At the conclusion of this week’s parshah, the Torah writes about the mekoshesh eitzim – the individual who desecrated Shabbos in the midbar by gathering wood. The pasuk says that since it was uncertain what the halacha was concerning one who is mechallel Shabbos, the mekoshesh was placed in custody until Hashem gave instructions as to what to do. Hashem then told Moshe Rabbeinu that the man is to be put to death by stoning; and so he was.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 78b says that it was certain that one who desecrates Shabbos deserves death – as the pasuk states earlier: “mechallelehah mos yumas” (Shemos 31:14). The only uncertainty was the form of death he should receive.
Tosafos in Sanhedrin asks why Moshe was uncertain as to what form of death the mekoshesh deserved. Since the Torah previously said that one who desecrates Shabbos should be put to death, the general rule is that unless otherwise specified the Torah refers to chenek (strangulation) when ordering death. Tosafos answers that Moshe reasoned that one who desecrates Shabbos in public is likened to one who does avodah zarah, since by desecrating Shabbos in public one denies that Hashem created the world (Chullin 5a). Therefore Moshe thought that perhaps the punishment for desecrating Shabbos in public should be by stoning, which would follow the same punishment for one who does avodah zarah. However, Hashem answered that one who desecrates Shabbos deserves stoning for the aveirah of desecrating Shabbos alone.
Reb Akiva Eiger asks a powerful question on Tosafos. According to Tosafos there is room to say that one who is mechallel Shabbos is punished in the same way as one who does avodah zarah. How then can we learn from this incident that one who is mechallel Shabbos in private deserves death by stoning? Perhaps Hashem agreed with Moshe’s logic that when one is mechallel Shabbos in public it is comparable to doing avodah zarah (which is punishable by stoning), and thus it was for that reason that the mekoshesh was stoned. But one who is mechallel Shabbos in private is not compared to one who performs avodah zarah and therefore should not deserve death by stoning – but rather by strangulation – since the Torah did not specify the form of death he deserves.
Reb Elchanan Wasserman, Hy”d (Kovetz Shiurim Baba Basra 356), based on Tosafos in Baba Basra 119 (d”h shenemar), explains that Moshe Rabbeinu understood that the halacha of a mechallel Shabbos in public must be the same as one who does it in private, since they are both derived from the aforementioned pasuk, “mechallelehah mos yumas.” He questioned whether both (public and private desecrations of Shabbos) deserve strangulation, in compliance with the general rule that death is by strangulation unless specified otherwise, or since regarding chillul Shabbos in public there is reason to assume that it deserves stoning. (Stoning is more stringent and likened to avodah zarah; therefore the entire pasuk refers to stoning.) Hence, even a mechallel Shabbos in private would deserve stoning.
Rabbeinu Bichaya, on this parshah, says that when Hashem informed Moshe as to what to do with the mekoshesh the pasuk repeats the fact that he was deserving of death, for as it says, “mos yumas ha’ish; ragom oso ba’avanim – the man shall be put to death; stone him.” Why does the Torah reiterate that the mekoshesh deserved death? After all, the Gemara says that Moshe was certain about that and only questioned the form of death. Rabbeinu Bichaya explains that the extra words, “mos yumas,” were written in order to connect this pasuk to the earlier pasuk, “mechallelehah mos yumas.” In other words the Torah is explaining that it was earlier referring to stoning, when it wrote “mos yumas” regarding the halacha about one who desecrates the Shabbos.
I want to suggest that even a mechallel Shabbos in private is comparable to avodah zarah. The Gemara that states that the act of chillul Shabbos done only in public is referring to when one becomes a mumar for all of the Torah. However, even in private the aveirah of desecrating Shabbos is comparable to avodah zarah. Rashi, in Chullin 5a, explains that one who does avodah zarah denies Hashem’s existence. One who is mechallel Shabbos denies Hashem’s actions, for he is testifying that Hashem did not rest by ma’asei bereishis. This should apply to one who desecrates Shabbos in public – as well as in private.