Friday, February 22, 2008

The Holy Essentials

The flow of the Torah’s thinking in the beginning of this week’s parsha is a bit mysterious. First we are introduced to the chief architect of the Mishkan, the talented Betzalel. The Torah reiterates every component of the Mishkan and instructs Betzalel and his team to put their creative artistry into the creation of each piece. Surprisingly, this is immediately followed by the mitzvah of Shabbat:

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy…The Israelites shall thus keep the Shabbat, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant.

Shemot 31:13,16

What does Shabbat have to do with the Mishkan?

This juxtaposition of the Mishkan with Shabbat is not at all coincidental. When the Torah prohibits “work” on Shabbat (31:14,15) it is speaking of exactly the same type of work that was just referred to in the construction of the Mishkan a few verses earlier (Talmud Shabbat 49b). There are two points here. Firstly, the construction of the Mishkan itself must be halted on Shabbat (Rashi to 31:13). Second, the Torah is defining for us the forbidden labors of Shabbat. There were thirty-nine different actions needed to construct the Mishkan and these are the categories of work that we are to rest from on the day of Shabbat (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2).

If we are to understand what Shabbat is about, we need to take a closer look at these thirty-nine labors. They seem to divide neatly into three sets. The first set contains all the actions necessary to produce the natural plant dyes for the Mishkan. It starts from the very beginning: plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. The second set contains all the actions necessary to produce the woven and leather curtains of the Mishkan. This set includes two different processes: the process of creating woolen textiles, and the process of curing hides. In the final set, we have the acts of construction itself: building, transporting materials, hammering, etc. Stated differently, these thirty-nine actions are about the production of food, clothing, and shelter – the essential acts of human survival! This is what we are being told not do on the Shabbat.

What is the significance of the fact that the work that we are to refrain from on the Shabbat is the same as the acts of Mishkan construction? And what is the significance of the fact that these just happen to be the things that people need to do to survive? What is the underlying message here?

The Mishkan is more than just a home for the Divine Presence on Earth; it provides a model for man. If God’s Presence can rest in a building, it must certainly be able to enter the heart of a Jew. As the Malbim (1809-1879) writes, “We should all build a personal sanctuary for the Divine Presence within the halls of our hearts” (commentary to Shemot 25:8). In other words, the Mishkan represents the potential of man. It follows that the construction of the Mishkan symbolizes the spiritual construction of the human self.

Of course, the primary tools a Jew utilizes in the construction of his personal Mishkan are mitzvot. However, we do not build with mitzvot alone. Look at the Mishkan: none of the processes of Mishkan construction are mitzvot – they are just simple acts like plowing and planting. And it is specifically these simple, voluntary acts that cannot be done on Shabbat. In fact, if one of these acts would happen to be a biblical obligation, there would no prohibition to do it on Shabbat! This surprising Halacha is derived from a verse near the end of our parsha:

You may work during the six weekdays, but on the seventh day you must stop. You must stop plowing and reaping.

Shemot 34:21

Why are the examples of plowing and reaping given here? In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yishmael explains our verse with the help of some classical Midrashic-style exegesis:

Rabbi Yishmael said, “Just like plowing is [always] voluntary, so too is the reaping voluntary. This excludes the reaping of the Omer [grain].”

Shevi’it 1:4

Our verse is not just giving examples; it is qualifying the Shabbat prohibition against working. All thirty-nine forbidden labors are only forbidden if they are like plowing – i.e. a perfectly voluntary act. (There is no such thing as an obligation to plow.) If one of the labors should happen to be a mitzvah – like the mitzvah to reap grain for the Omer offering – then it would not be included in the prohibition. (Careful here, this does not give license to drive to Shul or call your mother on Shabbat! It is only an act that the Torah explicitly specifies as an obligation that is permitted – and reaping the Omer is the sole example. Sorry.)

The Torah is underscoring what we already know – it is only “simple,” non-mitzvah acts that are forbidden on Shabbat. But, of course, the thirty-nine labors are not simple at all – they are the acts of Mishkan construction and the work we need to do to survive. The message is clear. Our Mishkan must be built with our non-mitzvah behavior! The Shechina enters man only when all of man’s actions, even the most basic and necessary, are beautiful and holy. If we conduct our “mundane” weekday activities with honesty, decency, and integrity, using the Torah as our guide, we transform ourselves into a sanctuary, a living Mishkan for God.

This is all very nice. However, on Shabbat we do not engage in construction, not the construction of the Mishkan nor the construction of the self. Why not? Because on Shabbat our work is complete and we are complete. Our Mishkan is standing and the Shechina has arrived. Shabbat is not the time to build; Shabbat is the time to celebrate the Shabbat day, appreciate the gift of life and welcome the presence of the Shechina.

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy.

Exodus 31:13


  1. wow! i have never thought of the melacha as broken down into the three categories of food, clothing, and shelter.

    interesting that these are also the three categories that were completely taken care of for us by Hashem in the desert - the food through the manna, the clothes "that never wore out," and the cloud that gave us continuous shelter from the desert sun.

    so perhaps Shabbat is also a day to remember this unique closeness we shared with G-d...

  2. EXCELLENT insight! I never thought of these categories as the three things taken care of for us by Hashem in the desert.
    There is another idea here. God created the world, but He left it incomplete (outside of Eden, that is). For man to survive, man must take food, clothing and shelter into his own hands - and this causes us to forget about the Creator. Shabbat functions to remind us of God and creation, so that is why we need to abstain from these activities. In a sense, it is a return to the Garden...