One of the difficult sayings of Jesus is his justification of the disciples’ plucking and/or rubbing heads of grain on the Sabbath. Fortunately, research in recent years among Jewish scholars in Jerusalem has shed new light on what the questionable action might have been.
Whereas Matthew 12:1 records that the disciples “plucked the grains,” Luke 6:1 says “they plucked…rubbing them in their hands.” The late professor, Shlomo Pines, of the Hebrew University discovered an Arabic version of the event preserved in the testimony of early Jewish Christians with a description that the disciples only “rubbed the grains” with no mention of plucking. This characterization of the events accords with other ancient versions of the Gospel narrative.
The omission of plucking is important. In no event would harvesting on the Sabbath have been permitted. Nevertheless, Rabbi Judah and other Sages did allow for rubbing (i.e., husking) of grains under limited conditions.
He may crush it [the grain of an herb] and eat, provided that he does not crush a large quantity with a utensil: the words of R. Judah. But the Sages (further) maintain: He may crush it with the tips of his fingers and eat, provided, however, that he does not crush a large quantity with his hands in the same way as he does on weekdays. (b. Sabbath 128a)