Yitro: The 39 Forbidden Melakhot

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Manual Labor
12 Feb 2009

In our parsha we learn that we are not allowed to do “labor” (melakha) on Shabbat. But the Torah never specifies exactly what “labor” means. The mishna explains that there are 39 specific archetypal labors, which together with their subsidiary variations define the Torah-forbidden melakhot.

The gemara asks where the number 39 comes from, and two answers are given: either the melachot correspond to the thirty-nine different types of labor which were necessary in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), or alternatively they correspond to the 39 different times the word melacha appears in the Torah in the forms melakha, melakhot (labors), or melakhto (his labor). This actually amounts to forty mentions. The gemara then asks if the verse referring to Yosef going to the house of Potiphar to perform “his labor” should be omitted, or alternatively the verse “The labor was enough” which states that the materials which the people brought for the construction of the mishkan was sufficient (Shabbat 49b).

This seemingly technical passage is given a profound meaning by Rav Kook. The two different sources for the 39 melachot give two different answers to the question, what is the meaning of the sanctity of Shabbat?

Does this sanctity come to accentuate the essential contrast between the holy and the mundane? Or on the contrary, is this sanctity meant to allude to the ultimate unification of holy and mundane?

According to the first approach, that Shabbat comes to heighten the contrast between holy and profane, then not only should Shabbat be a day of rest from labor, but those labors themselves should come from a source which is totally holy. The Jewish people labored, and continue to labor, to build a holy sanctuary in a profane world; but Shabbat, which is like the World to Come, is removed even from this level of holiness.

According to the second approach, that the sanctity of Shabbat comes to remind us of the holiness which is immanent in our everyday activities, then our Shabbat rest should relate to these labors. This approach is exemplified by the opinion which states that the 39 melachot are learned from all 39 mentions of this concept in the Torah. These mentions include sublime kinds of labor such as HaShem’s creation of the world and the intricate artistry which went into building the sanctuary, as well as mundane instances such as Yaakov telling Esav that the camp can only progress according to the “pace of our labor” (Bereshit 33:14); the statement that abdominal fat of animals permis- sible for “all labor” (Vayikra 7:24); or the statement that vessels are susceptible to defilement when they are made for some practical use (Vayikra 11:32). “Even higher than the specialized direction corresponding to the labors of the sanctuary, is the general direction which encompasses holy and mundane, nature and artifice, all together in a single connection stand to be sanctified by the Sabbath day, by the day which is all rest.”

However, a doubt arises regarding the verse telling of Yosef’s work. Perhaps this type of work, which was entirely for a foreign master in a foreign land, is really not susceptible of complete sanctification. On the one hand this type labor was performed by the righteous Yosef, and continues to be performed today by holy Jewish individuals. On the other hand, the venue and objective of this kind of labor are so far removed from the realm of holiness that perhaps it is not even dignified with being the kind of labor Shabbat withdraws from and sanctifies.

The resolution of this doubt depends on a further question: Is Shabbat rest merely a result of having no more labor to do, or is it a value in itself?

If the former is true, if “the labor was enough” gives a faithful expression of the concept of Shabbat, then we can not count labors like Yosef which are in themselves pointless from the point of view of holiness. There is no particular quota of such labor which we want to achieve to attain perfection, whether material or spiritual. If we count this verse in our 39 instances, then we must omit that of Yosef.

However, if we conceive that the Shabbat rest has inherent value, and does not merely signify that we’ve reached our objective in terms of achievement, then “The labor was enough for them” doesn’t belong in the count. But according to this approach Yosef’s labor does count; since our focus is on the cessation of the process of exertion, any kind of exertion is susceptible to sanctification, even if the work itself is not directed towards any particularly useful goal. So if we omit this verse, then Yosef’s may be counted. ” Ein Ayah Shabbat 49b

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.