Me’amer – The Melakha of Bundling
Among the 13 melakhot necessary for the production of bread (sidura de-pat), the fourth in the series is known as me'amer, gathering sheaths of harvested grains. The gemara does not record the basic definition of this melakha, choosing instead to register an interesting machloket between Abaye and Rava about the harvesting of salt from ocean mines (Shabbat 73b). In this shiur, we will attempt to outline the basic definitions of me'amer.
Presumably, any act of gathering or amassing different units into one unified element should qualify as me'amer and should be forbidden. An interesting statement of the Maharach Ohr Zarua (siman 214) (Rav Chaim, the son of the 13th century scholar R. Yitzchak of Vienna) may change this impression, however. He questions the absence of this issur when gathering firewood on Yom Tov (which is permitted by the gemara in Beitza 31a). Why doesn’t the formation of bundles of firewood violate me'amer? He responds that me'amer is only forbidden if it protects and preserves the actual produce being collected. Ungathered grains can be more easily trampled or strewn by the wind. Gathered grains are more durable, and gathering therefore violates me'amer. Since firewood is unaffected by gathering into stacks, no me'amer has been violated.
Evidently, the Maharach Ohr Zarua viewed this prohibition not merely as an act of assembling scattered units into one unit, but rather as one of the final stages in producing and harvesting produce. Since isolated produce can easily be ruined, one of the final stages of securing the produce is gathering it into more durable units. The prohibition is only encroached when it converts produce into preservable and durable items through collection and bundling.
The overwhelming majority of Rishonim disagree technically with this limitation of me’amer and they extend me'amer to a broader variety of bundling. Nevertheless, even if we reject this limitation, we may still redefine me'amer not merely as assembling, but as producing usable units of produce. Even if the benefit of assembly is not necessary to secure the durability of the item, it is still necessary to enable human utility. Wheat grown in miniscule amounts is unusable to people in these small quantities. To facilitate human utility, the separately grown produce must be gathered into larger quantities. It is this transformation – and not merely the formal act of gathering – that entails the violation.
To summarize the question: Is me'amer violated through the structural or technical act of assembling and bundling erstwhile separate entities? Or is me'amer only violated when the act transitions the objects into durable food, or at least human-compatible quantities?
An interesting limitation of the Tosafot Rid (Shabbat 73b) and the Ritva may reflect this “transformational” view of me'amer. Questioning the permissibility of gathering already harvested fruits that have become scattered, the Tosafot Rid claims that no issur is violated by performing bundling on items that have previously been bundled and subsequently became scattered. Since the fruits were previously assembled, no new issur entails. Some (see the Iglei Tal) attribute this to a general rule (alluded to in a previous shiur about the permissibility of recooking food on Shabbat) that repetitive “melakha acts” are considered halakhically redundant and therefore permissible. Gathering a second time is meaningless and permissible. However, the Rid’s leniency may be understood very differently. Since the produce was previously assembled, it has already attained a status of human compatibility and useability, and subsequent gathering will not confer a new status. Without this transformational impact, no issur has been violated.
Another interesting application of this novel definition of me'amer affects the location in which it is forbidden. Alluding to the presumed permissibility of gathering firewood, Tosafot and the Ran (Beitza 31a) claim that me'amer is only forbidden if performed in the location in which the item naturally grew. Since the firewood in question was relocated to a different locale before being assembled, no issur has been violated.
Once again, me'amer is being cast here as the final stage of a long process of preparing produce or other agricultural products (such as firewood) for human utility. Humans typically do not utilize one unit of the product, as such minimal quantities have no utility. This act – as it is the final stage of production – must occur (at least according to Tosafot and the Ran) in the location in which the item originally grew and was harvested. Only in this location can me'amer be cast as one of the final stages of production and be considered a Shabbat violation.
Of course, this model implies a possible limitation of the prohibition to “edible items.” This would also explain the general permissibility of collecting and bundling firewood on Yom Tov, since the wood is not edible. The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 7:2) does appear to limit the prohibition to foodstuffs, and many (see Minchat Chinukh, ot 1 to melekhet me'amer) believe the Rambam imposed a similar limitation. By contrast, many Ashkenazic Rishonim (Ohr Zarua, Yerei’im) extended the prohibition to non-edible material. Limiting the prohibition to edible material may reflect the nature of the prohibition as transitioning food into human-compatible quantities. However, those who apply the prohibition even to non-edible items may maintain that just as me'amer is transformational for food, it is also transformational for other materials that provide human utility.
These two models of me'amer may drive the interesting aforementioned machloket between Abaye and Rava about salt. Rava applied the issur to collecting salt from ocean beds, while Abaye claimed that me'amer only applies to gidulei karka, items that grow from the land, and not to salt. Why should this prohibition be limited to items that grow from the land? Perhaps only agricultural items are transformed by me'amer. Items that grow from the land by definition are produced individually (since one spot of land can only provide limited nutrients and growth area). For these items, gathering is transformative – it transforms individual items into bundles compatible with human utility. Items that don’t grow from the land are already sized to human compatibility. Their collection is not transformational and therefore is not forbidden. Salt is a perfect example, as it evolves in larger clusters; the harvesting process is composed of excavating chunks and then re-bundling them. Since they "grew" in clumps, the act of clustering them is not transformational and is not forbidden according to Abaye.
Rava may have disagreed, choosing to view me'amer as purely an act of clustering items, and therefore applicable to both gidulei karka as well as items that do not grow form the land.