39 Melakhos

(Expanded from a couple of months ago.)

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַה'; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת.

Six days work shall be done, and the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbatical Sabbath for Hashem; whomever does work on it shall die.

- Shemos 35:2

The building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is told in two parts: one section before the story of the Eigel haZahav, the Golden Calf, in which Hashem tells Moshe what needs building; and a second section in which Moshe relays the instructions to the Jewish People and they actually build it. This pasuq is part of a short interruption in the beginning of that second section, the description of the building of the Mishkan. From the juxtaposition we learn that Shabbos rest means refraining in particular from the activities necessary to build the Mishkan.

Some questions:

  • The purpose of Shabbos is to commemorate creation. How does the Mishkan relate to that purpose?
  • This retelling in two parts is somewhat redundant. Couldn’t the second section be largely summarized with a single “And the Israelites did as Hashem told Moshe” rather than a lengthy retelling?
  • Why do we learn about Shabbos rest from the telling of the actual building of the Mishkan rather than from Hashem’s commandment?
  • The verse shifts in voice. “Sheishes yamim tei’aseh melakhah — six days work shall be done”, in the passive. “Kol ha’oseh bo melakhah yumas –whomever does work on it will die” — in the active. Why the shift?

39

There are 39 avos melakhah, 39 categories of work, prohibited on Shabbos.

People who look for meanings (such as R’ Aryeh Kaplan zt”l) note that Chazal number the melakhos as “40 missing 1″. It could be a shorthand for 39, much the way the “i” is placed before the “xl” in the Roman numeral version “ixl”.

However, there is also significance to forty. The acts of creation is described in mishnah Avos (5:1) as being 10 utterances. Based on a verse in Yeshaiah (43:7), “everything (1) called in My name and for My Honor, (2) I created it, (3) I formed it, (4) I even did it” we see that each act had 4 aspects. Thus yielding 10 * 4 = 40. The same 40 shows up as a symbol of birth and rebirth in the number of days of rain in the flood, the number of years it took us to mature into a nation in the desert, the number of se’ah of water in a miqvah, the number of days after gestation before the soul enters the fetus as well as the gender is determined, etc…

But of the 40 acts of creation, one is creation ex nihilo, yeish mei’ayin. Since people can’t rest from creating something from nothing — we can not do it altogether during the week either — the rest of Shabbos is very much a break from “forty missing one” activities.

And “forty missing one” is also the maximum number of makos (lashes) meted out as punishment, given the person could survive that many.  They are given in sets of three: on the right, the left, and the middle, and separated by a pause for a medical inspection — can the person handle another three?

The 39 melkhos can be broken down into four categories: The first 11 melakhos listed in the mishnah (Shabbos 7:2) begin with planting, and describes the steps necessary to grow the wheat, turn it into flour, and make the lechem hapanim, the showbread. The next 13 are about preparing the cloth of the curtains of the Mishkan, from the wool to the dying to the weaving and sowing. Seven melakhos relate to preparing hides into leather, and the last 8 are simply “none of the above. Ashkenazim make 39 windings on our tzitzis — also in groupings of 7, 8, 11, and 13.

The gemara (Menachos 39a) appears to describe making 7 to 13 sets of three windings — a maximum of 39. This appears to be in contradiction to the Medrash Tanchumah (Qorach 12) which says we have 5 double knots, and thus seems to imply four set of windings between them. However, the Tanchumah is more like common practice in Ashkenazi and Sepharadi circles. One opinion, that of the Rosh, is that the gemara is discussing a law only applicable with tekheiles, and therefore today, without tekheiles, we should simply follow the Tanchumah. A resolution proposed in Shulchan Arukh haRav and followed by many Chassidim even beyond Lubavitch is to have one set of 5 knots breaking the windings into the aforementioned groups, but having a second set of knots, as a “daisy chain” down the side that breaks the windings down into threes. 39 in 11 groups of 3 — like the “40 missing one” of makkos. Yemenites follow the Rambam and the gemara, having 13 sets of 3 windings, again in parallel to the makkos.

Just as tzitzis are worn “so that you will remember all of My mitzvos“, so too Shabbos commemorates the creation of the whole, and the punishment of makkos is to bring someone back after having violated the purpose of the whole. 39 is used in all these cases as a number indicating the entirety of human action.

Avos

Av can mean source/origin, as in “father”, or advisor (also, as in “father”) or category — as it does here. In much the same vein, the Bartenura translates “Pirqei Avos” as “Chapters of Fundamental Principles” (not “Chapters of the Fathers”). A toladah (literally “that which was born” from that father) is an instance within that category.

Any act within one of the 39 avos melakhah is a distinct prohibition, and therefore someone who performs the av and a toladah in the same error only violated one prohibition. Whereas, if he violated one melakhah (e.g. seeded the ground) and the toladah of another (eg weeding, a toladah of ploughing, not seeding), he committed two inadvertent violations, and in the days of the Temple, would bring two qorbanos.

An av melakhah is the act that was done for the Tabernacle, done now for same purpose and on the same object as was needed then. The rules for something being a toladah is that the purpose is the same as the av, but the verb or the object of the verb is not. Pruning, for example, is similar in purpose to planting, but a totally different action — thus, it’s a toladah. Putting a branch in the ground or in water so that it would take root is also toladah of planting. Same purpose, but without seeds.

Notice that this means that the category is defined by the goal accomplished, not the nature of the act.

A toladah is just as prohibited, and just as biblical, as the av. There are in fact three layers – av, toladah, and rabbinic extension.

Melakhah

R SR Hirsch tells us that melakhah means a creative activity in particular. In contrast to other words for work, such as avodah (work/service) and ameilus (toil).

The definition of melakhos is deduced from the context in the Torah. “Do not do any melakhah” appears in a mention of Shabbos that interrupts the long section at the end of Shemos about the Mishkan. We therefore conclude that the melakhot that went into building the Mishkan define those for Shabbos.

And the Torah in discussing the holidays (Bamidbar 29 and thereabouts) speaks of “melekhes avodah” (a melakhah of avodah). From which we deduce that melakhos for food for the holiday are permissible, since they are creative activities, but not “avodah“. This argues in favor of our tradition that G-d told us He used the word in a technical sense, particular acts that correspond to the model of creation described in Genesis 1.

The mishnah that lists the 39 Melakhos uses nouns: hazorei’ah, the one who plants, hachoreish, the plower, etc.. Not “zeri’ah“, planting. (Although the noun and the present tense verb are the same concept in Hebrew, with the definite article “ha-” prefix makes it hard for us to think of “zorei’ah” here in terms of “he is planting”. “The planter” or “the one who is planting” is more compelling.)

We can contrast this to the Rambam’s code (Shabbos 7:1), where he does use the verbs (e.g. “hazeri’ah“, the act of planting). Perhaps it is that the mishnah implies the majority opinion, that melakhah that wasn’t needed for its primary purpose, the purpose for which it was done in building the Mishkan (melakhah she’einah tzerichah legufah) is still prohibited (rabbinically), but not punishable. Whereas the Rambam’s language reflects his ruling as part of the minority that hold it is just as prohibited..

Thus, the mishnah speaks of not becoming a planter (to continue my example). Because it’s planting for the sake of planting that is the core of the prohibition. Whereas the Rambam writes that the prohibition is “the planting”, regardless if one is doing it to be a planter or not.

Some Answers

At Mount Sinai, our ancestors famously proclaimed “na’aseh venishmah — we will do and we will listen.” They placed the doing first, because truly listening and accepting the mitzvah can only come with learning from the experience of actually performing it. Doing comes first.

Similarly, at the opening of the entire section related to the Mishkan (35:8) Hashem says:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.

And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.

Not in “it”, the sanctuary”, but in “their” — the Jewish People’s — midst. Studying the Mishkan and knowing theoretically how it should work is insufficient. It requires the experience of actually building it. As the Chinukh says in a number of variations in describing the purposes of various mitzvos, “ha’adam nif’al lefi pe’ulosav — a person is acted upon according to his actions.”

Perhaps this is the reason for such a verbose retelling of the actual building of the Mishkan. To teach the value of the actual doing, which goes well beyond the value of learning and studying the commandment.

Shabbos, then, relates not to the concept of the Mishkan, but what is gained from the actual building of it. Thus they are defined in the mishnah (pace Rambam) as being a plower, a planter, a cutter, etc… — the transformative nature of acting This is why our pasuq is in the second section describing the MishkanVayaqhel-Pequdei,  retelling the actual building, and why it shifts from the passive “work shall be done” to the active voice “you shall do work.”

Finding a meaning for the concept of melakhah and its connection to building the Mishkan, we note that the Tabernacle and Temples were/will be microcosms. Thus, the work that goes into building the Tabernacle could be considered parallels to those that went into creation.

It would seem, the point of melakhos is not that of rest. Actual Shabbos rest is a separate concept, called “shevus“. G-d issued a general requirement for shevus, some of the details were codified by our sages, the rest (pun intended) should remain on common sense. Melakhos are specific commemorations of creation.

Tzitzis, in contrast, draw attention internally. וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ, וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם — and they will be for you as tzitzis and you will see it, and you will remember all the mitzvos of Hashem and do them…”

We rest from the 40-missing-one acts of the Mishkan, of building externally. Instead, we build the Palace Within, “and I shall dwell within them” — the 40-missing-one windings of the tzitzis.

 

Hopeless

(For an earlier post on depression and hopelessness, see “Raba Got Up and Slaughtered Rav Zeira” about a famous gemara about Purim. This thought comes mostly from R’ Menachem Zupnik, said a number of years ago, with some embellishments of my own. (Some conscious, some due to memory drift.)

 

We say in the weekday Shemoneh Esrei: “Velamalshinim, al tehi siqvah — And for the informants, let there be no hope…” An earlier nusach, pre-censorship and still used in some German communities, opened with “Velameshumadim“, referring to people who convert out. Sepharadim open with “Laminim velamalshinim — the heretics and the informants.”

Generally, this is understood to mean “let them have nothing to be hopeful about”, i.e. let them — or better, their sinful behavior — die and be destroyed. Which is the theme of the rest of the berakhah.

But rather than making this line yet another iteration of the same concept, we could take the words at face value. What could be a worse fate for fifth columnists among us who assist our enemies, for anyone, than hopelessness? With hope, one can bear pain. Without hope, even the calmest life is painful. A person with cancer could still grasp at moments of happiness. A person with severe depression cannot.

Perhaps this is why the Jewish response to losing someone close to us is Qaddish. “Yisgadel veyisqadeish Shemei rabba…” May you make Your Great Name [i.e. His reputation among His creation] be enlarged and sanctified…” When life knocks one down, we use bitachon (trust in the Almighty) to find hope for the future.