolize masculinity? Are they analogous to the ornaments and jewelry worn by women? More broadly, the opinions in Section 4 may also reflect attitudes toward the use of force. From a thematic perspective, did the sages’ approaches to exercising military power develop over time?

Section 3 lists a series of objects that have both practical and decorative uses. Rabbi Meir mentions a needle that has utility and, thus, is prohibited on Shabbat; he lists a seal ring that, although defined as an adornment here, is used for marking a seal and is therefore not allowed on the Sabbath. The identification of the next two items is less clear, and scholars have offered several explanations for them: It has been posited that a kukhlyar is a spiral or a snail, namely an ornament that would be placed on a woman’s head; alternatively, it has been described as a brooch. The kokhelet has been interpreted as a bundle of spices or a vessel of perfume that was worn as a pendant or near the breast (on this and other interpretations of these objects, see Safrai, Tractate Shabbat, p. 228).The final item is a flask of perfumed oil that women may also hang on their bodies, perhaps around their necks. By definition, any articles that may be used for work are excluded on Shabbat, whereas those that are purely decorative are usually permitted. However, all of these items are prohibited. The Mishnah does not offer the reasoning for this categorization, but perhaps a shared characteristic leads to this grouping (such as the possibility of easily becoming detached). While the items enumerated here may not be directly pertinent to our project, they provide interesting background for the discussion of weapons in the next section, which addresses the qualities that define weaponry and how to determine whether men may bring it into the public domain on Shabbat.

Section 4 opens with an anonymous voice that enumerates the weapons that men cannot take with them on Shabbat. The Mishnah then cites Rabbi Eliezer, a second-generation tanna who was active in the last decades of the first century and the early second century. For Rabbi Eliezer, weapons are the ornaments or jewelry for men, meaning that it should be a permissible embellishment on Shabbat, just as women are permitted to go out with most forms of ornamentation on that day. Moreover, he seemingly values weapons as an expression of masculinity parallel to women’s adornments (on masculinity in rabbinic literature and, especially, on the history of research on this topic, see Rozen-Zvi “Rabbinic Masculinity”). For Rabbi Eliezer, therefore, military power has positive connotations and its symbols are fitting for Jewish men. The issue here is not whether it is permitted to fight on Shabbat, at least not explicitly, but whether a Jewish man may go out with his weapon on display during Shabbat (on Jewish engagement in combat on Shabbat, see Ben-Shalom, The School of Shammai, p. 89-93). For Israel Ben-Shalom, it is not surprising that this view is attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, who was associated with the School (lit. House) of Shammai. According to Ben-Shalom, this school was related to zealots before and during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE) and supported violent anti-Roman actions. Although this school disappeared after the destruction of the Second Temple, some of their laws were preserved, here according to Ben-Shalom, by Rabbi Eliezer, who was associated with them (The School of Shammai, p. 93; see also Gilat, Collected Articles, p. 154). In contrast to Rabbi Eliezer, the sages do not see weapons as ornaments but as disgraceful or ugly things, citing Isaiah to support this perspective: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4, NRSV). In the future to which they aspire, there will be no need for weapons for there will be no war.

Ishay Rozen-Zvi and Dror Yinon contrast our text (and Sifre Deuteronomy 126), which presents weapons as masculine jewelry, with several rabbinic passages that depict mitzvot (“commandments” or “religious deeds”) and the objects related to them as the ornaments that Jewish men use to beautify themselves before God (“Male Jewels/Female Jewels,” p. 72). One may consider the possibility that this modified understanding of men’s jewelry was related to Jewish perspectives on Rome. Whereas Rabbi Eliezer considered resisting Rome to be a mitzvah (if this mishnaic attribution to him is accurate) and, thus, weapons serve as men’s ornaments, as time progressed and Jewish confrontations with Rome seemed to fade into the distant past, another ethos took its place (cf. Kraemer, “Adornment and Gender,” p. 230, who claims that weapons were meant to impress men and women as “very public signs of masculine strength”). This halakhic discussion therefore reveals varying positions held by the sages regarding weapons and the use of force, and their appropriateness for Jewish men (whether or not this debate reflects a diachronic change). Even though Rome is not mentioned in this discussion, some of these weapons – like the sword (sayif) – became symbols of its power (for a negative association with the sword and Rome, see, for example, Sifre Deuteronomy 343 [part one]; Leviticus Rabbah 20:5). Thus, this question regarding weaponry as masculine ornamentation versus a sign of disgrace may also reflect Jewish attitudes toward Rome. 

Bibliographical references: 

“Adornment and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism”

Kraemer, Davidarticle-in-a-bookEnvisioning Judaism, Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Volume I Ra’anan S. Boustan, (et al.)217-234“Adornment and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism” Tübingen Mohr Siebeck2013
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