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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mo' Better M'lacha

We left off with, hopefully, a greater understanding of the word m'lacha yesterday. But, as Sophie points out, what we examined raises more questions. I don't know that I will tell you why you can do dishes on Shabbat but not, say, sew a bag but I will give you some insight regarding the bigger picture of m'lacha and look a bit at some of the details.

Just to remind us, the first time the term m'lacha is used in the Torah is here:

בראשית  ב:ב  וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.

Genesis 2:2 And on the seventh day God finished His m'lacha which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His m'lacha which He had made.

Let's jump to nearly the end of Shmot:

שמות מ:לג  וַיָּקֶם אֶת-הֶחָצֵר, סָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן וְלַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיִּתֵּן, אֶת-מָסַךְ שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר; וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-הַמְּלָאכָה .

Shmot 40:33 And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the m'lacha

This latter verse describes the completion of the building of the mishcan, the tabernacle, by Moshe. The style of the verse is strikingly similar to the verse describing the completion of the universe by God. In both instances, the term used to describe the activity of creation/building in toto is m'lacha.

Let's look again at one of the verses from the beginning of our parsha:

שמות לה:ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת.
Shmot 35:(2) Your m'lacha will be done for six days and on the seventh it will be holy to you, a shabbat shabbaton to God; anyone doing m'lacha on it will die.

When we read this verse now, we understand that the activity which is prohibited on Shabbat, m'lacha, is the same sort of activity which created the universe and the same sort of activity used to build the mishcan

Chazal had a tradition that there were 39 m'lachot used to build the mishcan.  They are listed in the Mishnah Shabbat 7:2. I won't go into them all now but we'll touch on some or more before the end of the week. 

So, when the Torah prohibits m'lacha on Shabbat it is reasonable to think that it is prohibiting the activities which were used to construct the mishcan. Again, these are all creative acts which have a specific purpose and must be carried out with specific intent as that was our conclusion about the meaning of the word m'lacha in our last post. 

What is particularly interesting to me is that we might also understand that the building of the mishcan is/was truly parallel to the creation of the universe. We pointed out how strikingly similar the language describing each is. If that is the case, it would be reasonable to think that the m'lachot used to build the mishcan are all in some way very basic elements of construction--but not just construction of a building, but construction of a microcosm of the universe. Tomorrow we'll look broadly at the list of m'lachot to see how we might understand all that better. 

We could also turn that around and say that the universe is in some cosmic way a mishcan, a dwelling place for the Divine presence.  This idea is already promoted in several places in the Tanach, i.e. that the entire universe is God's dwelling place. It was fitting when God wanted to focus His/Her Presence in this world that He/She chose to do so in a structure and with a series of activities which were the human analog to God's activities which created the universe. 

Thus, when we refrain from doing those m'lachot on Shabbat we are, in our little way, completing the Creation just as God completed the Creation by ceasing m'lacha on the seventh day.

So, Sophie, not a full answer but we're getting there :)


  1. You're not off the hook yet, my dear Shel. Let me sharpen my argument a bit and say - not sewing fashion bags for sale, but rather some mind cleansing cross stitching or sketching, done more to help the mind relax than for any earthly purpose.

  2. interesting insightful delightful shell
    yeshar koach !!