Parashah of the week: Shelach Lecha

“So the community leadership took him outside the camp and stoned him to death as the Lord had commanded Moses” Numbers 15:6


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

A man is found gathering sticks on the Sabbath and is pelted to death. Is breaking Shabbat really the kind of sin that deserves a death sentence?

The rabbis of the Talmud were so uncomfortable with death sentences in the Torah that they more or less debate them out of existence by making the threshold so high to sentence or carry out an execution that it could virtually never occur.

That’s all well and good but we are still left with this troubling story. Might there be an underlying explanation, one that would make sense to us, as to why gathering sticks on Shabbat is a capital offence?

Actually, there is. 

To understand the logic we need to employ a social dilemma called “the tragedy of the commons”. Let’s say that there is public resource from which everyone benefits. Like firewood for instance. If everyone takes just what they need, there will be enough to go around.

But if some people take more than they need, either as insurance for unexpected circumstances or because they fear others might be taking more than their fair share, the wood will be taken faster than nature can replenish it. Soon no one has any firewood and everyone suffers. 

When the spies go to scout the land, Moses asks them, among other things, to ascertain whether there are trees or not (13:20) implying that wood might be an important resource. Another thing we know about the Israelites is that (unsurprisingly for former slaves) they are prone to hoarding, having collected manna on Shabbat when they were explicitly told not to (Exodus 16:20).

Furthermore, Shabbat is a very new invention, the Midrash even claiming that our story takes place on the second ever Shabbat following the mandate in the Ten Commandments (Sifrei Bemidbar 113:1). 

With such high stakes the story starts to make more sense. If some people gather wood on Shabbat knowing that other people are home resting, two tragedies of the commons will result: a rapid depletion of natural wood stocks and also the undermining of Shabbat, a communal good that can only benefit the group if every individual adheres to the rules.

The death sentence might then might be seen as a justified deterrent to avoid a cascade which ends in total environmental and societal collapse.

Zahavit Shalev is a rabbi at New North London (Masorti) Synagogue

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