Tabernacle's origin offers insight into Shabbat rules

by Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman


Shemot 35:1-38:20

1 Melachim 7:40-50

This week's Torah reading continues an account of the construction of the Tabernacle. The story starts at the beginning of Parshat Terumah (Shemot 25:1). It does not end until the close of the book of Shemot, which occurs at the conclusion of next week's reading, when Moshe our teacher actually puts up the building.

The Torah presents several interruptions in its long account of fund-raising, design, off-site production and on-site construction. This week's Torah reading begins with one of those interruptions, recounting a moment at which Moses our teacher gathers the people to remind them of a key provision of the Shabbat: They must do no melacha (Shemot 35:1-3).

I have purposely left the Hebrew word untranslated. A crucial item of the laws of Shabbat depends on our knowing the meaning of this word, but you can search the Torah up and down and never find a single verse that defines the word. I mean that you can search the written Torah. The oral Torah actually devotes a great deal of attention to pinning down the precise meaning of melacha.

More than once in its long history, Judaism has spun off a group that maintains the written Torah, and only the written Torah, deserves our respect. If we have it in writing, these sectarians insist, it qualifies as divine revelation. Otherwise, forget it.

Rabbinic Judaism has always maintained that we need the oral Torah, that we would not know how to interpret the written Torah without the oral Torah, and that the oral Torah owes its origin to divine revelation no less than the written. In fact, if we read carefully, we can discover that the written Torah very often subtly supports the traditions of the oral Torah.

We need to know how to define melacha, so we can avoid doing it on Shabbat. Without the oral Torah, we would have to guess at a definition, based on appearances of the word and related words elsewhere in the Torah.

For example, the word malach comes from the same root. We usually translate this word as an angel, but sometimes it seems to mean a prophet, or even a regular human agent. So melacha might mean something an agent or angel does. Maybe that helps.

The Creator looks back at the creation of the Universe as "the melacha which He had done," a phrase repeated three times in just two verses (Bereishit 2:2-3). So making everything qualifies as melacha.

The Bible characteristically describes the work of building the Tabernacle as melacha (a few examples: Shemot 35:29, 36:1-5) right down to the completion of the project: "And Moshe finished the melacha" (Shemot 40:33).

The work of building the Tabernacle, cutting wood to specifications, writing to mark the pieces, ploughing the ground to grow plants to make the dyes, catching the animals to make the skin coverings, shearing the sheep and goats, weaving to make the fabrics, cutting, sewing, constructing, and so on -- all these must qualify as melacha.

So, the rabbis of the Mishnah taught, we derive the 39 prime categories of melacha from the work of constructing the Tabernacle. In short, melacha must mean something like productive work. We may play many roles on Shabbat -- student, teacher, lover, parent, child -- but we must not become producers.

And maybe that explains why the Torah interrupts the story of the construction of the Tabernacle to tell us not to violate Shabbat by producing. Even this most sacred task, the construction of a holy building, does not override the Shabbat.

"Since it says, 'make me a sanctuary' (Shemot 25:8), I understand that I should do so whether on weekdays or an Shabbat; but it comes to teach 'six days you shall do melacha' (Shemot 35:2), on weekdays and not on Shabbat." (Mechilta).

Whatever productivity we had in mind for Shabbat, let us save it for some other day.