One of the most confusing things about the Sabbath for most people is the concept of Sabbath work. Many of us think of work as heavy physical labor, or else, as going about our usual occupations. As we have seen earlier, this is not true in the case of the Sabbath. Here, the prohibition is not against actual labor as much as against ritual work. We have also seen that in order to understand the Sabbath, we must define ritual work as any act in which man interferes with nature and shows his mastery over it.
Still, this does not provide us with any details. It does not tell us, in particular, what things are forbidden and which ones are permitted. At best, it provides us with an overall philosophy of ritual work. For the particulars, we must search further.
The Unwritten Torah
With the exception of a few cases which we will discuss later, the Torah does not specify exactly what types of work are forbidden. There are some hints and allusions, but no clear picture is provided.
However, it is important to realize that the Torah really consists of two parts.
First of all, there is the Written Torah (Torah SheBeKesav), with which we are all familiar. This is the Torah that we keep in the ark, consisting of the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible.
However, there is also the Unwritten or Oral Torah (Torah SheBaal Peh), consisting of the oral tradition given to Moses at Sinai.
The Torah was not meant to be a mere book, lying on a shelf. It was meant to be part of the everyday life of an entire people. As such, it could only be transmitted by word of mouth. The Oral Torah was handed down from teacher to disciple for almost 1500 years. During the time of the Roman persecutions, it became very difficult to maintain the academies where the Oral Torah was taught, and it was feared that it would be forgotten and lost. Because of this, it was finally put into writing some 1700 years ago to form what we call the Talmud.
The Talmud itself says that the laws of the Sabbath are only alluded to by a hairsbreadth in the Written Torah, but rise like mountains in the Oral Law.
One reason for this was because the Sabbath was a weekly affair. Every Jew knew quite well what was permitted and what was forbidden on the Sabbath. Every family was an academy where the Sabbath laws were taught. It was only when new or different questions arose that the sages had to be consulted.
In a sense, this is still true today. It is very difficult to write about the rules of the Sabbath, even though we shall attempt to do so in the next section. However, in written form, they seem very difficult and complex. This is really a misleading impression. The best way, by far, to learn the rules of Sabbath is to spend a few weekends with someone who observes it, for the Sabbath is much more than a mere set of rules. It is really a totally different way of life. There is a weekday way of life, and a Shabbos way of life. The only way one can really learn a way of life is by living it. Put it in writing, and it seems difficult and formidable.
It is for this very reason that the detailed laws of Shabbos were not included in the Written Torah. They could only be learned as a way of life, and this essentially was the Oral Tradition.
However, there are several important allusions to the rules of Shabbos in the written Torah. These teach us a number of important lessons and bear close examination.
One of the first things that the Jews did in the wilderness after receiving the Torah was to build a tabernacle to G-d. This was to be a permanent sign of G-d’s presence among them, as G-d Himself told Moses (Ex. 25:8), “They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” The tabernacle was a sign of Israel’s dedication to G-d.
Just before G-d told Moses to start building the Tabernacle, He repeated the commandment of the Sabbath. The Torah also tells us that before building the Tabernacle, Moses gathered the entire Jewish nation and repeated this commandment.
The Oral Torah uses this allusion to provide us with a most important lesson regarding the Sabbath. All work on the Tabernacle had to cease on the Sabbath. Even the slightest effort toward completing the Tabernacle had to be abandoned.
We, therefore, see that every type of work that could possibly have been needed to complete the Tabernacle was forbidden on the Sabbath, for if any these types of work were permitted, it could be used as a step in completing the Tabernacle. The fact that absolutely no progress was permitted indicates that every step was forbidden.
If we then want to know what types of work are forbidden on the Sabbath, we need only analyze the building of the Tabernacle and find every possible type of work that went into it. The Oral Torah does this and teaches us that there are thirty nine categories of Sabbath work. We will discuss them all in the following section.
Thus, for example, the Tabernacle required all sorts of woodwork and metal work. Every category of textile-making was required for its hangings. Leather was used for its roof, and this needed all leather-making operations. Many plant products were used for such things as dyes, and these required all sorts of agricultural and cooking activities. Material had to be carried from the outside camp, and written records had to be kept.
All of these things constitute ritual work.
The building of the Tabernacle represented a total commitment of the Jewish people to G-d. As such, its budding included every possible skill they could muster. Thus, the Torah clearly states that its building included “all manner of skilled work.”
Every one of man’s skills went into building the Tabernacle. It is precisely these skills that may not be used on the Sabbath.
If we understand the significance of the Tabernacle in a deeper sense, we can understand why it was chosen as a vehicle to indicate the precise nature of Sabbath work.
Our sages teach us that the Tabernacle was intended to be a microcosm of all creation. It was built to indicate that it is man’s responsibility to elevate and sanctify all creation. The Tabernacle represented man’s partnership with G-d in bringing the world toward its final goal. Thus, in a sense, its building paralleled G-d’s act of creation.
Each of the thirty-nine categories of work that went into the Tabernacle is the counterpart of some aspect of G-d’s creation. The cessation of these was therefore an exact counterpart of G-d’s rest.
In refraining from these thirty-nine categories of work, we are also paralleling G-d’s rest on the Sabbath of creation.
The Torah was meant to be a dynamic force guiding an entire people for all times, and therefore, it needed a body entrusted with its interpretation.
This body was the Sanhedrin, which for over 1600 years served as both supreme court and legislative body of the Jews. Until it was abolished by Roman repression some 1600 years ago, it was the final interpreter and legislating body of Jewish law. To some extent, it was the abolishment of the Sanhedrin that eventually led to the necessity of putting the Talmud down in writing.
The authority of the Sanhedrin is derived from the Torah itself, as we find (Deut. 17:9-10), “You shall go … to the judges then in office, seek their guidance, and they will render judgment. You must abide by their decision rendered from the place chosen by G-d. You must also carry out all their instructions.”
The Torah is speaking of the Sanhedrin.
This body had a twofold authority. First of all, it was the keeper of the Oral Torah, and was charged with its interpretation. As such, it functioned as the supreme court of Jewish law.
Secondly, it had the authority to legislate religious law. Since this authority was derived from the Torah itself, it was as binding as Biblical law. Once legislation was passed, it could only be repealed by the Sanhedrin itself.
Such legislation was most often aimed at maintaining the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law. A prime rule given to the Sanhedrin was to “make a fence around the Torah.”
Taking the Sabbath as an example, one could refrain from the forbidden categories of work in the literal sense, but still violate the Sabbath in spirit. The Torah therefore states (Ex. 23:12), “Six days shall you do all your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall rest.” The Torah is telling us that we must rest according to the spirit of the law as well as according to its letter. Besides abstaining from actual work, one must preserve the general aura of the Sabbath.