lighting Shabbat candles

Shabbat observance is guaranteed to change your life for the better. With your phone off and an afternoon nap – you will certainly agree.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week we read the double Torah portion of “Vayakhel” and “Pekudei,” which covers Exodus 35:1-40:30, and with it we conclude the book of Exodus.

Although two separate Torah portions, they essentially deal with the same topic: the construction of the Mishkan, also known as the Tabernacle, which was the portable synagogue that accompanied the Jewish people as they wandered the desert. However, even with all the excitement, instructions, job delegation, participation, and worship, there is one thing that God made perfectly clear, which is that no matter how important the construction of the house of God may be, Shabbat – the Sabbath – comes first.

That’s right. The observance of the Sabbath overrides even what seems to be the most noble of activities, building a house for God. The importance of the day cannot be overstated. As such, we will spend this article trying to understand the depth of Shabbat observance.

The Talmud teaches that God approached Moses and said, “I have a special gift in My treasure house and it is called Shabbat, and I wish to give it to the Jewish people,” It is indeed a special gift, and by observing Shabbat, we demonstrate our belief that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

As readers certainly know, we are forbidden to do work on Shabbat. But what isn’t clear to many is what exactly is defined as “work.” The Hebrew word for work is “avoda,” However, the Torah nowhere bans “avoda” on Shabbat. The Torah bans “melacha” on Shabbat – in 12 different places, in fact! Although both words are translated as “work,” they represent totally different forms of work. The word avoda conveys hard work. Rearranging the furniture in one’s home, for example, is  avoda. You might even sweat. However, this form of work is technically permitted on Shabbat, albeit not in the spirit of the day. On the other hand, the word melacha represents creative labor – a totally different act with different results.

Melacha is defined as the labor needed for the construction and the function of the Mishkan. Although not explicitly clear in the Torah, the Talmud elaborates on the types of melacha that were needed in the construction and function of the Mishkan, and from there we learn how to properly rest on Shabbat.

There are 39 different melachot. It is forbidden to perform these melachot on Shabbat, as well as anything that resembles them in either act or result. For advanced readers, the former is known as an “Av” and the latter is known as a “Toldah”. Both are equally forbidden.

One of the best examples to understand the “Av” and “Toldah” differentiation is in the melacha of planting. It is forbidden to plant any seed on Shabbat. This is the “Av.” But in addition, any activity that promotes plant growth, such as watering plants or pruning trees, would be forbidden as a “Tolda.”

Let’s take a look at the 39 melachot, which are generally divided into six groups. The first is known as “the order of bread,” as these melachot were needed to prepare the showbreads of the Mishkan. These melcahot are: planting, plowing, reaping, gathering, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking.

The second group of melachot were those needed for making the curtains and tapestries. These melcahot are: shearing, cleaning, combing, dyeing, spinning, threading, looping, weaving, separating the threads, tying and untying, sewing, and tearing.

The next group is related to leather-making: trapping, slaughtering, skinning, tanning, smoothing, etching, cutting.

The next two groups, the smallest groups, are the melachot needed for organizing the beams of the Mishkan and the actual assembly and disassembly of the Mishkan, and they are: writing and erasing, building and breaking.

The last melachot are lighting a fire, extinguishing a fire, hammering to completion, and carrying.

So there you have it. It is these 39 labors and their derivatives that are forbidden on Shabbat. Nothing else. Some may be wondering, so why don’t observant Jews drive on the Shabbat or watch TV. Why is it forbidden?

Recall that we said, “These 39 melachot are forbidden, as well as anything that resembles them in either act or in result.” What happens when we turn on a car? The combustion of the engine and the burning of fuel, for example, are forms of “lighting a fire.. So too with turning on a TV. Electricity is a form of fire! Turning on lights as well. Just as fire warms and gives light, so does electricity. Hence, all forms of electricity on Shabbat are forbidden.

Restrictions or Opportunities?

And so it is with all the Shabbat restrictions. Anything forbidden to be performed on Shabbat finds its origins in one of the 39. Take my word for it!

Restrictions, restrictions. Does this mean that Shabbat is somewhat of a miserable, boring or difficult day? Absolutely not. These restrictions are actually opportunities for rest and relaxation. Disconnecting from the busy pinging and dinging world that we live in. Shabbat is an enjoyable day in which we relax in a royal manner. The restrictions are for the most part invisible as long as one properly prepares for Shabbat before it arrives.

For example: Lights are turned on beforehand. They may also be set to timers to go on and off as needed. The fridge lightbulb is disconnected or unscrewed to ensure that no light goes on when opening it. Cooking and baking, explicitly being part of the 39, are forbidden. All Shabbat foods are prepared in advance and left to simmer to perfection.

Just like we have traffic restrictions for our safety, we have work restrictions for our rest and benefit. If God told us “I have a special gift in My treasure house and it is called Shabbat, and I wish to give it to the Jewish people” – then it must be something special.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s double Torah portion, click on the links below.




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