The Relationship between the Tabernacle and Shabbat

Six days work should be performed and the seventh day should be sacred for you as a sabbatical day to Hashem. Anyone who performs work on it should die. (Sefer Shemot 35:2)

And Moshe said to all the congregation of Bnai Yisrael, “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you saying: Take from yourselves an offering to Hashem. Every person inspired by his heart should bring the offering of Hashem – gold, silver, and copper.” (Sefer Shemot 35:4-5)

1. Two lessons derived from the association of the Mishcan with Shabbat
The Parshiyot of Vayakhel and Pekudai conclude the Torah’s discussion of the fabrication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. Parshat VaYakhel opens with a reiteration of the commandment to observe Shabbat. Shabbat is to be a day of rest. Work is not to be performed on that day. After a brief discussion of Shabbat, the Torah returns to its discussion of the fabrication of the Mishcan. Why is this discussion of Shabbat inserted into the narrative concerning the creation of the Mishcan? Rashi comments, based upon the Talmud and Midrash, that the Torah specifically reiterates the directive to observe Shabbat at this juncture in order to communicate an important message regarding the creation of the Mishcan. The tasks involved in the manufacturing of the Mishcan cannot be performed on Shabbat.[1] In other words, despite the sanctity of the Mishcan, the imperative of its creation does not supersede Shabbat.

The Talmud derives another principle from the insertion of the Shabbat directive into the narrative of the Mishcan. In order to understand this second principle a brief introduction is required. The directive to observe Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah in twelve locations.[2] The most basic element of Shabbat observance is to rest and not perform melachah – loosely translated as “work”. However, despite the Torah’s frequent reference to Shabbat and its key element, the Torah does not provide a definition of the term melachah. In other words, the Torah does not precisely define what specific activities are included within the perimeters of melachah.

The Sages explain that the Torah alludes to the definition of melachah through juxtaposing the commandment to observe Shabbat with the narrative of the Mishcan. The message of the juxtaposition is that the process of creating the Mishcan serves as the model from which the perimeters of melachah are derived. This means that the basic forms of melachah are derived from the Mishcan’s fabrication process. This process included thirty-nine significant components. These thirty-nine activities constitute the basic forms of melachah. One is to abstain from these activities on Shabbat. In practice, halachah treats each of these thirty-nine activities as the heading of a general category of materially creative activity. Each category contains other subsidiary activities that are akin to the heading. However, the important point is that the perimeters of melachah are derived from the manufacture of the Mishcan. This suggests an important question. Why does the Mishcan provide the model for defining melachah?

Because Hashem made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them in six days and He rested on the seventh. Therefore, He blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it. (Sefer Shemot 20:11)

And you should remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt and Hashem, your G-d, took you forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, Hashem, your G-d, commanded you to observe the Shabbat day. (Sefer Devarim 5:15)

2. Two rationales for Shabbbat
In order to fully appreciate this problem, the rationale for Shabbat must be considered. The Torah provides two rationales for the observance of Shabbat. The first is that Hashem created the universe in six days and “rested” on the seventh day. We observe Shabbat to recall the creation and in order to acknowledge that Hashem is the creator and master of the universe. The second rationale is that Shabbat reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt and that Hashem redeemed us from bondage. Through our obedience to His command to observe Shabbat, we acknowledge that we were redeemed in order to submit to the Divine will. We would expect that melachah should be defined in some manner that is relevant to one or both of these two rationales.

In fact, our commentators were sensitive to this issue. Tosefot quotes the Midrash as suggesting that the thirty-nine major forms of melachah do correspond with the various forms of intense labor that the Egyptians imposed upon Bnai Yisrael.[3]

Rav Eliyahu – the Gaon of Vilna identified an ancient source that relates the thirty-nine melachot (plural of melachah) with the activities in which Hashem engaged in the creation of the universe. The source is a liturgical poem that some Ashkenzic communities insert into the morning Amidah on Shabbat Shekalim.[4] The poem opens with a lengthy list of verbs – exactly thirty-nine. The Goan suggested that this list of verbs is intended to correspond with the thirty-nine activities in which Hashem engaged in creating the universe. Upon completion of creation, He rested from these activities and therefore, we are required to abstain from the thirty-nine melachot of Shabbat.[5]

In short, our commentators searched for some relationship between the thirty-nine melachot and the rationales provided by the Torah for Shabbat. However, it is clear from the Talmud that the actual specific identity of the melachot is not derived from either of these rationales but from the construction of the Mishcan.

And the one who offered his sacrifice on the first day was Nachshon the son of Aminadav of the tribe of Yehudah. (Sefer BeMidbar 7:12)

And G-d called the light day and the dark He called night. And it was evening and morning (constituting) one day. (Sefer Beresheit 1:5)

3. The completion of the Mishcan as an element of creation
Upon the completion of the Mishcan and its dedication, an inauguration period followed. On each day of this inauguration the leader of one of the twelve tribes provided a set of offerings. The above passage explains that the first day was assigned to the leader of the tribe of Yehudah – Nachshon the son of Aminadav. The Sages note an anomaly in the Hebrew wording of passage. The passage could have identified the first day as yom rishon. Instead, the passage identifies the day as yom ha’rishon. The addition of the “ha” prefix suggests that the first day of the inauguration corresponded with a date that had some other pre-existing significance. What was this preexisting significance?

The Sages explain that there is another related anomaly in the Torah’s description of a “first day.” In its description of the six days of the creation, all days after the first are referred to by an ordinal number. In other words, the Torah refers to the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth day of creation. For some reason the first day is not described in this way. The Torah calls this day “one day” not the first day. The Sages explain that the Torah intends to communicate an important message by using the cardinal number one in reference to this day. The message is that the day was deficient and that the deficiency of this day persisted throughout the days and ages that followed.

What was the deficiency initiated at the very beginning of creation? The Sages explain that there did not yet exist any nation or society in which Hashem could dwell.[6] This deficiency was finally addressed with the establishment of the Mishcan. The Mishcan became His abode or the symbol of His Divine providential influence.

For this reason the Torah refers to the first day of the inauguration as yom ha’rishon. This was the true first day of creation. In other words, creation had finally overcome its deficiency and now the created universe could truly have meaning and significance. This first day was the replacement for, or the fulfillment of the very first day of creation.

The Sages are communicating a profound message through their comments. The universe’s highest and only meaningful function is as an expression of Hashem’s will. Only when His existence and providence are evident and palpable does the universe achieve meaning and true significance. The establishment of the Mishcan represented a great achievement in the development of humanity and the universe. For the first time, Hashem made His presence or influence tangibly evident within humanity on an ongoing basis.

Before this point, the Patriarchs observe the presence of Hashem in the natural world. On occasion, Hashem manifested His providence through minor miracles or even wonders. However, all demonstrations of Hashem’s existence and influence were either sporadic – as in the case of miracles – or only subtle – as in the case of nature’s revelation of Hashem as its designer and sustainer. The Mishcan changed this. Now, Hashem’s providential presence was evident and incorporated into the very structure of the nation. The nation encamped around the Mishcan. Hashem’s cloud was present. His flame descended from the heavens and consumed the daily sacrifices. He communicated with Moshe through a voice that he perceived as emanating from between the cherubs of the Ark Cover. Before, Hashem was like a relative living far away who made occasional visits. Now, He was the center of the household. This relationship between Hashem and humanity represents the highest achievement of humankind and the most meaningful outcome of creation.

Now, the relationship between the melachot and the Mishcan can be understood. The melachot are derived from the Mishcan in order to communicate to us that the establishment of the Mishcan was the completion of creation. The universe fashioned and formed in the first six days was deficient of meaning and purpose. This creation of the Mishcan completed the creation process. Therefore, the activities that were significant components in the process of the Mishcan’s construction are truly the highest expression of creation. Shabbat recalls creation of the universe. We observe Shabbat and remind ourselves of His six days of creation followed by the seventh day of rest by imitating him. On the seventh day – our Shabbat – we too refrain from those activities that were the components of humanity’s highest creative expression.

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 35:2.
2. Rav Avraham of Sochetshav, Eglai Tal, p 1.
3. Tosefot, Mesechet Pesachim 117b.
4. Shabbat Shekalim is the Shabbat on which the Parshat Shekalim is read from the Torah. Parshat Shekalim is one of four special Torah readings that are added to the Shabbat reading in the weeks leading up to Pesach.
5. Rav Aryeh Lev Gordon, Etz Yosef – Commentary on Siddur Otzer HaTeffilot, vol 2, p154.
6. The term “dwell” is not to be understood literally. Hashem is not material and does not dwell in material space. The idea expressed by the description of Hashem dwelling among Bnai Yisrael is that He makes His providence evident. The reality of this providence is so intense and impressive that the people have a sense of His presence in their midst.