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Melacha - A Unique Definition of Work

Melacha - A Unique Definition of Work


Shabbat is a day of holiness, set apart and elevated above the rest of the week. The special laws pertaining to Shabbat preserve its sanctity and beauty.

The unique quality of Shabbat derives from two types of mitzvot: the mitzvot of sanctification such as candle-lighting and Kiddush; and the equally important mitzvot which require that we refrain from certain activities and work. The prohibitions against "work," far from being negative or burdensome, are an integral part of the experience of Shabbat as a day when body and soul are in true harmony.

These two aspects of Shabbat are reflected in the two expressions found in the two different presentations of the Ten Commandments found in the Torah. "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy..." (Exodus 20:8) and "Guard the Sabbath to keep it holy..." (Deuteronomy 5: I 2) were, according to tradition, heard simultaneously by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

Zachor, "remember," refers to the positive commandments of the day--the things we do. Shamor, "guard," refers to the negative commandments--the things we may not do. The latter, including such activities as cooking, writing and turning lights on and off, are described generally by the word melachah, a certain type of work.

The Hebrew language has two words for "work"--avodah and melachah. Avodah is a general term meaning work, while melachah has a very precise halachic meaning. On Shabbat, melachah is prohibited. Our Sages explain that melachah refers to the activities which were necessary for construction of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary which the Jews took with them throughout their desert wanderings.

The Torah specifically mentions two melachot, kindling a fire and carrying. The Mishnah further explains that 39 different categories of melachah went into building the Mishkan. While these categories of labor refer to the construction of the Mishkan, they actually encompass all forms of human productivity. These melachot are not a haphazard collection of activities, and do not necessarily represent physical exertion. Rather, the principle behind them is that they represent constructive, creative effort, demonstrating man's mastery over nature. Refraining from melachah on Shabbat signals our recognition that, despite our human creative abilities, G‑d is the ultimate Creator and Master.

A newcomer to Shabbat observance may be concerned that the numerous laws and their many nuances would present a hindrance to oneg Shabbat--enjoying and delighting in Shabbat. However, the unique way in which we pursue ordinary activities on Shabbat actually serves as a constant reminder of the special nature of this day. Refraining from so many of the activities that we take for granted during the week heightens our awareness that Shabbat is different from the other days of the week, and creates a whole new frame of mind for Shabbat.

Adapted from Spice and Spirit, The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook, published by Lubavitch Women's Cookbook Publications
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1000 characters remaining Staff via May 20, 2016

Yes! That is permitted. Reply

Grant Vancouver, BC via May 19, 2016

We can program lights, heat to go on and off by time or movement and when no one are in a room... is this allowed on shabbat as long as it is programed before hand? Reply

Anonymous usa July 31, 2013

What about sports activities on the Shabbath if not every week? Are sports activities, if not done every week, considered work? Reply

Ms. Channah Ussery February 23, 2012

Shabbos Challenged by ADHD I really try to keep Shabbos but, like "Benny" I am alone and "wired", but not with gadgets, I have ADHD and I'm not on medication at this a time due to $$. Even right now, it's late Thursday afternoon and I have to make Challah! My distractability is endless and I have my rehabbing animals to tend to. Shabbos or not, I must clean cages and carry food out to "my" flock of Ducks. This is my Mitzvah! I save injured wildlife, but electricity and hot water are an issue for me. I guess I just have to learn how-to-do-it. Where can I get help for this? Channah; Shabbos Challenged Reply

yehudis icecream, pizza November 10, 2011

the What I like about Judaism is that it encompasses every area of our life - from how to tie our shoes to the laws of eating, etc. it gives you a chance to include G-d in one's life.
Shabbos is my favorite day of the week. I feel so elavated to be able to turn off everything and focus on G-d.
Shabbat shalom! Reply

Benny March 12, 2007

Hard without help I am currently studying in town with very few Jews, so I find it so hard to keep shabbat alone. It seems like I have nothing to do, and even sometimes feels like I just want shabbat to end so I can get back on with my life. I'm such a wired person - email, IM, web browsing, palm pilot. Always something to press, some amusement to distract me.

I am returning to a more Jewish city soon, but my neighborhood there is not very Jewish. I'll have the opportunity to ask for houses to stay at, so (please, Hashem), my eager eyes will be opened to the beauty of shabbat. Reply

Philip Kouse Seattle, WA/USA May 12, 2005

Sabbath/melacha While I am still far from where I hope to be in being shomer Shabbat, I have found the "restrictions" liberating. The discipline has helped me train my mind, that there is one day I need not worry about bills and other stressors in my life. Not even having to turn on light switches has come to be very liberating. The more faithful I am in keeping Shabbat, the more I value it and look forward to it--after all, how many people in our society look forward to a major holiday each and every week? Reply

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