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This is in relation to another post in which the question was asked why the Sabbath was called "the day after the Day of Preparation."

It strikes me odd that Pharisees would be about this sort of thing on the Sabbath. What were the Pharisaic laws concerning the Sabbath at the time? Would they allow for the Pharisees to be going to Pilate to have the tomb secured and then go out and set the stone and secure the tomb on the Sabbath!?

Matthew 27:

62 On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, 63 saying, "Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise.' 64 Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, 'He has risen from the dead.' So the last deception will be worse than the first." 65 Pilate said to them, "You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how." 66 So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.

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@monica, perhaps you would have some insight on this. –  user2027 Mar 20 '13 at 18:03
I would, but could you clarify one thing? Are you asking what they would (or wouldn't) do on the sabbath (shabbat, seventh day), what they would or wouldn't do on Pesach (the holiday, very shabbat-like in most regards), or both? With the differing timing theories I want to make sure I'm answering what you asked. –  Gone Quiet Mar 20 '13 at 19:14
@MonicaCellio Both would be helpful! –  user2027 Mar 20 '13 at 19:23
@MonicaCellio: Unfortunately, Matthew is unclear about whether it's preparation for Pesach or for the sabbath. In Mark, Jesus dies on Pesach which is described as the day of preparation for the sabbath, while in John Jesus dies on the day of preparation for Pesach (that is, at the time when the lambs were slaughtered). Matthew doesn't make it clear either way, and just says "the Day of Preparation." If you look at the previous chapter though, it appears that Matthew is following Mark's chronology, so I think he means this scene is happening on the sabbath. –  Noah Mar 21 '13 at 1:28
@NoahSnyder, that's why I asked. :-) I ended up addressing both, though mostly Shabbat (because most of it's the same anyway). –  Gone Quiet Mar 21 '13 at 1:59

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The torah commands the Israelites not to "work" on Shabbat or on festivals (here, Pesach). The torah does not define what this means; that was expounded in the oral law, which was transmitted (orally) from teachers to students and finally written down after the destruction of the temple, probably around 200CE. The mishna attributes the arguments it records to rabbis who lived between about 100BCE and 200CE, so while we can't say for certain exactly what the practice was circa 30CE, the odds are that the mishna is not far off.

Sealing the cave

The mishna articulates 39 categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 73a (this is the Soncino translation):

The primary labours are forty less one, vis: sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying (knotting) and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it (of its hair), cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters (over the erasure), building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, and carrying out from one domain to another: these are the forty primary labors less one.

For the purposes of this question the interesting items on this list are: ploughing, building, possibly kneading, possibly striking with a hammer, and carrying. (Depending on what any assigned guards were to do if confronted, more items on this list might apply.)

The g'mara, written down c. 200-500CE, expands on ploughing thus. A tanna is a rabbi who is contemporary with those of the mishna:

A Tanna taught: Ploughing, digging, and trenching are a]l one [form of] work. R. Shesheth said: If one has a mound [of earth] and removes it, in the house, he is liable on the score of building; if in the field, he is liable on the score of ploughing. Raba said: If one has a depression and fills it up: if in the house, he is liable on account of building; if in the field, he is liable on account of ploughing (73b).

Filling the spaces between the stone and the cave mouth seems like filling a depression.

Depending on how the stone was to be sealed (I'm imagining something like mortar but I don't know), there are other violations. The g'mara holds one liable for boiling pitch or for making an earthenware vessel (74b). The prohibition on "building" covers tasks like laying bricks and sealing casks, which might apply to sealing the space between the stone and the cave walls. If the mortar had to be mixed on that day, that would violate some of the "cooking"-related items like kneading, sifting, etc. (While these labors are based on preparing food, they are not only about food.)

The materials to perform this work would also need to be carried to the cave. Unless everything was already in the public domain (e.g. in the street, rather than in a building or courtyard), carrying a usable quantity (enough to seal a bag, per mishna on 80b) would be forbidden absent an eiruv. Tractate Eiruvin explains in great detail how to construct a boundary around a space (such as a group of houses, or even a town); with that affordance you can carry anywhere within that space. We don't know if an eiruv was in place in this time and place, but it seems unlikely to me that it would have encompassed the burial cave. (Generally it encompasses residential areas, and there would need to be a physical boundary.)

Further, a mishna on 75b continues:

They also stated another general principle: whatever is fit to put away and such is (generally) put away, and one carries it out on the Sabbath, he is liable to a sin-offering on its account. [...]

In other words, put your weekday tools away and observe Shabbat.

Setting a guard and asking Pilate for a ruling

A person is free to move about on Shabbat (within a town and its environs), so having somebody stand watch at the grave is not inherently a problem. (It's questionable because by doing so you are probably not celebrating Shabbat, but it does not directly violate one of the 39 categories of primary prohibition.) Of course, because of carrying (above), that guard would not be able to have a weapon.

Modern Jewish practice forbids discussing business and other "mundane" affairs on Shabbat. I cannot find anything that speaks to this in the mishna (though I could have missed it, of course -- the mishna's pretty big).

So it appears to me that (a) going to Pilate, assuming he was locally resident, and (b) having someone watch the grave would not necessarily be violations of the law. Given the urgency the Pharisees apparently felt, it is not unreasonable that they would have availed themselves of any leniencies in the law.

Shabbat versus festivals

Because the torah uses the same language (melacha) to refer to labor that is not to be done on both Shabbat and festivals, the rabbis understand the restrictions to be basically the same. The only leniency is that on a festival (that is not on Shabbat), one is permitted to do certain actions for the sake of the holiday, such as adjusting a previously-lit flame to cook your food or carrying items needed for the festival between domains. None of that would seem to apply to the case at hand.


The Pharisees could probably, without violating the law, have the discussion with Pilate and send somebody to watch the grave. They would not have been able to seal the grave, on either Shabbat or the festival, without violating several categories of forbidden labor.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Thank you Monica. –  user2027 Mar 21 '13 at 16:01

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