Vayakhel — 39 Ways Not to Work — By Ben

With parshas Vayakhel, once again we are given the commandment to observe Shabbos.

Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death. Shemos 35:2

NOTE: Remember that anytime we see a death sentence in Torah, it is only within the confines of a Torah society. So without a Jewish Court (aka Sanhedrin) no one is dying in the name of God. Also I’d point out that the court’s requirements on the death penalty were excessively stringent. The offender had to know what they were doing was against Torah, they had to be warned publicly, had to demonstrate they understood the consequences, and then had to be witnessed doing the crime by two kosher witnesses. It was said that if there was a death sentence carried out once every seven years, it was considered a bloody court. 

As I’ve pointed out before, when we are commanded to keep Shabbos and “not work” the Hebrew word used for work isn’t avodah, which is the regular word for work, but melachos.  What is this melachos? It’s not used in any other context, really. Just when talking about Shabbat (and Yom Tov) How do we know what these melachos are?

Well after Moses gives over God’s Shabbos commandment, he then immediately gives instructions on how to build the Mishkan (or Tabernacle). Within those instructions are 39 types of work the Rabbis of the Talmud say are the Melachos. I won’t list all 39 here, but I will list the 6 categories the 39 fall under:

  1. Field Work – (self explanatory)
  2. Making Material Curtains – sewing, tearing, cleaning
  3. Making Leather Curtains – slaughtering, cutting
  4. Making the Beams of the Mishkan – writing, erasing
  5. The Putting up and Taking down of the Mishkan – building, breaking down
  6. The Mishkan’s Final Touches – extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking the final hammer blow

But how did they come to the conclusion that the instructions for the Mishkan meant work to avoid on Shabbos?  Well there are several ways of learning out how the Rabbi’s came to that. But in order to get there I want to introduce a concept in Torah analysis.

Connect the dots on a deeper level. 

Any educated high schooler knows a plethora of literary tools like irony, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor to understand and master the novels assigned to them. And Torah is certainly not short any tools of its own. But when it comes to understanding the Torah, the Rabbis say there are 4 levels. Peshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod.

Peshat – When we talk about Peshat, we’re talking about a surface level understanding. Simply “what happened.” Which in and of itself isn’t an easy thing to do. Think about hardcore Star Trek fans. The ones who know every alien in every shot of every episode and can identify every make and model of the starship Enterprise. That in-depth level of knowledge applied to the Torah would qualify as Peshat.

Remez –  Remez are lessons we learn from hints or allusions buried in Torah. For instance, gematryia.  Hebrew doesn’t have a numerical system, so in the place of numerals, each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Hebrew Numerals! You’ve probably heard that 18 is a special number in Judaism. Well, we get that from the Hebrew word חי (chai) meaning life. חי’s numerical value is 18. So we associate the number 18 with life. Every word has a numerical value that can be calculated. And if two words have the same numerical value, it is understood that those two words have a connection.

Drush – Drush can refer to allegorical or metaphorical understandings in Torah. In Lech Lecha, God meets with Abraham. The Torah says God took Abraham outside and showed him the stars. The Peshat understanding is that God and Abraham left the tent and looked up at the sky. The Drush is that God took Abraham outside the physical world and showed him the stars from a spiritual perspective. Also Drush has a connection to Midrashim, or stories not told expressly in the Torah but hinted at.

Sod – Kabbalistic understandings. The most esoteric and mystical lessons of the Torah are within this realm.


So…1 + 1 = 39??

All that Torah understanding is great, but how does that help us understand how the Rabbis connected the work to build a portable temple 2000+ years ago with me watching Netflix on my Saturday?  Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, Ph.D., author of the The Textual Source for the 39 Melachot of Shabbat writes: 

The list of 39 items of service in the Tabernacle is introduced by the phrase “this is the thing God commanded” (35:4) and concludes with the phrase “and every person wise of heart shall come and do that which God commanded” (35:10). A similar phrase introduces the reference to Shabbat at the beginning of the chapter, “these are the things that God commanded to do…” (35:1), “anyone who does melacha on [Shabbat] shall be executed” (35:2). Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] is saying that this similar phrasing in introductory comments hints to a corollary (oral) list, which would explain what exactly the Israelites were forbidden to do on Shabbat.

The similar phrasing that surrounds the two sections gives the lesson that the two sections are linked. This would be a drushic interpretation.

Another explanation is that the word Melachos in its regular form appears 39 times in the Torah (give or take some specific rules). In parshas Vayakhel (35:11-19), the deeds of the Mishkan are listed and one after another totaling 39. A conclusion based on this coincidence would be a Remez.

And for one final explanation: the Mishkan, in a Kabbalistic sense, is considered a universe unto itself. That when we built it, it was like creating the universe the way God did in His 6 days of creation. So it would be completely logical to connect those two. Needless to say, this would be a Sod level of understanding.

You can certainly see how one could pour over the Torah for years and still find new and deeper lessons. Though the connections may seem farfetched or cryptic, I will say that as I slowly start to learn Hebrew and study the Torah with that skill, the hints and clues almost start to jump out to me. And that has been some of the most rewarding reading I’ve ever done.


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