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What type of work is forbidden on Shabbat and Holidays?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. The Torah1 says, "Do not perform melachah on Shabbat." Melachah means work. But what's "work?" The melachot, plural for labors in Hebrew, are the 39 categories of creative action that the Torah defines as work that may not be performed on Shabbat. The same applies to biblical holidays in which the Torah prohibits melachah as well (with the exception of cooking and carrying).

B. The Torah mentions the celebration of Shabbat and its work prohibition numerous times, without defining work. Then, almost as if randomly, the Torah mentions the prohibition again as a prelude to the construction of the Tabernacle. Bingo, work is defined: the creative activities employed to construct the Tabernacle constitute "work". This work is divided into 39 general categories of melachot – work forbidden on Shabbat.

Much like the "work" G-d did during the six days of creation, when He (didn't as much labor, but rather) created. Similarly, on Shabbat we too abstain from creative work.
C. Each of the 39 melachot break down into subcategories called tuldot (pronounced TOOL-dote), which means offspring. Because of their "children," the 39 melachot are also referred to as Av melachot, meaning father categories.

OK, but what are they?

1. Don't eat your Wheaties

The first 11 of the 39 concern that indispensable staple of life--bread, since bread was baked on a weekly basis in the Mishkan. Since the bread tree has yet to be genetically engineered, various things must be done to bring forth bread from dirt: planting wheat, plowing the field, reaping grown wheat stalks, binding sheaves of wheat, threshing, winnowing, sifting kernels, grinding, sifting flour, kneading dough, and finally, baking. Any and all of the above are Shabbat no-nos. But since most of us are not farmers, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself doing any of these over the weekend. However, there are many tuldot that originate in these 11 prohibitions.

2. Man makes the clothes...

In the Miskhan, richly colored, ornately decorated and intricately woven materials were the fabric of daily life: the priests' uniforms, the exquisite cloth partitions, and the giant leather and cloth sheets that served as a multi-layer roof. Preparing these textiles involved the next 13 melachot: shearing, bleaching, combing and dyeing wool; spinning and weaving thread/yarn, making two loops (as an anchor on which to base material); sewing two threads together, separating two threads, tying a knot, loosening a knot, sewing two stitches (to attach sections of material), and tearing (other threads or material) in order to sew two stitches. Though stupendous be thy sartorial skills, sorry, they'll have to sit Shabbat out.

3. ...and the leather too

Our textual tour through the creation of the Mishkan takes us to the Desert Leather Factory, where the Jews of old created portions of the Mishkan's roof out of animal hides. Making leather and parchment entails seven steps, which make up Melachot Nos. 25-31: trapping (deer), slaughtering it; and flaying, salting, curing, scraping and cutting its hides. Today, this translates into no weekend deer or duck huntin' out in them thar backwoods, and no leatherworking, on the Day of Rest.

4. Work? Out

The remaining eight Melachot comprise the bulk manual labors that manual labor is comprised of--when you're a working person, you can't avoid the following, and neither could the Mishkan-makers: writing two letters, erasing (old text) in order to write two letters, extinguishing a flame, igniting a flame, striking with a hammer, and carrying (an object) from one domain to another. Today, you can't avoid these either; the tuldot originating from these eight are the source for much of the most common prohibited work as we know it. Among the most prominent tuldot issuing from this block of melachot are the prohibitions of using a writing instrument (source: "writing two letters"), driving (source: "igniting a flame," as in your car's combustion engine), and carrying your briefcase out your front door and down the street (source: "carrying from one domain to another").

Among the most prominent... are the prohibitions of using a writing instrument... driving... and carrying your briefcase out your front door and down the street...
The common denominator in all of the above activities (with the exception of "carrying", which is in its own category) is that they are acts of creative transformation. Much like the "work" G-d did during the six days of creation, when He (didn’t as much labor, but rather) created, similarly on Shabbat we too abstain from creative work. This is also indicative in the word Melachah. The generic word for work in Hebrew is Avodah, but in connection to Shabbat the word used is Melachah. When we compare Shabbat to the other places where the Torah uses Melachah, i.e. Creation2, and construction of the Tabernacle3, it becomes evident we are speaking of a specific type of work, namely creative activity.

Footnotes

  • 1. Exodus 20:10

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Holidays » General Information » Forbidden Activities

Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Av
The fifth month of the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to July-August. The saddest month of the year due to the destruction of the Temples, and the many other tragedies which befell the Jews in this month.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.