39 ways to break the sabbath

parshat vayakhel

The Torah gives minimal guidelines for the observance of it’s signature social institution – the Sabbath.  When first introduced in Genesis, the concept is fairly simple… God rested and so should we.  On the Sabbath, Man like God should stop dominating and changing nature and should un-plug and peace-out for one day a week.

And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made. (Genesis 2, 3)

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ: כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת

In light of the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah adds a social-political element to Sabbath observance:

Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou. And thou shalt remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5, 12-14)

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ.

וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ-וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ-וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וְכָל-בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ, כָּמוֹךָ.

וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה; עַל-כֵּן, צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת

The only definition and/or practical  example of work ( מלכה ) comes in Exodus 35 where we are instructed not to kindle a fire ( לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ ):

1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’
4 And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying:
5 Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass;
6 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; etc. etc. etc.

10 And let every wise-hearted man among you come, and make all that the LORD hath commanded:
11 the tabernacle, its tent, and its covering, its clasps, and its boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets; etc. etc. etc (Exodus 35:1-11)

וכו וכו

I quote at length and in context because the Rabbis, in their characteristic need to define and quantify simple and straightforward provisions…. take off here.

Rabbi Hanina bar Hama learns from the fact that the admonition of the Shabbat is mentioned next to the description of the actual building of the tabernacle that the labors forbidden on the Sabbath in Exodus 35:2 correspond to the 39 labors (lit. forty less one”) necessary to construct the Tabernacle. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 49b.)

For a complete and wonderful explanation of each and every one of the 39 types of labor … feel free to visit Wikipedia Activities prohibited on Shabbat, in particular see the treatment of: winnowing/sorting Hebrew: בורר which is responsible for the invention of Gefilte Fish,* and cooking בישול  for which we are in debt for the invention of Chulent.

So we owe the Talmudic Rabbis thanks for at least two good recipes, even if we question their preoccupation with complicating the simple and using questionable methods of textual analysis. ~

The truth is, it could have been a lot worse! There were Jewish sects around at the time that were a lot more restrictive. Josephus says that the Essenes are “stricter than all the Jews in abstaining from work on the Sabbath” (Jewish Wars. II.147). In all probability, (and based on a strict interpretation of Exodus 35:3 [Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations] the Essenes sat in the dark on the Sabbath rather than benefit from a lit candle and the Samaritans were even stricter then the Essenes. … Those Samaritans are reported to have refrained from travelling from house to house, taking their hands out of their sleeves and even try to remain in the position in which he or she was overtaken on the Sabbath, until the Sabbath was over. It seems that these Samaritans had a very strict interpretation of Exodus 16:29, “Remain every man where he is; let no man go from his place on the seventh day”. According to Josephus, the Essenes would not move a vessel or …… go to the bathroom on the seventh day! (Josephus Jewish Wars. II.147).. See: The Samaritans: Their Religion, Literature, Society and Culture by Alan David Crown , Mohr Siebeck, 1989 – History – 865 pages pages 315 331-332 see also fellow heterodox blogger anadder and his blog entry: No Shitting on the Shabbat.

The truth is that the way that Jews have observed the Shabbat is extremely varied and, in my opinion … all valid.  Shaye Cohen, a groundbreaking scholar at Harvard has shown in an article entitled Dancing, Clapping, Meditating: Jewish and Christian Observance of the Sabbath in Pseudo-Ignatius that Jews clapped, danced (men), danced on balconies (women), swam and even went to the theater in their observance of a day of rest. .. Nowadays, some Jews (who I shall not name) even write their parsha blog on the Shabbat… (after a busy week, that is)

So shame on us if we judge or preconceive Shabbat observance.  As Heschel believed, the Shabbat is a temple (mishkan) in time… and in it… there’s room for all of us…. Maybe that’s why an admonition to keep the Sabbath was textually connected to the building of the Mishkan, otherwise know as the Tent of Meeting…

Sorting or “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, but in the Talmudic sense it refers to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish.

~  The Rabbis of the Talmud provided rules by which biblical texts could be interpreted such as the Thirteen Rules of Rav Yishmael found in the morning service of a traditional prayer book.

[For a discussion of these types of rules and how they may be similar to rules created by the Greek rhetors see Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine by Saul Lieberman]

To my knowledge, you will not find a rule such as that used here by Rabbi Hanina bar Hama that when facts or incidents are placed near one another in the Bible, one can derive a lesson from just that juxtaposition.

If I were writing a Biblical commentary I would suggest that the writer or editor of the Bible, by juxtaposing the Shabbat to the Tabernacle, was suggesting that the ends don’t justify the means, and that when you go ahead and build your Priestly temple… you should still remember the revolution of the workers that started this whole movement… and don’t work or have the workers work on the Sabbath.

Be that as it may…. you can in any case see that the Rabbis were fumbling to find a reason for an oral tradition of 39 activities… that they already knew about.

waiting for a bus on Shabbat

waiting for a bus on Shabbat


Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

3 responses to “39 ways to break the sabbath

  1. the concept of Shabbath is the best gift we jews got, a day of rest, a day of recharge. A much needed reminder that sometimes we need to give ourselves the gift of time.

  2. yishaihughes

    I recommend an essay by Israeli scholar Rabbi Dr. Yoel Bin Nun, in which he explores the textual source for the notion that there are 39 Melachot Shabbat: http://thetorah.com/the-textual-source-39-melachot-shabbat/

  3. lonely man of faith

    Yes, you are smarter than some of the greatest people that ever lived. A bunch of silly nit pickers who pulled this stuff out of their behinds.
    If their insights don’t correspond to your hypocritical secular humanist”principles” too bad for them. It’s all about choice. Nobodies going to tell you what to do. Your knowledge of so called Rabbinic Judaism is spotty at best, though it will surely impress those even more ignorant than you. And by the way those workers who built the mishkan were poshute Yidden just like the TannaI’m and Amoraim you look down your nose at for being nit pickers. They were all workers who still found time to devote themselves to the greatest quest, to know G-d.
    You just want to feel good about yourself when you eat a ham sandwich. I didn’t know there were any early Christians left. I’m not interested in a dialogue with a dishonest fool so don’t email me. sit down and Crack a gemara open with a qualified Rabbi, for heavens sake.

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