On the Sabbath one rests from doing and even thinking about, any forbidden labors. Even with a stack of important papers or bills sprawled across the desk and an Inbox full of messages that must be addressed, one should just allow himself to feel that all the work is done.1

The Day of the Soul

The Sabbath is not only a time of rest from the physical world, but a day to actively engage in higher matters. It is a day to enjoy time with family and friends without all of the worldly distractions. It is a time to reflect on relationships with others, with G‑d, and reestablish commitment to a purpose driven life. For this reason, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, used to say that the word Shabbat is related to the Hebrew world shov, to return, as it is an opportunity to remove from one’s mind all worldly concerns and return and reclaim the self. Any area where a person may have veered from the path during the previous week, the Sabbath is the time for realignment. The Zohar, the seminal work of Jewish mysticism, refers to Shabbat as yoma d'nishmasa, the day of the soul.2 Rabbi Dovber Schneuri, the Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, explained that a professor testified that there is a great change even in the pulse of a Jew on the Sabbath, due to the great pleasure that the soul is experiencing.3 On this day every week, the Jewish people are given the opportunity to tear down any spiritual blockages that hinder their connection with the Divine.4

Defining “Work”

Different people have different personal definitions of what the terms ‘rest’ and ‘work’ mean to them. The Torah, on the other hand, has very specific definitions as to what the nature of Sabbath rest from work is meant to be. Many newcomers to Jewish observance are initially confused when learning about the details of the Sabbath work restrictions. Things that are seemingly effortless actions like writing a note or turning on a lamp are deemed Sabbath prohibitions. These minor tasks hardly seem like work. The meaning of work, as it relates to the Sabbath, must be clarified.

Sabbath observance commemorates G‑d creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh. Obviously G‑d does not need a break from all of His exertion, so what then is the nature of this “rest” that He took? The answer is that G‑d rested from creating. The previous six days He exerted His creative abilities and mastery over the world by speaking different entities into being. This is described at the beginning of the Torah, when each day G‑d says, “Let there be” such and such. On the seventh day He ceased from doing so, He ceased from creating. In effect, by ceasing to create anymore, G‑d created the concept of rest.5 There is a different energy present in the air on the Sabbath than there is during the week. It is for this reason that the Jewish mystics describe the Sabbath as being on a higher plane of existence.6

Our Sabbath parallels G‑d’s resignation from the creative process. The ‘work’ referred to is creative work, or certain labors that demonstrate stewardship over the world. Sabbath rest, then, is relinquishing any involvement in those types of tasks. Classifying something as work is not assessed by the amount of sweat that drips from the brow, it is whether this action, even in the minutest way, is a creative change or shows human mastery over nature. Refraining from these acts, in even the most minor manifestations, opens one up to be a conduit to experience the energy of harmony and tranquility which G‑d made available during this day.

The 39 General Labors

The Torah writes that when the Jewish people were making their way through the wilderness they were instructed by G‑d to build the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was a precursor to the Holy Temple that would later be built in the Land of Israel. It functioned as a place of communion with the Divine. Although it was a physical structure with physical boundaries, it emanated the presence of G‑d. Within its walls, G‑dliness was most palpable and expressed most strongly.

The Torah elaborates in great detail as to how the infrastructure and utensils of the Tabernacle should be crafted. Despite the great holiness and necessity of the Tabernacle’s construction, just prior to building, G‑d reiterated to the Jewish people the importance of the Sabbath day. They were told that on the Sabbath they must abstain from even the slightest effort toward its construction.

The Talmud enumerates 39 general categories of labors that went into the construction of the Tabernacle.7 These are the archetypal labors that must be refrained from on the Sabbath. All manifestations of these 39 general labors make up the parameters for what is acceptable and unacceptable for the Sabbath today. Along with these general labors are rabbinic ‘fences’ to prevent indirectly causing these labors, moving objects that are linked to them, and not invoking the assistance of a non-Jew to perform them. These safeguards were enacted to preserve the sanctity of the day. Each of the 39 categories has sub-categories of labors that produce the same results and are, therefore, forbidden as well. The 39 labors that are enumerated in the Mishna are as follows:8

  1. Sowing
  2. Plowing
  3. Reaping
  4. Binding Sheaves
  5. Threshing
  6. Winnowing
  7. Selecting
  8. Grinding
  9. Sifting
  10. Kneading
  11. Baking
  12. Shearing
  13. Cleaning
  14. Combing
  15. Dyeing
  16. Spinning
  17. Stretching the threads
  18. The making of two meshes
  19. Weaving two threads
  20. Separating two threads
  21. Tying a knot
  22. Untying a knot
  23. Sewing
  24. Tearing
  25. Capturing animals
  26. Slaughtering
  27. Skinning
  28. Salting
  29. Tanning hide
  30. Scraping
  31. Cutting
  32. Writing
  33. Erasing
  34. Building
  35. Demolishing
  36. Extinguishing fire
  37. Kindling fire
  38. Giving something its finishing touch
  39. Carrying in a public domain, or between private and public domains

Based on these archetypes it also becomes possible to assess if a new invention or technology is Sabbath appropriate. One example of this is flicking on a light switch. True, these modern conveniences did not exist in the times of the Talmud, yet the underlying labors which they execute certainly were. Turning on an electric lamp may fall into several categories from the abovementioned list. For example: kindling a fire—whether with actual sparks that come about or the fact that fire and an electric bulb both create light and heat and thus share being prohibited. Also, although it takes no real exertion to switch on a light, one does create a complete circuit, an entirely new entity according to some. This brief explanation hardly gives justice to the ruling, yet highlights how there are very clear modern day applications to the Sabbath laws.

Furthermore, we must also view these seemingly minor tasks in the grand scheme of Sabbath purpose. The Sabbath is not primarily about physical rest. It is about entering a different state of mind and state of being that transcends the weekdays. During the week, we alter our surroundings; on the Sabbath we simply enjoy them. We temporarily exchange the creative conveniences that technology has given us, and instead bask in the blessings that G‑d has given us. Even the most minor of creative tasks, like turning on a light switch, disturb this unity and keep us tied to our physical amenities.

There is a link between our modern Sabbath observance and the labors performed in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, the place where the Divine presence was most clearly revealed, is a microcosm for all of Creation.9 The world is our Tabernacle. When a Jew embarks on his tasks during the week, he is meant to elevate the world around him, making the physical world a conduit for the spiritual. During the week we construct our portion of the Tabernacle by impacting our circle of influence. Collectively, we transform the world.

When one builds or is creating in the world around, he loses focus on building or creating himself as an individual. When he puts the external creative opportunities on hold, he is granted the ability to look inward. In this sense, the 39 labor restrictions of the Sabbath ironically enable him to have genuine liberation. True freedom of self is spiritual growth that fosters the achievement of one’s potential. Eric Fromm, one of the most influential psychologists and scholars in Western philosophy, wrote:

“The Sabbath is a day of truce in the human battle with the world. Even tearing up a blade of grass is looked upon as a breach of this harmony, as is lighting a match… On the Sabbath one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, and singing. The Sabbath is a day of joy because on that day one is fully oneself.

This is the reason the Talmud calls a Sabbath the anticipation of the Messianic Time, and the Messianic Time the unending Sabbath: the day on which property and money as well as mourning and sadness are taboo; a day on which time is defeated and pure being rules...”10