What is “Work” on Shabbat?
James Scott Trimm
This week’s Torah Parsha (Ki Tisa) gives us an important insight as to what constitutes “work” on shabbat.
We are told in the Torah that no “work” is to be done on the Sabbath, but I am often asked “What constitutes work?”
The word the Torah uses In regards to the prohibitions of Sabbath which is translated into English as “work” is the Hebrew word m’lawkhaw meaning “all and any kind of creative ‘generative’ endeavor, changes to the environment or any object.” (Lev. 23:3; Ex. 34:21; Ex. 16:21-30).
How do we define work?
ELOHIM rested from creative activity on Shabbat (Gen. 2:1-3). In Is. 58:13-14 “work” on the Sabbath seems to mean “doing your will” or “doing your own ways” or “wording words.” Thus resting from “work” on the Shabbat means to rest from creative activities and to rest from inflicting our own will on the universe.
The Torah gives us a very good clue as to how to understand the word “work” in this context.
The word m’lawkhaw (work) appears in Ex. 31:3 referring to the work of the artisans in building the tabernacle. This section of Torah is immediately followed by a reminder to rest from “work” on the Shabbat (Ex. 31:12-17). It seems then that m’lawkhaw in Ex. 31:12-17 must include the meaning of m’lawkhaw in Ex. 31:3. Thus the activities involved in making the Tabernacle are among those not normally permitted on Shabbat.
The Mishnah breaks the types of tasks performed in the building of the Tabernacle and the crafting of its artifacts into thirty nine categories of “work” as follows:
THE PRIMARY LABOURS ARE FORTY LESS ONE, [VIZ.:] SOWING, PLOUGHING, REAPING, BINDING SHEAVES, THRESHING, WINNOWING, SELECTING, GRINDING, SIFTING, KNEADING, BAKING, SHEARING WOOL, BLEACHING, HACKLING, DYEING, SPINNING, STRETCHING THE THREADS, THE MAKING OF TWO MESHES, WEAVING TWO THREADS, DIVIDING TWO THREADS, TYING [KNOTTING] AND UNTYING, SEWING TWO STITCHES, TEARING IN ORDER TO SEW TWO STITCHES, CAPTURING A DEER, SLAUGHTERING, OR FLAYING, OR SALTING IT, CURING ITS HIDE, SCRAPING IT [OF ITS HAIR], CUTTING IT UP, WRITING TWO LETTERS, ERASING IN ORDER TO WRITE TWO LETTERS [OVER THE ERASURE], BUILDING, PULLING DOWN, EXTINGUISHING, KINDLING, STRIKING WITH A HAMMER, [AND] CARRYING OUT FROM ONE DOMAIN TO ANOTHER: THESE ARE THE FORTY PRIMARY LABOURS LESS ONE.
Three of these are specifically mentioned elsewhere in Scripture:
1. Preparation and cooking of food.
(Lev. 23:3; Ex. 34:21; Ex. 16:21-30)
2. Kindling a fire.
3. Carrying anything out of a “domain”.
The Talmud examines these thirty nine categories, further breaking them down some of them into more detailed sub-categories (b.Shabbat 73a-75b).
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