Secret of the Sabbath

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

It isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.

Here the midrash draws a clear parallel between the Tabernacle and Creation, in which the building of the former culminates in a sanctification which is parallel to the Sabbath day. According to tradition, the work of building the Tabernacle was suspended on the Sabbath, not only demonstrating the supreme importance of the Sabbath prohibition, but also, more importantly for our purposes, providing the original example of human Sabbath observance.34 From the kinds of work involved in constructing the Tabernacle, which were suspended on the Sabbath, the traditional teaching derived a list of thirty-nine categories of labor (avot melacha) prohibited on the Sabbath.35 This list, which includes plowing, reaping, weaving, sewing, building, cooking and writing, as well as many other related activities, encompasses almost the entire sphere of human creativity.36

To understand the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, therefore, it would be an error to consider these prohibitions independently of one another, or from a strictly mechanical point of view. Rather, what is most important about them is the particular quality they all share. The halachic literature calls this quality melechet mahshevet, which may be loosely translated as “workmanship.” This term has its origins in the description in the book of Exodus of the skills of Betzalel, son of Uri, the chief engineer responsible for the Tabernacle project:

And Moses said to the Israelites: The Eternal has singled out Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with every kind of craft, and with the ability to make plans [lahshov mahshavot] for work in gold, silver and copper; and in the carving of stones for setting, and in the carving of wood, to perform all manner of workmanship [melechet mahshevet].37

The different activities involved in the construction of the Tabernacle reflect the “wisdom, understanding and knowledge” which God bestowed upon Betzalel, giving him the ability to plan and execute his crafts. These qualities are together represented in the term melechet mahshevet, which, according to Rashi, refers to work “that the mind’s understanding considered and intended”—in other words, to labor that includes a component of will and purpose.38

Melechet mahshevet, based as it is on the will, is distinguished in Jewish law from actions that involve physical labor but not the same kind of intentionality; one who performs the latter is not considered to have violated the biblical prohibition on work on the Sabbath. On this point, b R. Yehiel Michel Epstein, one of the leading halachic commentators of the twentieth century (best known for his great halachic work, Aroch Hashulhan), contrasts the high threshold of intent required to transgress the Sabbath laws with the lower one that applies in other areas of law, such as liability law:

From the fact that the prohibition of work on the Sabbath is juxtaposed with the work of the Tabernacle, the rabbis learned from tradition that melechet mahshevet is required no less for [violating the prohibition of] Sabbath labor than for building the Tabernacle. Great principles and fundamental ideas are built upon this—particularly, that one must have intent for the work he is performing. If, however, he does not intend it… he is exempt from punishment. Similarly, if he was carrying a rock, and he dropped it, in the process wounding an animal [i.e., a form of forbidden labor on the Sabbath], he is exempt, because he had absolutely no intention of performing this labor. This is true even though in other areas liability may be incurred even without intent, as is the case in civil damages and other matters.39

The Sabbath prohibitions are founded on the assumption of intent: If the work is not deliberate, it is not a violation of the biblical commandment.40 This principle finds expression in a number of different conditions placed on the prohibition. Thus, for example, one who performs work on the Sabbath is not liable if the action takes place because he was not paying attention to what he was doing, or when it is doubtful whether the results could have predictably followed from the action.41 Moreover, most halachic authorities exempt a person who engages on the Sabbath in an activity that has all the physical characteristics of a forbidden labor, but is meant to achieve a different aim. An example of this, which the Talmud calls “work not required for itself,” is provided in tractate Hagiga:

R. Abba said: One who digs a hole on the Sabbath [which is generally prohibited], but does so only for the sake of its earth, is not liable for it. According to which authority? According to R. Shimon, who said: “Work not required for itself” is exempt… for the Tora prohibited only melechet mahshevet.42

This case describes a person who is digging on the Sabbath, in order to use the earth he has removed, rather than to create a hole. According to R. Shimon, whose opinion is accepted as law,43 the digger is not in violation of the prohibition of plowing, one of the thirty-nine categories of labor. The reason for this given by most commentators is that plowing consists in the preparation of the ground for planting by digging. When one digs for a different purpose—in our case, for using the dirt—the criterion of intent has not been met.44

The idea of melechet mahshevet, however, goes beyond setting subjective standards of intentionality. It also creates objective criteria for Sabbath “work.” For example, in order to perform work on the Sabbath, one must repair or otherwise improve the object acted upon. If an action is destructive in nature, even if it meets the other criteria of melacha, there is no violation. As Rashi writes, “Whoever damages [an object] is exempt from Sabbath violation, for it is written ‘melechet mahshevet.’”45 Another example is the fact that the action must bring about a change that is meant to last. Actions that are of a temporary nature, such as the erection of a tent that is meant to be taken down soon thereafter, or tying the kind of knot which is easily untied, are not workmanship; they are, therefore, exempt from punishment or even permitted on the Sabbath.46

Thus melechet mahshevet can best be understood as a deliberate act of productive creative activity—that which combines the will to create with the actual and lasting improvement of one’s world. Here, again, the question of imitating God’s ways becomes relevant. In the view of the halacha, the “work” from which the Jew is required to desist on the seventh day is not simply strenuous activity, but precisely the type of effort which is most importantly undertaken during the week, in which the affinity between man and God is expressed.

Inherent in the concept of Sabbath rest, therefore, is the same idea of man’s imitation of God through creation which the Jewish tradition so wholly affirms during the rest of the week. By dedicating themselves to the project of building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the Jews embraced the obligation to imitate God through the physical act of creation. At the same time, however, they took upon themselves to cease all constructive activity on the Sabbath day, as a mark of identification with God’s rest on the seventh day of Creation. In similar fashion, the Jew today imitates his Creator, in every place and time, when he engages in creative activity during the workweek and rests on the seventh day.



The purpose of the Sabbath is still far from clear, however. For once we have established the importance Judaism ascribes to work in general, and especially to melechet mahshevet, the categorical demand to suspend it totally on the Sabbath becomes all the more difficult to accept. How can this commandment be understood, and why did it attain such a status that, according to the Talmud, whoever observes it “becomes a partner with the Holy One, as it were, in the act of Creation”?47 The Tora itself does little to dispel the mystery. On the contrary, the idea of God’s “resting” on the seventh day presents a difficult theological problem. The Tora tells us only: “On the seventh day God finished the work which he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work which he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation which he had done.”48 The Tora offers no explanation for God’s resting on the seventh day, and by leaving it unexplained, the Tora distances itself from the pagan myths that depicted the gods as creatures with human needs, such as food, drink and sleep. These gods, as is graphically illustrated by the Babylonian flood epic, the Atrahasis, possessed a limited capacity for work: “When gods were men, / They did forced labor, they bore drudgery. / Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods, / The forced labor is heavy, the misery too much….”49 As against such accounts of divine weakness, the Tora stresses God’s omnipotence throughout the Creation story. The Eternal neither troubles himself nor toils. He brings the world into being through mere speech. As Isaiah puts it, “The Eternal is the Creator of the earth from end to end, he never grows faint or weary, his wisdom cannot be fathomed.”50 Sweat and the misery of labor are the lot of the created, not of God—but God rests nonetheless.

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