HMS; 5764-6 Shabbat II – Work and Shabbat

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

November 10, 2003

Number 5764-6 Shabbat II – Work and Shabbat

The most widely know detail of Shabbat is the prohibition against work from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. It is the most widely known law and one of the most misunderstood.
The Torah is very precise that “Melacha” is forbidden on Shabbat. It says many times that we must not do “Melacha” on Shabbat. What the Torah does not say is what the word “Melacha” means. The usual word for work is “Avoda” so the Sages understand that “Melacha” must be a special kind of work. Without a definition the word would have no meaning. Therefore the Sages looked through the Torah to find where the definition of “Melacha” could be implied. They found, at the beginning of Parshat Vayakel (Exodus 35:1-3) The command to refrain from “Melacha” on Shabbat just before the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, begins. The Rabbis ruled that whatever “Melacha” is, it must actions that are implied in the construction project that is about to begin. They then deduced 39 categories of work that are thus forbidden on Shabbat. These master categories prohibit: Ploughing, sowing, reaping, sheaf-making, threshing, winnowing, selecting, sifting, grinding, kneading, baking, sheep-shearing, bleaching, combing raw materials, dyeing, spinning, inserting thread into a loom, weaving, removing a finished article from a loom, separating into threads, tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, skinning, tanning, scraping, marking out a pattern, cutting to shape, writing, erasing, building demolishing, kindling a fire, extinguishing a fire, the final hammer blow and carrying from one domain to another (public or private). Since the Torah calls for capital punishment for these offenses, the Sages then added another layer of prohibitions to keep people away from the major offenses. For example, if writing is not allowed, we do not allow sharpening a pencil since this may lead to writing. Some say that swimming is not allowed because placing a swim suit in water may constitute “washing”! Or we may tear off a branch from a tree to use as a swim aid. The Sages determined that one should not read by candle light on Friday night lest you tilt the candle holder to increase the flame. If, however another person is reading with you, you can read by candle light since the other person will remind you that it is Shabbat and the flame can not be increased. A third layer adds an additional fence around the law, so that carrying a pencil late Friday afternoon is also forbidden lest you forget you have it and write with it later that evening. Thus if you go around with a pencil behind your ear all day, or a needle and thread in your lapel for alterations, you have to put these away on Erev Shabbat lest you forget they are there and use them on Shabbat.
Many Sages from ancient to modern times see in this list creative acts, actions that bring about some change in the natural world. Since G-d rested from creative acts on Shabbat, so too we should let the physical world rest as we observe Shabbat, and not seek to change the world around us. It is this general rule that helps us understand if new things should be permitted or prohibited on Shabbat. For example, should electricity be used on Shabbat. If you consider electricity as fire, it would be prohibited, if not, it could be used. Clearly we can not use electricity to do another prohibited act. Sewing is prohibited so a sewing machine is also prohibited, as is an electric razor. Cooking is prohibited, even if the food is being cooked not on an open flame, but on an electric burner. What about electric lights? Are they a “flame” or not? Opinions vary. Some use electric lights others do not. To avoid a problem, some use timers to control the lights and thus the operation is automatic and not caused by our action. One could not adjust a timer on Shabbat but could use the light or other device that is set up to be run automatically by a timer. Television is a different problem. While a timer could be used to turn on an off the set, there is another problem of commercials. Do we want advertisements soliciting us to buy on a day when we can not handle money?
While there are interesting paradoxes, for example you can move your piano upstairs on Shabbat (since it stays in one domain) but you can’t carry a handkerchief outside (since it is moving from the private to the public domain), the general rule applies, we should not seek to change our world but to live in it and enjoy it the way G-d created it. Life is certainly different when walk instead of ride, and live without our cell phone, PDA or computer. When was the last time you had time in the afternoon to read a book or take a short nap? Not only does it refresh our soul but there is an added bonus that come from putting our work aside. After Shabbat, when we return to the working world, often we do our most creative work after our day of rest.

Next week: Shabbat III – Physical vs Spiritual Pursuits

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