Between Shabbat and Lynch Mobs

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Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan


In synagogues around the world this Shabbat, chapters 13 through 15 of the book of Numbers will be read. Given that the first two of these chapters relates the “sin of the scouts,” an event that had monumental significance for the fate of the Israelites (compelling them to delay their arrival in Canaan until a whole generation had died out, some 38 years later); and given that most of chapter 15 is devoted to legal material, it is understandable that little attention is usually paid to a short narrative that is embedded among this legal material—that of the “gatherer of wood” on the Shabbat: 

While the Israelites were in the desert, they discovered a man gathering wood on Shabbat. The ones who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses, Aaron and the entire congregation. Since it was not specified what must be done to him, they placed him under guard. God said to Moses, “That man must die. Let the entire congregation pelt him with stones outside the camp.” The entire congregation took him outside the camp, and they pelted him to death with stones. It was done as God had commanded Moses (Numbers 15:32-36).[1]

This story raises a series of questions concerning its placement in the text and how it adds to earlier discussions of the Shabbat and its violation.[2] But putting such questions to the side for the moment, let us ponder the most obvious question of all: Why is Shabbat-violation such a terrible deed that it requires public stoning? There are numerous textual indicators that the wood-gatherer’s action was a violation of the highest order; but why?[3] And did the punishment really need to be so harsh? To be sure, it is standard practice in observant Jewish communities to limit the communal rights of public Shabbat-violators, and there are even some locales in which rocks have been thrown at passing automobiles. But public execution? The puzzle of this harsh punishment can perhaps be best appreciated by recalling Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s moving portrait of the “love affair” between the Jewish people and Shabbat. Insofar as the institution of Shabbat is sustained today, it is largely out of love for the “joy of Shabbat” (Isaiah 58:13) rather than by the fear of sanctions for non-observance. Why, then, must an institution that can be sustained by love be upheld by fear?

In this essay, I will argue that the wood-gatherer represents the individual whose self-centeredness threatens to unleash intense social competition that could undermine a nascent and fragile social institution (Shabbat) and the God-centered congregation it is meant to bolster. I will further suggest that this can be supported by two complementary approaches: an “external” approach, based on the use of theory and evidence from outside the text, and by an “internal” approach, based on reading strategies that help decipher messages that are subtly embedded in the text.[4]

The External Approach: Historical Context and Social Scientific Theory
To get to the heart of the matter, imagine a scenario on a weekday in which one might get very angry—and rightfully so—at someone who gathers wood. It is not difficult to invent such a scenario. Suppose first that wood is a very precious commodity, which would be the case if it is hard to find and the only source of fuel to provide warmth or cook food. And now suppose that the wood does not belong to the gatherer, and so he is stealing it.

To be more specific, let us suppose that the wood belongs to no one in particular—it is part of the public domain or the “commons.” There is a large social science literature on the “tragedy of the commons,” as it represents a particularly acute and prevalent version of a “social dilemma”—a situation where the best outcome for everyone would be to “cooperate” in supporting a public good but each individual would be better off in the short term by “defecting” and looking out for her own interests.

In particular, if a public resource—a fishing ground, a grazing area, a watershed, etc.—is sufficient for everyone in the long run only if it is not depleted in the short run, each person confronts a difficult problem: How can I be sure that everyone will make do with her share? And if I can’t be sure, how can others be sure? Wouldn’t it make sense to take just a little bit more as insurance? Hmm … but if others think likewise, maybe I should grab even more … And of course, matters are even worse if some individuals truly disregard the public good and care only for themselves. These conditions are what the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously called “the state of nature,” a world where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals fight in a “war of all against all.” Hobbes also famously prescribed a troubling solution for this situation—a strong state or “Leviathan” that is given coercive powers to enforce adherence to social pacts and prevent the unraveling that would occur if each member of society were left to defend his or her own interests.

Having established why the gathering of wood might have been considered a big deal by Israelites in the wilderness regardless of the day of the week; and why strong punitive measures may have been necessary to prevent a free-for-all that might destroy the commons, consider now two reasons why such a raid would have been an especially big deal on Shabbat.

First, the seven-day week in general, and Shabbat in particular, was a brand new social institution. The week is a purely human institution, one that cycles independently of the rotation of the celestial bodies (unlike the lunar month and the solar year). And as noted by Eviatar Zerubavel in his review of the scholarly literature, nothing remotely resembling the seven-day week, and certainly not the “Jewish week” (i.e., a seven-day cycle rotating independently of natural cycles and climaxing in a day of rest) was observed by any of the other peoples of the ancient near east.[5] 

Second, the fact that the seven-day week was new meant that it had a fragility that we cannot appreciate today. Today, Shabbat may be supported by a large Shabbat-observant community out of love, but that love affair took many years to cultivate and it is supported by the accumulation of thousands of years of culture—liturgy, songs, feasts, and social practices. These traditions, which have evolved with the times, help to mitigate the challenge of socializing children and converts into the community of Shabbat observers. And since today the seven-day week is now so institutionalized in general society that it seems like a feature of the natural world, Shabbat-observant Jews are largely in sync with the non-Jewish world. But none of this would have been true at the time of the Exodus.[6] To convince someone to observe the Jewish week would have meant to convince them to sharply decouple themselves from the rhythms of the larger society. Since no one had yet observed Shabbat, it would have been unclear why they might want to do so.

Moreover, attempts to coordinate observance of the Jewish week would have had to confront sharp social dilemmas. Consider: if everyone closes down their stalls in the market for Shabbat, the economic profit goes up for those who open their stalls (cf., Nehemiah 13:14-22; Jeremiah 17:19-27). Similarly, if everyone goes to sleep and leaves the commons unattended, this increases the economic incentive to go out and raid the commons. The gatherer of wood is therefore a superb choice as a narrative vehicle for representing the threat posed by Shabbat violators. The wood-gatherer not only poses a threat to the community’s ability to preserve social order, whereby he exploits the community’s rest on Shabbat to raid the commons; he also poses a direct threat to Shabbat itself while it is in a highly fragile stage of development. If it is not clear to everyone that there will be sharp penalties for raiding the commons while everyone is resting, why wouldn’t anyone consider doing the same thing, if only out of fear that everyone else will do likewise? Who could blame them? The survival of their families might be at stake.

Textual Evidence: Shabbat, Faith, and Social Competition
To this point, I have addressed the episode through the lenses of historical context and modern social science. But does the text of the Hebrew Bible provide support for this approach? One indication that it does can be culled from Moses’s instruction to the scouts (Numbers 13:20), to find out “whether or not there is wood in (Canaan).” This seems to reinforce the sense that wood was a precious commodity in the wilderness. A second indication is that the text does not actually say that the wood-gatherer was stoned for violating Shabbat; rather, it can be read to mean that he was stoned for gathering wood. The connection to Shabbat might be simply that he had the opportunity to steal from the commons because everyone was home resting![7] 

It is also important to observe that the Pentateuch (consistent with scholarly understanding) presents the seven-day week as a brand new institution. While the story of creation is told as having occurred in seven days, culminating with God’s “cessation” (“shabbating”), the noun “Shabbat” is not used there. In fact, nowhere in Genesis does the text suggest that Adam or any of his and Eve’s descendants knew about the seven day week. The first mention of the week as an institution relevant to humans is in Exodus, when Moses explained why a double portion of manna fell on the sixth day: the following day would be Shabbat when no manna would fall, and they are instructed to place the extra aside for safekeeping (Exodus 16:23). And since the Shabbat/week was new and they were expected to soon be entering a land where it was unknown, it is understandable that the emphasis in the Exodus version of the Decalogue is on “remembering” (“zakhor”) Shabbat: the institution was still new and fragile. By contrast, forty years later, when Moses addressed a generation that had grown up with their lives governed by the seven-day cycle of manna/Shabbat, the emphasis was on “keeping” (“shamor”) Shabbat (see Hizkuni and Benno Jacob ad loc.).

Beyond the foregoing textual indications, I contend that a close reading of the story of the wood-gatherer, alongside three other texts in the Hebrew Bible, not only provides support for the offered interpretation, but lends depth and nuance to the historical and social scientific treatment I have offered.

Support from the Manna in Exodus 16
First, consider how the Pentateuch’s treatment of the manna suggests how the Shabbat is a bulwark against pernicious social competition.
 In particular, two supernatural features of the manna—that each person came away with as much as they needed regardless of how much they collected (Exodus 16:17), and the miracles concerning storage (the manna spoiled if stored over a weeknight [16:19-20]; but Friday’s double portion could be stored for Shabbat [16:22-25])—directly neutralize social competition generally, and specifically the competition that would otherwise undermine the Shabbat. The people’s instincts, as recounted when they first saw the manna, was to hoard it [16:20]; and their instinct when the manna did not fall on Shabbat was to worry that it would never fall again, and thus go out and collect it even when they had enough for that day [16: 27-28]. Were these instincts to have free reign, there surely would have been a “tragedy of the commons” and no observance of the Shabbat—no week! And so these instincts were miraculously nullified.

From this standpoint, it is intriguing to consider why it is that the first Shabbat-violators were merely admonished (16:28) whereas the wood-gatherer received capital punishment. There are clear intertextual links between the two episodes, suggesting that they are meant to be compared and contrasted.[8] One possibility is simply that first violations are treated more leniently. A second possibility, however, is that those who collected manna on Shabbat posed no threat to the institution of Shabbat. They took more for themselves, but everyone else’s share of the manna remained intact. They therefore revealed themselves to be lacking faith that God would provide (16:28-29), but they did not exacerbate social competition, especially once it was demonstrated that the manna would resume after Shabbat. Thus the contrast between the two episodes serves to put the episode of the wood-gatherer in bolder relief. While there was no “commons problem” with regard to food, there remained one with respect to fuel.

Intertextual Support from Pharaoh’s Decree
Let us now turn to two episodes that have crucial intertextual links to the episode of the wood-gatherer in that they are (with one interesting exception[9]), the only other times in the entire Tanakh where the root קשש appears (in our context, “מקשש” is the term used for the [wood] gatherer). If we read these episodes carefully, we find remarkable thematic consistency and we gain a deeper appreciation for the message of the wood-gatherer.

The first story is the episode that we might call “Pharaoh’s anti-Shabbat tantrum,” as recounted in Exodus 5:1-6:1. This is Pharaoh’s vengeful reaction to Moses and Aaron’s initial request to allow the Israelites to go for a three-day journey to worship God in the wilderness. Pharaoh responds in two principal ways: (a) by claiming never to have heard of God (as the Tetragrammaton); and (b) by imposing an even harsher form of servitude on the Israelites, whereby they would now be required to make their own mortar. We also learn that this system was administered indirectly, via Israelite enforcers who suffer corporal punishment at the hands of their Egyptian overlords when the Israelites cannot fulfill their production quotas. The episode ends with the enforcers complaining to Moses and Aaron, who then echo the same complaint to God—i.e., that matters have only gotten worse as a result of their appeal to Pharaoh.

This episode is suffused with intertextual linkages, both to the story of the manna/Shabbat and to the episode of the wood-gatherer, and such linkages help to illuminate the meaning of Shabbat as an antidote to invidious social competition. Given the focus of this essay, let us focus on the connection to the wood-gatherer.

As noted, the most obvious connection between the two episodes is that Pharaoh’s tantrum includes the only other use of the verb קשש in the Pentateuch. In the case of the wood-gatherer, this verb is typically translated as “to gather,” but it is actually not clear what it means. In the episode of Pharaoh’s tantrum, it is used as part of an expression with the word “קש,” which seems to refer to small pieces of straw. The entire expression seems to refer to a method of making straw that is labor intensive and which is supposed to generate a substitute for conventional straw, or “תבן.” Regardless, the expression links the form of labor that is imposed on the Israelites with that of the wood-gatherer.

Observe now the “anti-Shabbat” theme in Pharaoh’s tantrum. In rejecting Moses and Aaron’s appeal, Pharaoh asks the following rhetorical question (5:5) “The people of the land are numerous, and you want to give them leave from their labors?” Crucially, the Hebrew expression for “giving them leave”—והשבתם—is the first time in the Pentateuch that the root for Shabbat (שבת) is used by a human being. Pharaoh seems to be arguing that one of the advantages of oppressing a populace with unremitting labor is that they then are not free to mobilize against their oppressors.

Accordingly, Pharaoh’s subsequent decree repeatedly emphasizes that the work would continue every day without a break: six times some expression of “every day” is used, seemingly to sound this theme as clearly as possible![10] It is likely that these textual clues are responsible for the enigmatic midrash suggesting that Pharaoh was here annulling an earlier decree that allowed the Israelites to rest on Shabbat (Exodus Rabbah 5:18).

Moreover, Pharaoh’s anti-Shabbat tantrum clearly evokes the twin themes of Shabbat: recognition of God’s dominion; and (most relevant for the wood-gatherer) tempering social competition and inequality. With regard to the former, we have already noted Pharaoh’s declaration that he does not recognize God’s name. With regard to the theme of social competition, ponder the implications of (a) maintaining a fixed production quota; and (b) insisting that the slaves now collect raw material in the Egyptian commons. These are precisely the conditions that create the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Indeed, impossibly painful dilemmas are fostered: if I am young and strong do I grab from the nearest source of straw, or do I let those who are older and weaker take it, and go further afield? And if I do the latter, how do I know that others will do likewise? [11]

This theme is reinforced by Pharaoh’s system of indirect control, one that is reminiscent of the strategy used by the Nazis with the Judenrat and kapo systems.[12] The Israelite enforcers would have been hated, but anyone can empathize with the moral dilemmas they faced and with their consequent complaints to Moses and Aaron. We thus see that the “gathering” in this story symbolizes exactly what it symbolizes in the episode of the wood-gatherer: the specter of social competition taken to the extreme. And while in the story of the wood-gatherer, God legitimizes collective punishment to thwart such competition, here we see a God-denying king actively stoking competition for resources in the commons as a way of bolstering his rule instead.

Intertextual Support from the Wood-Gathering Woman
Chapter 17 of 1 Kings contains the third episode in which the root קשש is used—the episode of the “Widow of Zarephath” who provides food for Elijah during the famine he called for in order to punish the idolatrous king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Surprisingly, even though this woman is twice called “אשה מקששת עצים”—a “wood-gathering woman”—I can find no exegete who has considered the linkage between this episode and that of the “wood-gathering man” of Numbers.

The widow is presented as a paragon of faithfulness and selflessness. In responding to Elijah’s request for food, she invokes the Tetragrammaton just as Elijah does, but recognizes Him as Elijah’s God (compare 17:1 and 17:12). This is a startling reversal of Pharaoh’s reaction to Moses and Aaron; indeed, in this case it is she who brings God into the conversation! And her climactic statement—“that the words of God as spoken by your [Elijah’s] mouth are truth” (17:24)—is a dramatic counterpoint to the climactic line of Pharaoh’s tantrum—that the Israelites should not “seek salvation in words (God’s as reported by Moses) of falsehood (Exodus 5:9).[13] Make no mistake: the widow is quite reluctant to obey Elijah; but who could blame her? Elijah makes a request that no mother could accept—that Elijah get priority access to food stores she believes are insufficient to sustain her son and herself beyond a short time. Elijah even demands that she put herself before her child (17:13, 15)! But she accedes to this request, taking the leap of faith that Elijah is right that God will miraculously prevent her food stores from dwindling further (an evocation of the manna, reinforced by intertextual references to it).[14] And lest we doubt that she is exaggerating her condition, her son subsequently dies, apparently from malnutrition (Elijah then revives him).

In short, this widow is presented as the opposite of the wood-gatherer, acting selflessly and faithfully, as he should have acted. Whereas the wood-gatherer raids the commons for his own benefit and thereby threatened the fragile social stability of his community and a nascent social institution that was the primary instantiation of its faith in God, she is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of life-giving private property in order to help a stranger and his strange God, even at the risk of her son’s life. Her implicit rebuke of the wood-gatherer is very subtle (there is after all, no mention of Shabbat here), but her actions speak much more loudly than any words could. Quite strikingly, she teaches us as much about the meaning of Shabbat as any act of Shabbat observance by a Jew.[15]

The foregoing analyses supplies strong external and internal support for the argument that the story of the wood-gatherer is an exquisitely crafted vehicle for driving home three interrelated ideas: (a) how pernicious social competition threatens communal cohesion unless it is controlled; (b) that harsh sanctions may be necessary before the value of cooperation has become clear and self-reinforcing; and (c) that since the Shabbat serves as a bulwark against social competition run amok, it requires safeguarding.

The offered interpretation may also help shed light on why this story appears just after the sin of the scouts.[16] Note in particular that the climactic moment of this sin is when “the whole community threatened to stone them [Joshua and Caleb] to death (Numbers 14:10).”[17] This would-be public stoning was a symptom of social cooperation in its most uncontrolled form: a lynch mob. By contrast, the actual public stoning of the wood gatherer that occurs just a chapter later reflects social cooperation in its most disciplined form—structured by a judicial process. To appreciate the communal learning that has apparently taken place, consider two counterfactual responses to the wood-gatherer by those who found him: (a) they could have succumbed to uncontrolled social cooperation and lynched him, as they wanted to do to Joshua and Caleb; and (b) they could have succumbed to uncontrolled social competition, by following his example and raiding the commons.[18] One might further argue that the likelihood of such extreme reactions is particularly high among people who have effectively been placed on death row: such conditions breed highly individualistic behavior where it is each man for himself and/or clannish behavior where it is clan against clan.[19] Our story might thus be hinting that the erstwhile “wicked generation” (Numbers 32:13) of the Exodus learned something critical from the sin of the scouts despite conditions that militated against its capacity to act as a disciplined “congregation.” By yoking their short-term impulses to a judicial process governed by God and His appointed leaders, they acted to preserve their congregation and the Shabbat/week—not for themselves but for their children and future generations.

[1] Translation is from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah, with the word עדה translated as “congregation” rather than “community.” As deployed by other translators, the former seems more appropriate given that it suggests something more organized, as reflected by the root יעד, involving timing or coordination.

[2] For review of these questions and recent treatments, see Tzvi Novick, “Law and Loss: Response to Catastrophe in Numbers 15,The Harvard Theological Review 101 (2008): 1-14; Simeon Chavel, “Numbers 15,32–36 – A Microcosm of the Living Priesthood and Its Literary Production.” in The Strata of the Priestly Writings: Contemporary Debate and Future Directions, eds. Sarah Shectman and Joel S. Baden (Zurich: TVZ, 2009), 45-55; and Sharon Rimon, “The Stick-Gatherer,Yeshivat Har Etzion: The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash.

[3] Such indications include: (a) the strong series of intertextual links to the story of the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:13-23), which is the only other episode of public stoning in the Pentateuch (see Rimon op cit.); ; (b) that the story of the wood-gatherer appears to be the climax of a set of mandated responses to legal transgressions, as it occupies the space reserved for sins of the highest order—“intentional communal” sins (Novick, op cit., 6-8); and (c) that the story is sandwiched between a discussion of those who violate “all the commandments that God gave” (Numbers 15:22-23) and the provision of a tool (tzitzit) for preventing the the violation of “all my [God’s] commandments” (15: 39-40). Hence the rabbinic idea (Exodus Rabbah 25:12) that Shabbat-violation is “equivalent” to violating all the commandments.

[4] For this distinction, see Rabbi David Fohrman, “Two Perspectives on Genesis.”

[5] See Eviatar Zerubavel, The Seven-Day Circle: The History and the Meaning of the Week (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). The literature since Zerubavel has done nothing to undermine Zerubavel’s conclusions.

[6] This would even have been true if Shabbat had been introduced hundreds of years later than the traditional dating. It was not until the first century CE that anyone besides Jews observed the seven day week.

[7] This is consistent with the Rabbis’ difficulty in identifying exactly which of the 39 forbidden categories of labor on Shabbat was broken by the wood-gatherer (see Shabbat 96b). 

[8] In both cases, something (the manna, the gatherer) is put aside (הנחה) for safekeeping (משמר); and in both cases, the violation of Shabbat that occurs is described as a matter of ‘finding’ (מצא)—the manna in one case, and the gatherer in the other.

[9] See Zephaniah 2:1 where the root is found in a reflexive imperative, issued by the prophet to the people: התקוששו. Intriguingly, whereas I develop below the idea that קשש connotes a threat to social cohesion, Zephaniah deploys it in a call to unify: Gather yourselves up! More generally, a review of Zephaniah raises the possibility that Zephaniah is playing with the themes discussed here. In particular, the book is filled with allusions to social solidarity as key to Israel’s salvation, using the root אסף (see 1:2-3) and קבץ (see 3:8, 19-20) as well as קשש—all variations on gathering. It also sees the accumulation of private wealth as problematic (1:11, 13, 18); and it uses the image of an uncontrolled commons as a sign of social disorder and neglect (2:6-7, 2:14-15).

[10] Notably, the term “דבר יום ביומו” is used twice here (5:13, 19) and then again at the opening of the story of the manna (16:4)—the first two occasions in the Tanakh.

[11] Accordingly, note the use of the term ויפץ in 5:12—and “the people spread out” (looking for straw). The prior and subsequent uses of this verb in the Pentateuch (Genesis 11:8; Deuteronomy 4:27, 28:64, 30:3) also refer to disunity engendered by a king (God). 

[12] The term for taskmasters, נגשים, evokes Deuteronomy 15:1-3 where it is used in a way that relates to the Sabbatical year, and thus indirectly (especially if read together with Leviticus 25) to the Shabbat.

[13] She also uses the term “man of higher powers” (איש אלהים) in this verse, which could allude to Moses since he is the first prophet to be described in this way (Deuteronomy 33:1).

[14] There are three words used here that evoke the manna: the expression “צפחת שמן,” jug of oil, in 17:14 and 17:16, which evokes two references to the nature of the manna (in Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:8); and עגות, cakes, in 17:11-12, which evokes Numbers 11:8.

[15] That she is being proposed as a moral exemplar is also suggested by the fact that she does not complain to Elijah until after her son has actually expired, even though the signs that he was in great distress would undoubtedly have come much sooner. By contrast, when the Israelites complain that God and Moses’s plan will cause their deaths (beginning with the appeal that led to Pharaoh’s tantrum [Exodus 5:21], and continuing through the story of the manna [Exodus 15:3] and the sin of the scouts [Numbers 14:2]), the threat is merely imagined.

[16] The ideas in this concluding paragraph complement the arguments of Novick, op cit., and Rimon, op cit., each of whom provide literary reasons to see the story of the wood-gatherer as a reversal of the sin of the scouts, where the key focus is on the community transgression in the former and communal responsibility in the latter.

[17] R. Aryeh Kaplan, trans.

[18]This would have been tantamount to a return to Egypt—of their real experience if not their fantasies (Numbers 13:4; cf., Novick, op cit., p.5)

[19] Again, the “widow of Zarephath” is a clear contrast.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His main current research project (from which several of his Lehrhaus essays, including this one, is drawn) is a book on the invention of the seven-day week. Ezra is teaching an online course on this topic at Drisha (, beginning March 3rd. He welcomes feedback at and he tweets at @ewzucker.