A painter bends close to a canvas, peering intently. A writer crouches over a
keyboard. A sculptor scratches minute lines and ridges in stone. Each dab of the
brush, each keystroke, each scrape of the chisel is executed with utmost
concentration, as the artist pours his very soul into the action.
But every once in a while the artist will pull back. He’ll straighten his
back, relax his limbs, even take a step or two back from his work to view it
from a more distant vantage point. He’ll disengage his soul from his work, so as
to see it from the outside rather than from within. For a long minute he’ll just
stand or sit there, detached, even aloof. Then he’ll dive back in.
Imagine that you wanted to put all the wisdom in the world in a single
document—a document compact enough to be copied by hand from scroll to
scroll, transported from place to place and transmitted from generation to
generation for thousands of years. How would you do it?
You would, of course, pick your words very carefully, so as to take advantage
of each word’s multiple meanings. You’d construct sentences so that they can be
read several different ways, again imparting multiple messages. You’d use
metaphor to tell a story inside a story, a law within a law, an idea within an
idea. If you gave each letter a numerical value and made certain letters
interchangeable with others, then each word in your document will also be a code—actually a series of codes—conveying more layers of meaning. You’d also
embed allusions in the very shapes of the letters, in the flourishes of the
calligraphy, and in the format of the spaces between the letters, words and
paragraphs. Finally, you would use context and juxtaposition to convey even more
That is what the Torah does by interjecting the
commandment to rest on the Shabbat in the middle of its instructions on how to
build the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary that served the Children of
Israel during their travels through the desert). The laws of Shabbat fill
hundreds of pages in the Talmud and many thousands of pages in the commentaries
and halachic works; yet all is encapsulated in a few short sentences in the book
of Exodus. A major source of Shabbat law derives from the association the Torah
makes between Shabbat and the Mishkan.
“Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day shall be holy to you, a
sabbath (‘ceasing’ of work) of sabbaths to G‑d” (Exodus 35:2). The word the Torah
uses for “work,” melachah, actually means “creative work”—which is why
watering a plant is work forbidden on Shabbat, while carrying a heavy piece of
furniture across the room is not. The Talmud lists “forty minus one” (i.e.,
thirty-nine) categories of such creative work, from “planting” and “plowing” to
“tying a knot” and “lighting a fire.” Each of the 39 also includes numerous
actions that derive from it (for example, watering a plant is a toladah or
“derivative” of planting).
How does the Talmud compile this list? By examining the types of “creative
work” involved in the making of the Mishkan. Regarding the Mishkan, the Torah is
uncharacteristically elaborate. More than a dozen long chapters are filled with
detailed instructions on the design and construction of the Sanctuary’s 48 wall
panels, 69 pillars, 165 foundation sockets, 26 tapestries, 169 hooks (59 gold,
60 silver, 50 copper), and its various “vessels”—the Ark of the Covenant, the
Menorah, the Showbread Table, the indoor and outdoor Altars, etc. More chapters
describe how the Mishkan was assembled at each encampment in the desert, and
then disassembled and transported to the next campsite. By juxtaposing the laws
of Shabbat with the laws of the Mishkan, the Torah defines the “work” forbidden on
Shabbat as the work of making the Mishkan.
The chassidic masters add a third side to this equation.
The Midrash points out that when the Torah commands, “Six days shall work be
done, but the seventh day shall be holy,” it’s not only telling us to cease work
on Shabbat. It is also instructing us that for six days shall work be done.
Working during the week is a mitzvah, just like ceasing work on Shabbat is a
Thus, in telling the story of the Mishkan with all its details the Torah is
actually engaging in three narratives:
1) The details of the Sanctuary constructed by the Children of Israel in the
2) The definition of “work” forbidden on Shabbat.
3) A definition and description of the work of life. Why are we here? What is
our task in this world? What is the “creative work” in which G‑d wants us to engage six days a week? The making of a Mishkan—a home for G‑d that is created by
shaping the materials of physical life into “vessels” that are receptive to, and
expressive of, the goodness and perfection of their Creator. Want to know how to
make your life a “home for G‑d”? It's all there in the closing chapters of the
Book of Exodus, enfolded within the detailed description of the materials,
design and craftsmanship of the work of the Mishkan.
Yet on Shabbat we cease this work. Is Shabbat a time outside life? In a way
it is, since we desist from the creative labor of life. Yet at the same time, it
is also an integral part of that work. Like the artist taking a step back from
his work to reconnect with his overall vision lest he lose it in his immersion
in the details, so, too, “making a home for G‑d in the physical world” requires
a weekly interlude of unfettered spirituality, lest we lose sight of the overall
purpose in our preoccupation with the materials out of which that home is being
Therein lies the deeper significance in the curious Talmudic phrase we
mentioned above—“forty labors, minus one.” Why not simply say that there are
“thirty-nine labors” forbidden on Shabbat? Our sages explain: the fortieth labor
is the “work of heaven” we do on Shabbat.
Building the Mishkan actually involves forty categories of creative
work: the thirty-nine modes of constructive involvement with the physical world
in which we engage during six days a week and which we cease on Shabbat; and the
spiritual labor of Shabbat. The fortieth labor requires the cessation of the first
thirty-nine, for this is the act of stepping out of, and above, our weekday
Mishkan building; yet it is ultimately an indispensable component of the job of
constructing a home for G‑d in our physical lives.