As we learned in yesterday’s daf, Abaye was surprised to find that his teacher, Rabba, permitted a non-Jew to be asked to bring hot water to facilitate a brit mila (=circumcision) on Shabbat in a place where there was no eiruv.
Abaye asked why completing the ritual to purify someone who had become tame (ritually impure) – which is forbidden on Shabbat by the Sages – cannot be performed even if it is necessary to perform a mitzva (e.g. to sacrifice and eat the Passover sacrifice), yet in our case, asking a non-Jew to bring water for the brit is permitted?
The Gemara’s response to Abaye’s question is that we distinguish between an “active” Rabbinic prohibition and a “passive” one. How to understand this distinction depends on different girsa’ot – variant readings – in the Gemara.
The standard text of the Gemara argues that the case of the brit is passive because Rabba did not ask the non-Jew to heat the water, only to bring the water. According to this reading, our case is passive because the activity that was done was just moving something from one place to another, rather than being a creative activity.
Rabbenu Hananel has a different text of the Gemara, which does not have the explanation that focused on whether the non-Jew needed to heat the water up. According to this version, the difference is between the Rabbinic decree of Amira la-Akum (asking a non-Jew to perform a forbidden act on Shabbat) and other Rabbinic ordinances, which involve direct activity, not merely speech, which is not considered an active behavior.
The Ra’avad argues that this case is unique because it involves two Rabbinic ordinances – a shvut d’shvut. First of all, there is no action, only a request made by speaking. Secondly, the activity performed by the non-Jew – transferring water from the house to the courtyard – is, itself, not forbidden by the Torah, but only by the Rabbis. In this case, where it is necessary in order to perform the brit mila, the Rabbis never would have applied their restrictions.