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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Whistle While You Do M'lacha?

While we're looking at the first verses of the parsha, let's take a closer look at verse 2:

ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה יוּמָת.
(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.

You probably noticed yesterday that I didn't translate the word m'lacha (or shabbat shabbaton--but maybe we'll talk about that tomorrow). That's because there is no simple translation.  JPS, both old and new (because it is still under copyright, I cannot provide a link) translations say it means 'work.' This is problematic because it doesn't necessarily seem any different than the word עבודה avoda which can also be translated in some contexts as work. 

In an earlier post I talked about how the word malach (angel) seems to come from the same root as m'lacha. The malach is the being doing m'lacha -- that is performing an act or task under a Divine directive. 

Maybe we can understand something about the meaning of m'lacha from malach, as well. A malach, we might assume, is tasked with performing a specific duty with a specific purpose. Thus, we would understand that m'lacha is something which has a specific intended purpose. 

Famously, the first appearance of the word m'lacha is here:

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

Genesis 2:3 And the Lord blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it for on it He rested from all his m'lacha which the Lord had created to do.

So the creation of the universe is termed the Lord's m'lacha. In biblical terms, you can't get more purposeful than that. 

The rabbis likewise understood the  word m'lacha in this way and thus said that only doing certain acts on Shabbat with specific intent to accomplish a specific end would qualify as a m'lacha and thus be forbidden on Shabbat. 


  1. You're touching one of the problems I'm having about keeping Mitzvot (and staying Shabbat at my inlaws - it's the same thing): What *exactly* is m'lacha, and why the heck my hobbies are counted as m'lacha while doing the dishes doesn't.

  2. see my next post for a parsha'l answer ;)

  3. you are keeping us in suspense
    the best reason to keep shabbat i read is the unplugged reason, it is like unplugging and taking a rest from the chaos of electricity and influences
    anyway can relate sophie, can relate, perhaps find some shabbat keeping friends?
    and join them ?
    anyway i think i have a problem with the pasuk
    "yumat" which you translated "die" as the consequence of not keeping shabat but actually it means "will be killed" which brings me to ask
    why so cruel ? did they actually execute those who did not follow the rules?
    sounds rather harsh
    as for "melacha" we have in hebrew the term
    "baal melacha" so yes, it is specific
    avoda is from the same root as "eved"
    sort of enslaved
    +melacha may be not only specific but detailed
    like what you do
    craft work
    rather than just plain work
    why not do it? why so harsh ?
    why the need to conform and unify?
    perhaps it is a control mechanism
    then i feel it bothers me
    but maybe it started out like that as a way to unify the people under the same laws
    thanks shell
    i will try baking challa again
    tomorrow by the way
    wish me luck !
    it is indeed a melacha !!

  4. Ziggi, you make some interesting points. The term in modern Hebrew 'baal m'lacha' derives from not only the implication in Tanach but also later Mishnaic usage. Avoda is indeed connected to the word 'eved' but the understanding can be 'slave' or servant. We have the term avoda referring to service in the Temple, for example.

    Yumat is a causative form so, yes, I was trying to decide the best way to translate it. It could be rendered as 'he will be made to die' which is more accurate that 'he will be killed.' The difference is significant as 'he will be killed' implies more directly that some human force will kill him whereas 'he will be made to die,' which is a passive form, implies that his death may come from a Divine source or a human source.

    Either way, it seems pretty harsh, yes. We learn later on in Vayikra in the incident of the m'koshesh etzim in Bamdibar that, at least in certain cases, violators of Shabbat were put to death.

    I hope to come back to this topic of punishments in a later post.