of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


Tractate Shabbat, Chapter Seven, Mishnah 2

The major tasks [which may not be performed on Shabbat] are forty less one: sowing, ploughing, reaping, sheaving, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading baking; shearing wool, washing it, beating it, dying it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two stitches, tying a knot, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches; trapping a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, tanning its hide, scraping it, cutting it; writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, construction, demolition, extinguishing [a fire], kindling [fire], hammering; carrying from one domain to another. These are the major tasks: forty less one.


No, I have not made a mistake: we are still studying the laws of Sabbath Eve in the home. But instead of continuing with the next section in the Shulĥan Arukh, we pause here for a short while. Rabbi Karo, having brought us almost to the end of Friday afternoon (at the end of Section 251), now interpolates a whole series of sections whose common theme is tasks which must be performed before Shabbat begins because they may not be performed on Shabbat at all. Section 252 is concerned with tasks which, if started before Shabbat, may continue automatically throughout Shabbat with no human intervention. Sections 253 - 259 are concerned with various aspects of the cooking of food. All these are tasks whose outcome is necessary for our Oneg Shabbat, making Shabbat a delightful day, but which of themselves are forbidden to be performed on Shabbat.

We do not need to go into these sections in detail; but, on the other hand, we would not be able to understand their purport at all if we do not understand the nature and definition of what is called a melakhah. This Hebrew term, in our present context, may best be translated as 'tasks' - tasks which may not be performed on Shabbat. The general misunderstanding of this term which results in people thinking that it is 'work' or 'labour' which is prohibited on Shabbat comes from the rather dismal translation of the Bible which was commissioned by King James I of England, perpetrated by some bishops, and published in 1611. (Let me just cover myself against attack by adding that this very same King James was also the sixth of that name to reign in Scotland.) In America this translation is often referred to as the Standard Version. Those bishops translated the Hebrew of Exodus 20:9-10 as follows: Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God: [in it] thou shalt not do any work...

But Jewish tradition has always understood the import of these (and similar) verses differently. What is being prohibited on the Sabbath is not manual labour but certain tasks which may not be performed - regardless of how much or how little energy is involved in their performance. This is the very heart of the secret of the magic of Shabbat. In the very first shiur of this series I wrote:

This magical transformation is brought about through the mechanism of the way the day is observed. All the requirements and prohibitions of Shabbat are not 'because' it is Shabbat. They 'make' Shabbat, they 'create' Shabbat, they are Shabbat. They are the building blocks by which this refuge within time is actually created. Without them the illusion of 'a different world' and 'time out of time' could not be created - and it is an illusion, of course. For those that understand and enjoy it it is the most magnificent illusion one could imagine.

So let us investigate a little to find out where these 'tasks' originate.

The sages noted a rather incongruous juxtaposition of ideas in the Torah (where they deem every incongruity to be full of meaning). Exodus 35:1-11 reads as follows:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.

And then, after that introduction, he continues:

Take from among you gifts for God; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them - gifts for God: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats' hair; tanned ram skins ... And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that God has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering...

And so forth. Clearly verses 1-3 are a kind of preamble to the verses which follow, but what has the observance of Shabbat to do with the construction of the Tabernacle and all its appurtenances? The sages in the Gemara [Shabbat 70a] understood this strange juxtaposition as teaching a profound element of Shabbat observance:

What does the Torah mean? It says "Moses convoked the whole Israelite community"; then it says "These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest". The word 'things' refers to the thirty-nine 'tasks' which were told to Moses at Sinai.

In other words, the juxtaposition of 'things' prohibited on Shabbat to the list of tasks needed to construct the Tabernacle which immediately follows teaches that even though the construction of the Tabernacle is an endeavour of the utmost importance and holiness, nevertheless on those Sabbaths which occur during the construction period these 'things' may not be done. Whatever 'tasks' were involved in the construction of the Tabernacle it is those tasks which are prohibited on Shabbat throughout the ages.

After careful thought the rabbis discovered that thirty nine tasks were involved in the construction of the Tabernacle. These thirty-nine tasks are "the major tasks" mentioned in the mishnah quoted at the beginning of this shiur. (They are 'major' tasks because each one of them can also imply other tasks which are a derivation from them or an extended application of them; these derivations and extensions may be labeled 'minor' tasks, though, in fact, there is no halakhic difference between the two kinds.)

Clearly, however, there must be some other consideration that underlies these thirty-nine tasks - some consideration that makes them particularly potent and pregnant with meaning which is associated with the idea of the 'cessation' which is Shabbat. You will recall that the Hebrew word 'Shabbat' means 'cessation': in the very first shiur in this series I wrote:

The Hebrew word "Shabbat" means to stop, to cease activity; in modern Israel a derivation from the same Hebrew root indicates industrial sanctions: a strike. The biblical implication is that every seventh day there is to be a complete cessation of usual daily activities, in commemoration of the creation of the universe.

It is this more pregnant meaning of the thirty-nine tasks which will be the subject of our next shiur.