As the man with the withered hand stood expectantly in front of Him, Yeshua posed another question to the scholars present in the synagogue, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11). One might wonder why this question is relevant, but according to Sabbath law, one may not lift or carry an object (or an animal) outside of an established boundary.
The Master appealed to what must then have been a standard practice, at least in the Galilee: saving your animal’s life took precedence over the Sabbath prohibition on carrying and lifting. No one in the synagogue raised any objection to that premise. If that was not an accepted standard of the time and place, Yeshua’s argument would have lost its rhetorical force. Several men in the synagogue could have simply raised their hands and said, “We would not take hold of it or lift it out.”
Rabbi Yeshua’s hypothetical question seems to have been a standard rhetorical scenario for discussing Sabbath prohibitions. A passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls prohibits lifting an animal out of a pit on the Sabbath day, but apparently, in first-century Pharisaic-Galilean practice, the priority of rescuing an animal from a pit, even on the Sabbath, was a given. Later arguments in the Talmud take up the same question. Some opinions advocated removing an animal from a pit even on the Sabbath, out of concern for the welfare of the beast. They conceded that it may be necessary to violate some of the Sabbath’s prohibitions to alleviate or prevent the suffering of animals. The Talmud explains that showing kindness to animals “is a biblical law” and therefore weightier than legal stringencies. For that reason, the sages deemed it permissible to carry provisions to an animal to feed it or to enable it to climb out of a pit on the Sabbath day. All of these fall into the category of “doing good” on the Sabbath, because showing mercy to animals is a positive biblical commandment.
The Master declared, “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). Yeshua argued from the light to the heavy, a method of rabbinic argumentation that hinges on presenting a minor case, and then stating, “If this is so in the minor case, how much more so is it true in the major case.” Thus the logic proceeds from the light matter to the more serious matter: “If it is permissible to violate Sabbath in order to alleviate the suffering of animals, how much more so is it permissible to do the same for human beings?”