After G-d saved the Jewish people from their oppressors in Egypt and gave them the Torah at Mount Sinai, He instructed the newborn nation to construct a portable dwelling place for Him, known as the mishkan. The mishkan was a precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem; it was a place to bring sacrifices to G-d and feel a heightened sense of His presence. During the construction phase, the Jews had an extensive amount of tasks to accomplish. Yet while there was plenty of unfinished work, G-d commanded the Jews to stop and rest every seventh day. Keeping with this tradition established over 3300 years ago, Jews today refrain from the same labors on Shabbos as they did in the days of wandering the desert. Our sages explained that rest specifically means to abstain from every creative labor that was necessary to build the Mishkan. As halacha developed, they specified what exactly constitutes such labor. They divided the task of constructing the mishkan into 39 subcategories, known as the 39 melachos. Of these labors, one of the most common tasks is borer, separating. During the process of making bread (or dyes, depending on the interpretation) for the mishkan, one used a type of sieve to remove pebbles from grain. The original and derivative laws of borer are generally intuitive, though a detailed study is still required to master the dos and don'ts.
It is incorrect to think that separating is completely forbidden on Shabbos. If one separates derech achilah, in the way that a food is usually eaten, borer does not apply. Without this exception, something as common as spooning out a bite to eat would be prohibited.
Since the original act of borer involved using a utensil to remove the undesirable material from a mixture, in order to separate items on Shabbos, one must follow specific guidelines that avoid this process. Namely, one should 1) select and remove the desired material, 2) not use a sifter, sieve, or similar utensil, and 3) benefit immediately from the item. The halachic definition of "immediate" here depends on the situation, but the general rule is that one should not remove something in order to store it away for a later use. The laws of borer are applicable across a wide spectrum of items, from clothing to toys to silverware. In general though, the issue of separating involves a mixture of food, and the commonly used terminology in halacha reflects this. The desired matter is referred to as ochel (food), while the undesired is called pesoles (waste).
Jewish texts are layered with insights and symbolism. When it comes to Torah, truth is found on multiple levels. Since the laws of borer are based on passages in the Torah and the Talmud, I would contend that there is a deeper, more spiritual underpinning present in the melacha of borer. The fact that prohibitions of borer are only relevant on Shabbos and Yom Tov furthers the thesis that there is a spiritual element hidden in this concept. Perhaps the ideas inherent in borer can be applied to an individual's relationship to the demands of Torah and mitzvos. In our daily activities we encounter both good and bad. Our main challenge is to take the ochel, use it immediately, and leave the pesoles undisturbed. The specific analogues to each of these surely differ from person to person, but in general the ochel corresponds to the realm of Torah and mitzvos, while the pesoles represents the desires of the evil inclination. I would conjecture that if we approach mitzvos in the same way that we select ochel on Shabbos, we are on the right track to fulfilling G-d's will. Just as Shabbos brings a heightened spirituality to our souls, so too should the mitzvos that we do bring us to new levels of G-dliness when done in the proper way.
The next part of the analogy requires a bit more imagination. Halacha stipulates that we should select the ochel "biyad," by hand, as opposed to using a special utensil. It is important to note that forks, knives and spoons are not considered utensils here. Although silverware aids in separating one thing from another, it is considered an extension of one's hand, not a separate object. When G-d places the challenge of choosing ochel from pesoles before us, we have different means of selecting the good part. Here, the means correspond to our attitude. Often we become accustomed to doing mitzvos. Our motivation for following G-d's directives becomes external to ourselves; we may do them because of pressure in our community to conform or simply because it is our routine. Instead, we should approach mitzvos with the feeling that it is natural. When we put aside our own desires and make G-d's will our own, the choice to choose right over wrong becomes internalized. As humans it seems more obvious to follow the Torah for external reasons. Perhaps we admire the Torah's moral teachings or enjoy the challenge of deciphering its laws and therefore decide to comply with its rules. In truth, however, we should observe mitzvos because of a deep inner will. Our challenge is to learn about G-d and study His ways in a way that we align our desires with His. In doing so, we make His will a part of us, and are able to use that sense to easily select the good and true path.
As mentioned above, the third and final condition to avoid borer is to eat the ochel immediately. It is well and good to make a positive resolution to change, but only impressive when one actually follows through. After deciding to prioritize -Hashem's commands above one’s own desires, the next step should be to do a mitzvah, thereby planting the groundwork for more good to come. In Pirkei Avos we learn that the reward for one mitzvah is another. The quicker one takes a definite step on a righteous path, the easier it will be to continue straight. Halacha states that the ochel that is separated must be eaten or used within the time it takes to make a meal (about an hour). The reason being is that we want the act to be derech achilah, a part of the normal process of eating. Similarly, positive thoughts and deeds should be acted on and maintained without delay.
In Halacha, the rules of borer can also apply when both types in the mixture are edible. In this situation, the food we do not want acts as pesoles. Sometimes the distinction between right and wrong is less obvious and our choice is not between good and evil, but between good and better. On Shabbos, when we are operating on a spiritual high, we aim for the best. If we are capable of the great, we do not settle for the average.
The case of ochel mixed with another ochel has an interesting loophole when more than one person is present. Here it does not matter which ochel is better; the emphasis is rather on each person's preference. For example, imagine that two friends are sharing a salad. Supposing one likes onions and the other doesn't, the first person is allowed to remove the onions from her plate and give them to her friend. At first glance this seems to contradict the halacha. Since the first person doesn't like onions, the onions are considered pesoles, and therefore she should not separate them. The explanation lies in the fact that temporarily, the preferences of the second friend become merged with the first's. When this happens, the onions are transformed from pesoles to ochel, because the first friend's desire is to make her friend happy by giving her onions. At first glance this seems like a trivial nuance in the law, but I believe we can extract a deeper message about love of our fellow Jews, from this application of borer. When we help out other people, we form such a deep connection with them that their needs become our own. We have the ability to act on another's behalf when it is something that will serve in his/her best interest. In truth, both parties end up benefitting from such altruism.
If it is ever necessary to remove pesoles on Shabbos, halacha instructs us to take it out along with a bit of ochel, so as to show that we are not truly separating the mixture. This law can be applied to our spiritual service of G-d as well. Our yetzer hara is necessary in order to maintain our physical well being. If G-d only wanted us to do mitzvos, he would have created us as lofty angels. This last piece to the puzzle teaches us to incorporate G-dly ochel into the mundane pesoles. We were put into this world not only to collect sparks of holiness, but to include G-d in every aspect of our lives. We are lucky to have opportunities to fully immerse ourselves in Torah study, but often our attention is needed to address other priorities. In those circumstances, we can add light to the world by applying our learning and unique Jewish perspective to new challenges and tasks. By doing so, we show that G-d is truly involved in every aspect of our lives.
Originally written for Batsheva Academy Summer Retreat Journal