Shabbat: A gift

“I have an exquisite gift in My treasure house; it is called Shabbat, and I wish to bestow it upon the Jewish people,”1 G‑d told Moses. Indeed, Shabbat is a gift; a uniquely holy and special day. Our observance of Shabbat testifies to G‑d’s creation of the universe and His absolute sovereignty over it.2 By observing Shabbat in accordance with halachah, we display our total commitment to G‑d and His Torah.

What Is a Melachah?

In no fewer than 12 places, the Torah reiterates the prohibition against doing melachah, “work,” on Shabbat, but it is not clear from the Scripture exactly which type of work is included. People often assume the prohibition refers to going to work on Shabbat; others think the Torah only forbids the use of electricity and modern technology. In reality, although the Torah’s prohibition does encompass many activities, it refers to a very specific set of laws. From the way the Torah juxtaposes the endeavor to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with the commandment to observe Shabbat, our sages deduced that the 39 types of work used in the construction and maintenance of the Mishkan comprise the 39 melachot.3

Avot and Toladot: Parents and Children

Each melachah actually refers to a category of work, with numerous derivatives that share similar characteristics. Since these activities are an extension of the central melachah, they are called toladot (“children”), and the main melachah is called the av (“father”). The avot and toladot are equally forbidden on Shabbat.4 Throughout this section we will use these terms to describe the nature of each forbidden activity.5

Let’s use zoraya (sowing) as an example. The goal of sowing is to promote plant growth. As such, while actual sowing is the av, any other activities which promote plant growth, such as watering plants or pruning trees, would be included in the melachah and referred to as toladot.

The first eleven melachot encompass all the steps that go into producing bread, from plowing the soil to baking the dough. The Talmud refers to them as the sidura d’pat - “the process of making bread.”6

Here, we will define each melachah and trace its source in the Mishkan. We will also give examples of possible toladot of each melachah and point to common scenarios that should be avoided. This is in no way a comprehensive guide to Shabbat observance. The laws are numerous and complex, and it’s important to consult a Rabbinic authority for practical application when confronted with a potential issue.