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.
We continue and conclude our brief excursus into the compass and nature of tasks that are prohibited on Shabbat. (This excursus is a prelude to the sections of the Shulĥan Arukh which will deal with the final preparations for Shabbat.)
Clearly, the sages were of the firm opinion that the tasks which are prohibited on Shabbat by the Torah derive from the construction of the Tabernacle during the desert wanderings. There are sources which clearly delineate how each of the thirty-nine tasks was involved in the construction and administration of the Tabernacle. If one stops at that point then there certainly is a lesson to be learned: the construction of a place where the people of Israel may worship God is the most holy and wondrous task that they can take upon themselves; yet, the observance of Shabbat is of even greater importance. This means that the Jewish people have no institution that is of greater sanctity and of greater religious importance than Shabbat. And that is no minor consideration!
Nevertheless, as I have already suggested, if we pay greater attention to the thirty-nine tasks we may find a further lesson to be learned. Look at the first eleven items in the list given by the mishnah:
All these tasks are part of one process. The end product of all this activity will be a loaf of bread. And bread is, as everyone knows, the staff of life, the staple food of all those foods which have to be processed. When the remotest ancestors of the human race first left the status of hunter-gatherer and ceased their nomadic way of life it was because they had discovered the benefits of agriculture and cultivation - that wheat can produce bread. As the psalmist says
You make the grass grow for the cattle, and herbage for man's labour that he may get bread from the earth ... bread that sustain's man's life.
Thus the 'cessation' that Shabbat denotes first of all is 'time out' from the eternal pursuit after food and sustenance.
Now let us look at the next group of tasks listed by the mishnah:
- shearing wool,
- washing it,
- beating it,
- dying it,
- making two loops,
- weaving two threads,
- separating two stitches,
- tying a knot,
- sewing two stitches,
- tearing in order to sew two stitches.
It does not take too much imagination to see that these thirteen tasks are connected with another of man's basic necessities: clothing. Not only on Shabbat are we to cease worrying ourselves about food, but we must also forego our immediate concerns about raiment. In both cases we must make do with what we have already produced during the 'six working days'.
Now let us proceed in our investigation to the third group of tasks outlined in the mishnah:
- trapping a deer,
- slaughtering it,
- skinning it,
- salting it,
- tanning its hide,
- scraping it,
- cutting it.
At first glance we might think that we have here some more items connected with food, but if we add to these the two tasks which follow in the mishnah a different perspective will emerge:
- writing two letters,
- erasing in order to write two letters.
It now becomes clear that we are dealing here with yet another basic human necessity: communication, human society. Normal human beings cannot live too long in isolation. We need the company of our own kind. In the Gemara [Ta'anit 23a] the great Amora Rava quotes a popular saying:
Either companionship or death!
Animal skins which have been processed can be used as material upon which communications can be written - indeed, to this very day our most sacred communication, the very Torah scroll itself, is still written on animal skins. Writing enables us not only to communicate with our contemporaries, but it is the means by which generations completely disconnected by time and in time can share thoughts, ideas, ideals - anything that can be written down. The society of fellow human beings, communication with our own kind, is a human psychological necessity.
The last group of tasks is the most eclectic:
- extinguishing [a fire],
- kindling [fire],
- carrying from one domain to another.
What do these three activities have in common? Clearly they are connected with another basic human necessity: shelter, building a home which offers shelter for ourselves and our family.
Thus we have discerned that the thirty-nine tasks which are prohibited on Shabbat are also concerned with the basic human necessities of food, clothing, shelter and society. It is not the necessities themselves which are prohibited on Shabbat, it is their provision on Shabbat which is prohibited. On Shabbat we need food and clothing and shelter and companionship - indeed, on Shabbat we enjoy these basic human essentials - but on Shabbat itself we may not do what is necessary to provide these essentials.
On Shabbat we enjoy all these basic necessities of human existence but we do not provide them: we enjoy what has already been provided for. As we have seen, Shabbat celebrates the creation of the universe: just as we can easily survive one day in seven, enjoying our basic needs without actively pursuing them, so the universe in which we live can continue for one day in seven without our active intervention to change and 'improve' the environment.