Kenneth Cohen

The Gatherer of Wood

The story of the מקושש עצים, the gatherer of wood, leaves us with many question.

The first question was, who this person was that chose to desecrate the first Shabbat in the desert. Rabbi Akiva insists that it was Tzlofchad, the father of righteous daughters. When they asked Moshe Rabbeinu for an inheritance in the land, they explained that their father died because of his sin. The sin was that he was the one who desecrated Shabbat.

The Baal Haturim, using the magic of his Gematria, discovered the word, ויעפילו, which means, they acted defiantly, equals the name, צלפחד. His sin was that he tried to enter Israel, after the sin of the spies, and fell in battle. Therefore, we are not certain who the מקושש was.

The Talmud even goes further by giving a reprimand to Rabbi Akiva, for suggesting Tzlofchad committed such a serious sin, as working on Shabbat. His defense was that the Shabbat desecration was for altruistic reasons. צלפחד sacrificed himself and received the death penalty, because he wanted to impress on the general population, the sanctity of Shabbat.

A final question asked in the Gemara was exactly what was this violation. There are thirty-nine Melachot, constructive activities, that carry with it the death penalty.

There are three possibilities as to what he did. One is that he violated קוצר, which means reaping, as he detached branches from the tree. Another possibility is that he was guilty of מעמר, which means gathering for the purpose of making a pile. And the final possibility is that he transferred the wood from one domain to another.

The story of the מקושש may leave us with a few questions, but there is no doubt that we must cherish the sanctity of Shabbat.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at