I've heard Jews must obey the Sabbath and gentiles must not keep it (which is why I am typing a little bit here and there).

So in ancient times, how was this actually enforced? Would Jews wear a special star of David sign and get stoned for working on the Sabbath, or what?


Punishment doesn't (and didn't) work the way I think you're assuming. Ancient Israel didn't have a "police force" to deal with violations of halacha. Any transgression punishable by a court was acted on only if witnesses came forward to bring an accusation. As part of doing that, the witnesses would certainly have to know if the person they accuse is Jewish. If it's not known, someone would have to ask (in court, if it wasn't resolved earlier).

So to use your example, if Shimon and Reuven both observe Ploni, who they know to be a Jew, lighting a bonfire on Shabbat, and their direct appeal to Ploni didn't work, then they would go to a beit din to testify to what they saw. Ploni and any other witnesses would also testify, and the court would make a decision. (Judges, not juries, determine guilt under this system.) There are extra stringencies for the conduct of cases that could result in the death penalty, and according to the talmud (Makkot 1:10) executions were rare.

Tractate Sanhedrin covers the conduct of courts in a fair bit of detail.

  • I think this answers the question, in an indirect way. If I'm not mistaken, the question is really focused on how the system knew who was Jewish and who wasn't, for purposes of enforcing sabbath laws. This suggests that witnesses engaged the violator, who could presumably state that he was not actually Jewish.
    – Seth J
    Sep 8 '13 at 2:17
  • Oh, I thought it was founded on the premise that "the state" (in some form) had to identify violators, when really it's the witnesses -- and then that's only enough to get the guy into court, where if there's any question at all one of the judges will ask him if he's Jewish. Sep 8 '13 at 2:19
  • Unclear. But the OP clearly doesn't have the background to know all these variables. I think it's an ok question (makes sense if you only know Jews get punished for violating it but non-Jews don't). And the answer could be a little more direct ("It's not done quite how you think, but like this...."), but I think it works.
    – Seth J
    Sep 8 '13 at 3:44
  • @SethJ yeah, I was trying to take (my perception of) the poster's background into account, and perhaps my answer is too simplified as a result. I'll tweak it along the lines you suggested. Sep 8 '13 at 3:46
  • So lighting a fire is okay even in ancient Israel if you are not jewish.
    – user4951
    Sep 9 '13 at 3:38

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