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The 40th Labor

The 40th Labor

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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 information.

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 mitzvah.

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 desert.

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 fashioned.

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.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Shoshana Jerusalem, Israel June 20, 2012

belief Did I understand you correctly that you said that the "ancient" G-d was "cruel?" There is only One G-d. He was, is and will continue to be, as He always was and He doesn't change., He is always the same G-d. (Please check the words of the song in the siddur, "Adon Olam, asher malach"). He does not "evolve".He is not "cruel". His kindness and love were and are always there, even though we don't always understand and can misinterpert. There a beautiful song by Abbie Rottenberg, called "With One Word", on his disc, Journeys vol. 4, which mentions this point and I think you will find it very soul-stirring. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma June 17, 2012

what we are taught I have traversed life being no longer a child with many years behind me filled with my own particular stories and many are mystical and I can say for me it has always been a search for meaning down the years. I do not demean other ways of worship and being except for cruelty and abandonment of ethical principles. I have ultra Othodox relatives and can respect them but I think this is a two way street. Since my life is not only dominated by astounding constant synchronicity, what I call the Intelligence, the massive visible Intelligence guiding this small life and since this is also about the Hebrew letters I can say with some personal authority that Hillel was right and it is substance over rites. No I think what you call Scripture is here for interpretation and it is very clear the ancient G-d according to story Was cruel so G-d evolves as a teaching lesson in tikkun, back to Ruth, that Book of frienship AND love... to sort the wheat from the chaff in stories, a personal Design. Reply

Anonymous June 14, 2012

I love the Sabbath We are taught by scripture to not go our own way. My way is riddled with my own thoughts and understandings. I seek to know HaShem, to see things the way he does. This to me allows me to understand him. If I know I am making him happy...I have great joy. Oh think of all the wonderful things he can teach us, if we can take the time to listen. Sabbath is that time. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 9, 2011

Excuse Me You can say whatever you want, about love, and about misunderstanding a message, but in my case, I understand quite clearly. I actually do not know anyone who is experiencing constant visible synchronicity as I am, an amazement of story, and also the constant deconstruction of words, telling me there is a story, within a story.

You do not know my life. You can tell me G_d cares that I not water plants on Saturday but that is to me, not true, and for me, in the Garden is where it is at. I don't believe or have to, your perception, and as for me, I feel the sacred in all that I do, and I feel a palpable loving presence.

You do not know me. And to judge according to rules that are not part of my life, is totally wrong, in my view. In fact, it makes no sense, though clearly it does, to you.

It's a diverse world. I worship according to my heart and in so doing I know I am doing no wrong. .

I have many wonderful Jewish friends who do not do, as you do, and I don't think it's important. Reply

Shoshanah yerushalayim, Israel April 4, 2011

communicating love-Ruth You are very lucky that you are on the level to feel G-d's constant love for you. In truth, He loves every one of us but not everyone is aware of this. He is like a parent who showers love on his children, and if they act as children sometimes do and don't listen to what their parent tells them to do, he showers more love on them, hoping that eventually they will come around and behave. I heve a neighbor whose children were about the worst behaved in the community. Once, when we were discussing this she said," I'm sure that with all the love I give them, they'll turn out okay".And they did, each one a beautiful and perfect example of honoring ones parents.
BUT sometimes a child misunderstands the message and thinks, "Well, I do whatever I want and my mother and father still love me, so I guess I don't have to listen to them at all". This is always a big mistake,especially if the parent is our Father in Heaven. Reply

Shoshanah yerushalayim, Israel April 2, 2011

work or not work The reason that moving a chair across a room is allowed and watering a plamt isn't is because work is not what is prohibited on th e Sabbath. What is prohibited is "melacha", which is losely translated into English as "work" for want of a better word. And this mistranslation causes a lot of missunderstandings. " Work" in Hebrew is "avodah". It says in the Bible-the Torah, that on the seventh day G-d ceased from doing all His "melacha". And we, therefore, also stop doing "melacha". The laws of the 39 melachot are too complicated to go into here but there are many excellent books out that explain these laws. These can be found on all levels, from beginners to advanced, in any Jewish book store. Just one important point to remember in dealing with any topic of Jewish law, is that our logic and the Devine logic are quite different.
And our job in this world is to connect into the Devine. Reply

Ruth housman Marshfield, Ma March 30, 2011

Re. The watering of plants I see it is never work to act with love,with compassion. Anytime and I could say the message within Shabbat is just this. If I Guneeded lessons in how to observe life and my life I would not be in receipt of constant love, constant revelations which I do record that tell me I am right. I am not blowing any transformers. Perhaps there is more and perhaps in surfing the wave the insights coming to me, the more in Amore, are being communicated for a reason. Reply

Shoshanah Yerushalayim, Israel March 29, 2011

Dear Ruth You seem to be very kind and compassionate. One is allowed to feed his own animals on Shabbat and also to give them a drink. We are not allowed to water plants, but if you give them a drink Friday afternoon they will be okay until Sat. night. Being that G-d created the world and the plants and they are in actuality His, and He gave us the Torah which tells us how to act, we can't say that it is incompassionate not to water them on Shabbat, since that is His will.The Torah
is the Manufacturer's instruction manual, telling how to run His world. I remember once my sister-in-law sent us a present, a cordless phone. One of my children, out of excitement and happiness, followed her heart, and not her mind, and plugged it in without first reading the instruction manual.
It immediately blew because it was on U.S. electricity and needed a transformer. And that was the end of our new phone.
And so it is with the world. If we follow His instructions, everything will be perfect. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 2, 2011

thank you, Chabad for printing my response above.

Thank you, Chabad, for providing these wonderful forums for dialogue, because I do believe it's dialogue that moves us all forward, enhancing our knowledge, and that what is being sparked by some wonderful articles, is a continuing conversation that can be, beautiful, for us all. Reply

Cathy Fried Toronto, Canada February 26, 2011

Shabbat I gave an analysis of a drawing - a portrait. Half the woman's face was hidden behind strands of hair. My talk focused on what was hidden. That truly was all I really saw in the picture. My professor criticized my neglect to see or consider what was being revealed. To me the Sabbath has always been a day where I focus on what not to do. Rather than a day of opportunity. Thanks for the reminder. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 24, 2011

Shabbat I find this interesting because for me, spending Shabbat in the Garden is a holy, sacred act. I am one who feels thirsty when my plants or my animals need a drink. I cannot see something drooping without giving it water. In fact I find it very hard to imagine not doing something that is about compassion, about love, on any day of the week, and especially Shabbat, because meditating itself, leads me to need to do these things, and I do deeply believe they are about the sacred. This IS Torah.

Since I deeply feel G_d's presence in all that I do, an immanence, I feel my way is not wrong, and that, perhaps, there is a deeper meaning, within meanings, as is written, about metaphoric truths, and in fact, Pardes itself, the deepening reading of text, does take us back to that Original Garden.

It is not work to follow my heart, and it would be an imprisoning to feel I could not water that which is thirsty and calling.

My ruler is my heart. Reply

Ms. Aubrey Marshall February 22, 2011

what is/is not work I couldn't understand the difference of moving the chair across the room as not work and watering a plant work. Reply

Bruce Eisenmann Edgewood, WA USA June 11, 2010

Shabbat the oasis in time On Shabbat we drink from Torah; the cool fresh water from G-d. Life can be as a desert, hot and thirsty. Shabbat is the time to remember what our life is truly about.

Shabbat shalom Reply

Alex Troy Greenwich, CT August 9, 2009

work is a mitzvah How true this observation is; the soul needs work the way the body requires food. Time and again I find the spiritual and psychological insights of the Torah and the rabbinic commentators to be accurate and wise. Thanks for the great piece. Reply

Chaya Fradle (Karen Bell) Riverside, CA via jewishriverside.com August 30, 2008

How Shabbat Introduced Itself to Me After my nearly forty years in the desert (without the spirituality of Judaism was my desert), one Friday evening I walked into Chabad in Riverside, and Rabbi Shmuel was there smiling, kind, and rocking while chanting and singing the prayers. Tears formed in my eyes as I remembered my Orthodox grandparents and my early childhood with them during the Holy Days and sabbaths. Immediately, I knew that I was with family, and began from then to light the Shabbat candles when I was able at home, and at Chabad when I was not able to at home. So far, I haven't moved into keeping Kosher, or following the laws in a strict manner, but I do stay away from pork. Shabbat introduced itself to me as an invisible reminder of all that my grandparents had gone through in leaving the Old Country, and how brave they, and all the Jews were. It came as a friend, a family member, and a loved one, so I am now not alone any more. Reply

jerry tavernier, fla.usa April 20, 2008

shabbat - a look within a nice thought on the meaning of shabbat, food for thought Reply

Anonymous September 14, 2005

Thank you very much for this wonderful article!
It opened my eyes to the real meaning of Shabat. In fact, it was really divine providence that I found this article because it was just what I had to read at this time and what I had searched for.
May Hashem bless you with all good and success so that you can continue your great work! Reply

Israel ben Averham (Richard Nunez) Chico, California March 18, 2004

Shabbat I appreciate the energy that was sent to all of us,that it is always refreshing to be reminded of the comfort of Shabbat. Reply

Chaim Avrohom Miami, FL March 14, 2004

Very nice and inspiring. Thank you! Reply