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Peninei Halakha > Shabbat > 09 - The Principles of the Melakhot > 02. The 39 Melakhot That Were Performed in the Mishkan, and Their Derivatives

02. The 39 Melakhot That Were Performed in the Mishkan, and Their Derivatives

The melakhot that are prohibited on Shabbat are those that were performed in erecting the Mishkan. Almost immediately following the section dealing with erecting the Mishkan, the Torah states: “Nevertheless, you must keep My Shabbatot” (Shemot 31:13). This teaches us that even though the melakha of the Mishkan was a great mitzva, it had to stop for Shabbat as well. Thus the Sages state: “One is liable only for a melakha similar to one that was done in the Mishkan” (Shabbat 49b). Similarly the Torah states: “You shall keep My Shabbatot and venerate My Mikdash (sanctuary); I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:30). Rashi explains: “Even though I have commanded you to build the Mikdash, nevertheless you must keep My Shabbat, for the building of the Mikdash does not override Shabbat observance.”

The implication is that the primary purpose of humanity, created in God’s image, is to be a partner with God in improving the world. The primary way to improve the world is by erecting the Mishkan, where the Shekhina dwells. Light spreads from the Mishkan throughout the world, revealing that the whole world deserves to be a receptacle for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina dwells wherever one works for the sake of heaven, with honesty and kindness, in order to increase goodness in the world – it is there that the holiness of the Mishkan spreads. Thus, the essence of melakha in this world is to build an abode for the Shekhina. Yet, despite its value, we are commanded to desist from melakha on Shabbat. Just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, thus imbuing the six days of creation with deep meaning, so too we are commanded to rest on Shabbat. By doing so, we are able to reveal the deeper value of all melakhot (see above 1:10).

Moshe Rabbeinu was told at Sinai that there are 39 melakhot (Shabbat 70a). These are:

  1. Zore’a (sowing)
  2. Ĥoresh (plowing)
  3. Kotzer (reaping)
  4. Me’amer (gathering)
  5. Dash (threshing)
  6. Zoreh (winnowing)
  7. Borer (separating)
  8. Toĥen (grinding)
  9. Meraked (sifting)
  10. Lash (kneading)
  11. Ofeh (cooking/baking)
  12. Gozez Tzemer (shearing wool)
  13. Melaben (laundering)
  14. Menapetz (combing wool)
  15. Tzove’a (dyeing)
  16. Toveh (spinning)
  17. Meisekh (warping)
  18. Oseh Shtei Batei Nirin (making two loops)
  19. Oreg Shnei Ĥutin (weaving two threads)
  20. Potze’a Shnei Ĥutin (separating two threads)
  21. Kosheir (tying a knot)
  22. Matir (untying a knot)
  23. Tofer Shtei Tefirot (sewing two stitches)
  24. Kore’a al Menat Litfor Shtei Tefirot (tearing in order to sew two stitches)
  25. Tzad Tzvi (trapping)
  26. Shoĥet (slaughtering)
  27. Mafshit (skinning)
  28. Mole’aĥ/Me’abed (tanning)
  29. Mesartet (marking)
  30. Memaĥek (smoothing)
  31. Meĥatekh (cutting)
  32. Kotev Shtei Otiyot (writing two letters)
  33. Moĥek al Menat Likhtov Shtei Otiyot (erasing two letters in order to overwrite them)
  34. Boneh (building)
  35. Soter (demolishing)
  36. Mekhabeh (extinguishing a fire)
  37. Mav’ir (lighting a fire)
  38. Makeh Be-fatish (applying the finishing touch)
  39. Motzi Me-reshut Li-reshut (carrying from one domain to another)

(Shabbat 73b)

These 39 activities are called avot melakha (primary categories of melakha), or simply avot, as are activities that are very similar to them. Activities that are largely, but not entirely, similar to avot are called toladot. In practice there is no difference between an av melakha and a tolada. They both are prohibited by the Torah, and they carry the same punishment. It is simply a semantic distinction: A melakha that is very similar to an activity that was performed while erecting the Mishkan is called an av, while one that is not as similar is called a tolada (Rambam, Peirush Ha-Mishnayot on m. Shabbat 7:2).

The halakhic significance of the division of the forbidden activities on Shabbat into 39 categories relates to the realm of punishment. If one unknowingly performs all 39 melakhot, he is required to bring 39 sin offerings. If he performs five different melakhot, he is required to bring five sin offerings. However, if he performs several melakhot that are all part of the same av melakha and its toladot, he is only liable to bring one sin offering (MT 7:7-9).

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Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman