Parshat Emor: Occasions on Which it is Prohibited to Perform Melachah

“The first day shall be a sacred occasion for you. You should not perform any melechet avodah.” (VaYikra 23:7)

Parshat Emor provides a list of the occasions on which it is prohibited to perform melachah. Loosely translated the term melachah means work. The list begins with Shabbat. The Torah tells us that on Shabbat all melachah is prohibited. The Oral law teaches us that there are thirty-nine general categories of melachah. These thirty-nine forms of melachah are derived from the fabrication of the Tabernacle. All of the thirty-nine forms of melachah were essential processes in the construction of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle.

The list continues with an enumeration of the Yamim Tovim – the festivals and holidays. The pasuk above discusses the first day of Pesach. In this pasuk, the Torah tells us that the first day of Pesach is a sacred occasion and that it is prohibited to perform melechet avodah on that day. The Torah does not say that all melachah is prohibited on this occasion. Instead, the term melechet avodah is used to describe the labors that are prohibited. The Torah also tells us that melechet avodah is prohibited on the other Yamim Tovim. There is one exception. The Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur all melachah is prohibited.

In short, according to the passages in our parasha, on Shabbat and on Yom Kippur all melachah is prohibited but on the Yamim Tovim melechet avodah is prohibited. It seems clear that the Torah is contrasting Shabbat and Yom Kippur to these other Yamim Tovim. The term melechet avodah suggests that the prohibition against melachah on Yamim Tovim differs from the prohibition on Shabbat and Yom Kippur. But what is the precise difference?

In Parshat Bo the Torah describes in more detail the prohibition against melachah on Pesach. There, the Torah tells us that all melachah may not be performed on these days with the exception of melechet ochel nefesh – melachah needed for the preparation of food.[1] It is apparent that this is area in which the prohibition against labor on Shabbat and Yom Kippur differs from the prohibition on Yamim Tovim. On Shabbat and Yom Kippur all thirty-nine forms of melachah are prohibited. Even those types of melachah that are related to food preparation are prohibited. But on Yamim Tovim those types of melachah that are related to food preparation are permitted. For example, cooking and baking are prohibited on Shabbat. But on Yamim Tovim these types of melachah are permitted.

With this information we can understand the significance of the term melechet avodah. Nachmanides suggests that in Parshat Bo the Torah details the specific perimeters of the prohibition against melachah on Pesach. It tells us that melechet ochel nefesh is permitted. In our parasha, the Torah does not specifically reiterate that melechet ochel nefesh is permitted on Pesach. Instead, the Torah introduces the term melechet avodah. This term is intended to refer to those types of melachah that are not melechet ochel nefesh. The Torah tells us that – with the exception of Yom Kippur – all Yamim Tovim are subject to a prohibition of melechet avodah. This term is intended to communicate to us that on these occasion melechet ochel nefesh is permitted. In other words, the term melachah – when it is unqualified – includes all thirty-nine forms of melachah that are prohibited on Shabbat. The term melechet avodah includes only those forms of melachah that are not related to food preparation.

How does the term melechet avodah express this concept? Nachmanides discusses this issue in detail. He concludes that the term melachah includes two types of activities. It includes activities that one does in order to create or maintain possessions – for example: plowing, planting, harvesting. It also includes activities that one performs for rather immediate benefit – for example: cooking. In contrast, term melechet avodah means only those types of melachah that are avodah – related to ones possessions. In other words, the term melechet avodah refers only to the forms of melachah are performed in order to create and maintain possessions. It does not include those forms of melachah that are designed for personal benefit – melechet ochel nefesh.[2]

Maimonides’ understanding of the term melechet avodah is not as clear. In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides does not even use the term melechet avodah. In describing the prohibition against melachah on the festivals and the Yamim Tovim, he does not use the term melechet avodah. Instead, he explains that on these occasions melachah is prohibited. In his discussion of the positive command to refrain from melachah on the first day of Pesach does he mention that melechet ochel nefesh is permitted.[3] In his introduction to the laws of the Yamim Tovim, he lists the various mitzvot that will be discussed in this section of his code. These positive and negative commandments are all described as either prohibitions against melachah or positive commandments to refrain from melachah. In listing these commandments, he doe not use the term melechet avodah. It seems that Maimonides has banished from his lexicon the term melechet avodah.

However, in the very first law of the section the term melechet avodah does appear. Maimonides explains that on Yamim Tovim all melechet avodah is prohibited, with the exception of melachah performed for the purpose of food preparation. If we consider this statement carefully, an ambiguity emerges. An example will illustrate this ambiguity. If I tell my students that they will all have a quiz with the exception of Reuven and Shimon, I am implying that Reuven and Shimon are students. However even though they are students, they will be exempted from the quiz. It is because Reuven and Shimon are students that I must specify that they are exempted. Maimonides tells us that all melechet avodah is prohibited on the Yamim Tovim with the exception of melechet ochel nefesh. This implies that the term melechet avodah includes melechet ochel nefesh. Because melechet avodah includes melechet ochel nefesh, Maimonides must tell us that there is an exception to the prohibition of melechet avodah. It does not include melachah performed for food preparation.

In short, Maimonides rarely uses the term melechet avodah. When he does use the term, he implies that it includes all thirty-nine forms of melachah – including those related to food preparation. So, the term melachah and melechet avodah seem to both include all forms of melachah. These two terms seem to be indistinguishable.

This raises two questions. First, Maimonides’ position does not seem to be consistent with the message in our parasha. In our parasha, the Torah reserves the term melachah for Shabbat and Yom Kippur. The Torah consistently uses the term melechet avodah when referring to the prohibition on Yamim Tovim. It seems that Maimonides is suggesting that this distinction is meaningless. According to Maimonides, both terms – melachah and melechet avodah seem to be indistinguishable in their meanings. Second, it is odd that after completely neglecting to use the term melechet avodah in his description of the mitzvot that regulate melachah on Yamim Tovim, he suddenly makes reference to the term in the first law of regarding the Yamim Tovim! Why suddenly introduce this term if it has not meaningful significance?

In order to understand Maimonides’ position, it is useful to more carefully consider Nachmanides’ understanding of the term melechet avodah. According to Nachmanides, this term refers to those types of melachah that are designed to create or develop our possessions. The term does not include those types of melachah that are performed for personal benefit. This means that according to Nachmanides, the set of activities that is prohibited on Yamim Tovim is a different set than the set prohibited on Shabbat. Nachmanides is telling us that there are no exceptions to the prohibition against melechet avodah on Yom Tov. Melechet ochel nefesh is not an exception to the prohibition against melechet avodah. Those forms of melachah that are melechet ochel nefesh are not part of the set of prohibited activities defined by the term melechet avodah.

It seems that Maimonides disagrees with this formulation. He states that melechet ochel nefesh is exempted from the general prohibition against melechet avodah. This raises a new question. Why are these forms of melachah exempted? Maimonides does not discuss this issue directly. However, he does allude to the solution. He explains that celebration of Yamim Tovim includes an obligation to partake in the festival meal. Celebration of the occasion through food and drink is a fundamental element of the observance of Yamim Tovim.[4]

Let us now return to Maimonides’ understanding of the term melechet avodah. It seems that the term includes all forms of melachah. Yet, the term is somehow significant and unique to Yamim Tovim. In order to identify this unique meaning, it is helpful to dissect the term and then to compare it to the term melachah. Melechet avodah literally means melachah of avodah – or melachah that involves labor or toil. In contrast, the term melachah refers to creative activity. As noted, both terms refer to the same melachot. However, each term refers to a different aspect of the melachot. The term melachah refers to the creative element in these activities. The term melechet avodah stresses the toil and labor involved in these activities.

It seems that according to Maimonides, there is a fundamental difference between the prohibition against melachah on Shabbat and the prohibition against melechet avodah on Yamim Tovim. Both prohibitions include the same activities. However, the two prohibitions focus on different aspects of these activities. On Shabbat, melachah is prohibited. The prohibition against these activities stems from and focuses upon the creative element in the melachot. On Yamim Tovim, melechet avodah is prohibited. The prohibition focuses upon the element of toil and labor involved in these activities. In other words, all forms of melachah are prohibited on Shabbat because we are commanded to refrain from creativity in the material world. But on Yamim Tovim we are not commanded to refrain from creativity. Instead, these are occasions of celebration and joy. On such occasions toil and labor are inappropriate.

Apparently, Maimonides introduces the term melechet avodah in the first law of Yom Tov because it is relevant to the exemption for melechet ochel nefesh. Maimonides maintains that melechet ochel nefesh is exempted from the prohibition of melechet avodah because food preparation is essential to the observance of the festivals and Yamim Tovim. However, he seems to also maintain that this exemption is reasonable because it is consistent with the aim and objective of the prohibition of melechet avodah. The prohibition is against toil and labor. It is designed to endow the festivals and Yamim Tovim with a character of celebration and joy. This very aim and objective suggest that melechet ochel nefesh – although involving toil and labor – deserve to be exempted from the prohibition. The exemption of these activities is consistent with the very theme and objective of the prohibition against melechet avodah. In other words, melechet ochel nefesh is not permitted because it is not melechet avodah. Food preparation does involve toil and labor. However, the exemption of these activities from the prohibition against melechet avodah is thematically consistent with the very objective of the prohibition – to endow the occasion with a character of joy and celebration.

[1] Sefer Shemot 12:16.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:7.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 159.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17-19.