Skip to main content

The Mishkan and the Shabbat - Continued

Rav Michael Hattin



Last week, we started to explore the notion of Shabbat in the Torah.  We began by studying its first introduction in the Book of Breisheet where it appears as God's concluding act in the great tapestry of the six days of creation.  We noted at the time that God's work during those first six days is without exception referred to by the text as 'melacha'.  We went on to investigate the imperative of Shabbat as it is presented in the Ten Utterances.  Again, we discovered that the term 'melacha' is employed by the Torah to describe our mundane pursuits during the work week, as well as the activities from which we are to cease on Shabbat.  Unfortunately, the Torah provided no concrete working definition of the concept of 'melacha' in either place.


The description of the preparations for the building of the Mishkan presented in Parashat Ki Tisa seemed to provide the greatest promise for unraveling the mystery of melacha, and we had just completed our survey of Bezalel and his talents.  It will be recalled that Bezalel, due solely to an unusual and unique act of Divine inspiration, was gifted in all manner of craftsmanship and design.  Blessed with intelligence and insight, pedagogic skills and charismatic character, he possessed a keen spiritual sensitivity, comprehending the profundity of the work that lay before him.  Most of all, though, he was an artisan and craftsman, unusually and uniquely expert in metalwork, woodwork, stonework, weaving, and design. 


Bezalel as a Paradigm 

Who is Bezalel as an archetype?  What does he represent in human history?  What is the true significance of his exceptional aptitude?  Considering all of his talents, pondering the range of his skills, deliberating upon the gravity of his mission, a single, startling conclusion is inescapable.  Bezalel, like God Himself, is a CREATOR.  Charged with the same sense of purpose, guided by insight and understanding, and sensitive to a task that will transform raw materials into things of meaning and beauty, Bezalel initiates a grand process of design that is a reflection of God's own work.  The act of Creation that brought the cosmos into being, the supreme exercise of Absolute wisdom and capacity that rendered chaos into order and shaped nonexistence into matter, cannot be duplicated by finite man.  Nevertheless, a simulacrum of that moment, a semblance of its infinite grandeur, is repeated every time a spark flies from the anvil and an amorphous natural element is shaped by human ingenuity.  Bezalel creates just as God creates.  Inspired with wisdom, electrified with fervor, he directs that God-given spark of creativity to transform the world. 

"Said Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav: Bezalel knew how to join the letters by which heaven and earth were created.  Concerning him it says that he was filled with 'a spirit of God, with wisdom, insight and knowledge', and concerning God's act of Creation it says 'God with wisdom founded the earth, and with insight established the heavens' (Mishle/Proverbs 3:19).  Furthermore, it states: 'with knowledge did He uncover the Deep' (Mishle/Proverbs 3:20)" [Talmud Berachot 55a].  In this Midrashic statement of our Sages, Bezalel is presented as a creator figure employing the very same methods and tools that God utilized to forge the cosmos.  These so-called 'letters' of the Hebrew alphabet, which are often understood to possess mystical properties, also constitute the basic building blocks of language.  Metaphorically, the letters represent the elemental atomic particles from which all other matter derives.  Just as God manipulated and arranged these elemental forms to fashion a world of complexity, order, beauty and meaning, so too Bezalel takes the 'basic' materials of metal, stone, wood, and fiber to create an edifice of splendor and spiritual significance.


Consider for a moment the processes involved in Bezalel's work. Without exception, they tell the story of utilizing the awesome, unlimited power of human creativity to bridge the chasm between the design idea and the finished product.  In metalworking, for instance, one is able to remarkably convert unimpressive and ineffectual ore into a useful, lustrous object.  When working with stone, one transforms a rough and ordinary-looking mineral into a precious gemstone.  As a woodworker, one changes a formless and prosaic block of timber into a beautiful and purposeful vessel.  In the act of spinning thread and weaving, one miraculously transmutes fibers from animal (wool) or vegetable (linen) sources into a fine piece of textile.  In all of these four processes, it is creativity and ingenuity that are the necessary link between the purposeful conception and its intelligent result.  Along the way, a raw material is inevitably reshaped by the human intervention and given a new and wondrous form.


The Definition of Melacha

Let us now consider again the passage from Parashat Ki Tisa describing Bezalel's election: "God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Behold, I single out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Chur from the tribe of Yehuda.  I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and the ability to execute all manner of work.  To weave designs, to work with gold, silver and bronze.  To cut stones and to fit them, to carve wood and to do all manner of work.  Behold I have provided as his assistant Oholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, and in the heart of all of the wise I have placed wisdom, so that they will do all that I have commanded you.  Namely, the Tent of Meeting and the ark for the Testimony, as well as the lid that is upon it and all of the other vessels of the Tent…'" (Shemot 31:1-7).  Notice that the phrase 'all manner of work' occurs twice.  It first occurs as the tangible expression of the divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge with which he is endowed.  It occurs again as a generic summary of the processes of weaving, metallurgy, stonework and carpentry. 


In other words, 'all manner of work' describes a category of specific activities that are purposeful, creative, and transformative.  In the original Hebrew text of the passage 'all manner of work' is 'kol MELACHA'.  The operational definition of 'melacha' for which we were searching is thus indicated by the paragon of Bezalel.  As a gifted artisan and craftsman, as a creator whose work is a reflection of God's own, Bezalel does not 'avoda' but rather 'melacha'.  

To reformulate our equation, Sabbath commemorates God's cessation from the act of creating the universe.  The Torah enjoins the curtailment of 'melacha' as the expression of that fact.  The example of Bezalel and his building of the Mishkan captures the essence of the concept of 'melacha'.  We now understand and appreciate that 'melacha' is not a general and all-inclusive expression of labor, work and toil. Rather, it is a specific class of activities that are characterized by purposefulness, the exercise of intelligence and creativity, and a process of transformation that reshapes a coarse and crude material into a useful product.  It is indeed significant that the word 'avoda' never occurs as a freestanding noun in any passage describing Creation, Shabbat or the Mishkan.  Conversely, the term 'melacha' occurs approximately sixty times in the Torah.  Of those sixty, approximately half refer to Shabbat and the holidays (on which cessation from most forms of 'work' is also commanded), while the vast majority of other half occur in the context of the construction of the Mishkan.  The conclusion is therefore inescapable that when the Torah forbids the execution of 'melacha' on Shabbat, it is specifically ruling out activities associated and modeled after Bezalel's undertaking, and recalling God's own act of Creation.


Scriptural Allusions 

The Mishna in Tractate Chagiga 1:8 asserts: "Release from vows hovers in the air and has no Scriptural basis.  The laws of the Shabbat, Festival offerings, and Temple trespass are like mountains suspended by a hair because THEIR RESPECTIVE TEXTS ARE MEAGER AND THEIR LAWS ARE NUMEROUS.  Torts, rules of the Temple service, laws of Tuma and Tahara and laws of forbidden relations have much Scriptural basis for support.  All, however, are essentials of the Torah."  The observation of the Mishna is the same one that has puzzled many of us.  The laws of Shabbat observance are numerous, detailed and complex.  Very few of these forbidden activities are explicitly spelled out in the text of the Torah, and vague, ambiguous references to 'you shall not do any work' do not seem adequate to explain the overwhelming edifice of Sabbath practice.  Like proverbial mountains hanging by a hair, the laws of the Sabbath appear to some to be a fanciful and not terribly convincing invention of the Rabbis!  But, suggests the Mishna, by what a hair those mountains hang!  By stating that 'you shall not do any 'melacha'' but indicating from the context of Creation on the one hand and Bezalel and the Mishkan on the other exactly what 'melacha' entails, the text of the Torah need not state any more.  It becomes abundantly clear to anyone who critically and carefully studies the text, as our Sages most eminently did, that 'melacha' has little or nothing to do with physical exertion, and everything to do with human creativity that shapes and reshapes physical matter.


The Critical Juxtaposition 

"Moshe assembled the entire people of Israel and said to them: 'these are the things that God has commanded to be done.  For six days you may do work ('melacha') but the seventh day shall be a holy Shabbat to God, whoever does work ('melacha') on it shall be put to death.  Do not kindle a fire in your habitations on the Shabbat'.  Moshe said to the entire people of Israel: 'this is the thing that God has commanded.  Collect from among yourselves an offerng to God, all those of generous heart shall bring the offering to God, of gold, silver and bronze…all those who are wise-hearted among you shall come forth to make all the things which God has commanded, namely the Mishkan…and the ark…' (Shemot 35:1-20).  

As in last week's parasha, Parshat VaYakhel also contains a critical juxtaposition.  Shabbat observance and the building of the Mishkan  are joined in context because they are linked in concept. According to ancient and well-founded tradition, there are thirty-nine main categories of activities that delineate the types of work forbidden on the Shabbat; the exact conceptual source for these thirty-nine is none other then the main activities associated with the building of the Mishkan.  As Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi states in the Mechilta (de R. Yishmael Parashat VaYakhel): " 'these are the things' refers to the thirty nine main categories of forbidden Shabbat activities that Moshe told the people orally."   In other words, Rabbi Yehuda understands that implicit in the connection between Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan is the definition of melacha for which we have been searching.  The somewhat different Talmudic formulation states: "The thirty nine categories of forbidden labor recorded in the Mishna relate to the 'work' of the Mishkan…one is only liable for an activity that was similarly performed in the Mishkan.  They planted…and harvested (the flora that were used for the extraction of vegetable dies used in the coloring of some of the materials – Rashi ad loc), you shall not do so…" (Tractate Shabbat 49b).



The Thirty Nine Categories of Melacha 

Let us take a moment to consider these thirty-nine activities as they are listed in the seventh chapter of Mishna Shabbat: 

1.  Plowing         14.   Combing raw materials     27.   Skinning

2.  Sowing          15.   Dying                28.   Tanning

3.  Harvesting      16.   Spinning             29.   Scraping pelts

4.  Sheaf making    17.   Weaving operations        30.   Marking out

5.  Threshing       18.   Weaving operations        31.   Cutting to shape

6.  Winnowing       19.   Weaving operations        32.   Writing

7.  Selecting       20.   Separating into threads   33.   Erasing

8.  Sifting         21.   Tying a knot              34.   Building

9.  Grinding        22.   Untying a knot            35.   Demolishing

10.     Kneading      23.   Sewing                    36.   Kindling fire

11.     Baking        24.   Tearing                   37.   Extinguishing fire

12.     Sheep shearing     25.   Trapping/hunting  38.   Finishing touches of a product

13.     Bleaching          26.   Slaughtering     39.   Carrying from public to private domain


While it is difficult to fully comprehend the parameters of some of these activities based on this concise list, it is nonetheless possible to organize the thirty-nine things into a series of broader groupings.  The first category consists of numbers one through eleven (1-11), and clearly relates to the practice of AGRICULTURE, spelling out all of the activities necessary to wring forth 'bread from the earth'.  Category two, numbers twelve through twenty-four (12-24), describes the process of fashioning TEXTILES.  The third group, consisting of numbers twenty-five through thirty-one (25-31), describes the control and judicious use of ANIMALS.  The fourth group, thirty-two and thirty-three (32-33), concern WRITING, and the fifth group of thirty-four and thirty-five (34-35), concern BUILDING.  The sixth group of activities thirty-six and thirty-seven (36-37) relate to FIRE, and the final two groups of thirty-eight (38) and thirty-nine (39) are the unrelated actions of COMPLETION and CARRYING. 


Revolutionary Developments in Human History 

Evaluating these categories from an anthropological and social historical perspective reveals a remarkable common denominator.  Each one of them represents a revolution in human development!  Agriculture ushered in the age of independence from a nomadic way of life, and freed early man from the time-consuming and wearisome task of gathering food for survival.  The making of textiles, the remarkable conversion of coarse fibers into materials, represented the possibility of making clothing and all manner of helpful products.  The use of animals to provide food for sustenance and hides for survival was another important break with more primitive living, and introduced a relationship with other species from which we still benefit. 

Writing was one of humanity's greatest inventions and allowed knowledge and information to be transmitted around the world and across the generations. The dawn of recorded history is a function of writing.  Human buildings are unlike any shelter constructed by other species, for they are complex manipulations of materials and forms.  The construction of a free-standing shelter was a development that allowed humanity to leave the darkness of the cave.  Fire was perhaps mankind's greatest invention for so many other human activities depend upon our ability to harness this force.  Through the use of fire, we have transformed our lives and the state of the world.


The act of completion represents the various processes that human beings employ in the production of objects.  The specialization of work that is a hallmark of civilization is based upon this category.  Finally, the act of carrying from the private to the public domain and visa versa is essentially the basis of commerce.  Commerce is about the transfer of goods and materials, and is a direct function of their transportation between the private and public domain.  Complex societies are founded upon elaborate networks of commercial traffic that are fundamentally expressions of 'carrying'.


Humanity and the Rest of Creation 

It is now apparent that the creative enterprise contained in the Torah's description of Bezalel's 'work' is echoed and amplified in the traditional list of thirty nine 'avot melachot' or 'major categories of forbidden labors'.  Precisely those acts necessary to build the Mishkan are the expressions of the human creative spark that can alter nature and reshape it to fit an anthropomorphic mold.  Let us proceed one step further.  The thirty-nine categories not only trace the story of human progress and the ongoing ability of humanity to modify their surroundings, but also encapsulate the essential distinction between humanity and the rest of creation.  No other species on this planet engages in the vast majority of these thirty-nine pursuits.  Those that do activities resembling planting, cutting or building do so at a level of complexity that is limited, and tend to perform within a circumscribed scope that is a direct function of their particular instinctive capabilities.  The leaf-cutter ant may do 'farming', but is incapable of growing anything other than mushrooms.  The colloquial spider may spin an orb of astounding relative strength and ethereal beauty, but is not capable of building anything else.  Only the human being has the ability and the versatility to develop complex and broad solutions that address such an astoundingly wide array of situations.


The forbidden melachot therefore speak of what makes us uniquely human, the aspects of our constitution that separate us from the other species.  The melachot address the creative spark in man, which is part and parcel of what we variously refer to as 'intelligence', 'consciousness', 'freedom of choice', 'awareness of God' or 'the soul'.  All of these intangible spiritual qualities describe facets of the human personality that at its core is an expression of 'the Divine Image' in which we were created.  In other words, melacha does not describe those aspects of our lives in which we are similar to our furred or feathered friends.  All of the animate creatures on this planet engage at sundry times in activities requiring physical exertion, or involving toil and drudgery, in the interests of physical survival.  But in so doing they are not performing 'melacha'.  To phrase the matter in Halachic terms, if one wishes one may lift heavy furniture all day long to the point of physical exhaustion and not be in direct violation of Shabbat, but to effortlessly strike a match or nonchalantly pick a flower is to brazenly abrogate 'you shall not do any work'.


The Essence of Shabbat 

What then is the purpose of Shabbat?  Why does God demand of his people that one day in seven they cease from purposeful, deliberate, creative pursuits that effect a physical change in the world?  For a generation living at the cusp of the twenty-first century the answer is perhaps more clear than ever before.  God has endowed us with abilities and talents that allow us to occupy a most exalted position in the scheme of things.  As creators, we alone can bend the world to our suit our purposes.  As creators, we alone can transform nature to our meet our goals.  But precisely because we are blessed with superlative and unrivalled potential, we are in great danger of succumbing to the erroneous and destructive belief that we are gods in our own right.  When our creativity knows no limits, when it is allowed to freely act without constraint, when we refuse to acknowledge the God who demands responsible conduct, the result is not constructive creation but rather the atomic bomb.  As perhaps no previous generation has ever understood, we are beginning to realize with frightening urgency that human creativity can very easily destroy the world and turn existence into a living hell.  The institution of the Shabbat, when correctly understood and sincerely appreciated, represents the hope and the dream that a better world can yet be fashioned by human hands.  The key to that possibility remains the acknowledgement that, notwithstanding our unrivalled accomplishments in extending our reach to the very edges of the solar system, we are still the work of a Creator who not only fashioned the cosmos but also gave us the precious gift of self-mastery. 

Shabbat Shalom

For further study:  

1)  It is significant indeed that during the entire experience of slavery and bondage in Egypt, Bnei Yisrael are never described as performing 'melacha' but rather as being oppressed with 'avoda': "The Egyptians enslaved ('vayAViDu') Bnei Yisrael with back-breaking labor.  They embittered their lives with hard work ('AVoDa'), with clay and brick and all manner of work ('AvoDa') in the field.  All of their work ('AvoDatam') was imposed with harsh rigor" (Shemot 1:13-14).  Avoda is the work of the slave, but melacha is the creative spark of the free human personality.  Avoda is performed by the 'eved' (slave), but melacha is related to 'malach' (angel or messenger).  The great injustice of slavery is that it dehumanizes people and reduces them to beasts of burden, for the animal does 'avoda' but never 'melacha'. 


2)  In Hebrew, there is no verb conjugation for the root 'MLCh' as there is for 'AVD'.  Rather we say 'laasot melacha' which means 'to do' or 'to make' or 'to fashion' melacha, and is an indication that 'melacha' is a higher and more refined pursuit. 


3)  When electricity first became widely available at the turn of the 20th century, there was a lively discussion and debate among the Halachic decisors as to whether use of this new dynamic force was a violation of Shabbat law or not.  Differences of opinion existed concerning the 'melacha', if any, that was performed by utilizing electricity.  Was it a form of completion (the closing of the electric circuit), a variation of fire (the electric spark or the incandescent filament), or the idea of bringing something new into existence?  In the end, the weight of opinion ruled that its use on Shabbat was forbidden.  From a conceptual standpoint, this decision was undoubtedly the right one, for no other force in the modern world transforms our lives as much.  Electricity is the engine that drives every industry, powers every tranformative process, and continues to shape and reshape nature like no other.  The harnessing of the electric spark was as significant for the modern age as was the discovery of fire for the ancients.  How senseless to imagine that simply because turning on a light switch is effortless it therefore cannot be characterized as  'work'!  In fact, as our earlier discussion indicates, it is the essence of what 'melacha' is about.            


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!