We read in Parashat Vayakhel of Benei Yisrael’s enthusiastic response to Moshe’s call for donations of materials for the construction of the Mishkan. The people donated so generously that the artisans assigned to perform the work informed Moshe they received more than was necessary. Moshe then announced, “No man or woman shall do more work for the donation towards the sanctuary,” whereupon the people stopped bringing materials (36:6).
A number of commentators raised the question of why Moshe announced that the people should not “do more work,” instead of announcing that they should not bring materials. After all, the problem was not that too much “work” was being done, but rather that too many materials were being donated. What, then, did Moshe mean when he asked the people to stop performing “work” (“melakha”)?
The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (96b), as understood by Rabbeinu Chananel (cited by Tosafot, s.v. u-mi-mai), infers from this verse that bringing something from one place to another falls under the category of “melakha.” Meaning, Moshe indeed asked the people not to bring any more materials, and the word “melakha” in this verse refers to this activity, demonstrating that even transporting an object has the status of “work.” According to Rabbeinu Chananel, this verse is the source for the inclusion of hotza’a – carrying an object from one domain to another – among the activities that are defined as “melakha” and hence forbidden on Shabbat.
A number of commentators, however, explain this verse differently. Malbim writes that Moshe did not, in fact, ask the people to stop donating materials. He welcomed the excess materials which could be stored in a special treasury for use in the Mishkan as needed in the future. His request was only that the people stop producing the specific items that were needed. For example, the Torah earlier (35:25-26) mentioned that women produced sheets of wool for the Mishkan, and, the Malbim adds, we can imagine that people produced small metal items such as rings and hooks that were needed in the Mishkan. In light of the artisans’ report of an overabundance of materials, Moshe asked the people to stop producing these items, but he did not request that they stop bringing raw materials, which could be stored and used at some later point. However, the verse concludes, “Va-yikalei ha-am mei-havi” – “The people desisted from bringing,” stating explicitly that all donations were discontinued. Malbim explains that although Moshe requested only that the production of certain utensils be discontinued, the people realized that no more donations were needed, and so they stopped donating.
The Ramban takes a much different approach to this verse. He suggests that Moshe formulated his instruction in such a way that it applied to both those who produced items to be used in building the Mishkan, and those who brought raw materials. Moshe addressed both the men and the women – “No man nor woman shall do more work…” – and he thus spoke both of the wool produced by the women (as mentioned earlier), and the materials supplied by the men. And the term “melakha,” the Ramban suggests, can mean not only “work,” but also “possessions.” Thus, for example in Parashat Mishpatim (22:7), in discussing the case of a guardian who tampers with the property entrusted to him, the Torah speaks of “melekhet re’eihu” – “his fellow’s property.” The Ramban further notes Yaakov’s response to Eisav’s offer that they travel together, in which he tells Eisav to travel ahead and that he will travel at a pace appropriate for “ha-melakha asher lefanai” – the large amount of possessions he had with him (Bereishit 33:14). Likewise, as the Ramban cites, Sefer Shemuel I (15:9) speaks of the property of Amalek seized by Benei Yisrael with the term “melakha.” The Ramban thus suggests that Moshe included in his announcement – that “melakha” be discontinued –both meanings of this word: the work performed by the women to produce sheets of wool, and the men’s donations of raw materials. These are both indicated by the word “melakha,” and Moshe thus announced that no more materials at all should be brought – neither those which were produced, nor those which would be brought.