Parshat Vayakhel is one of the parashot in which most of the content has already appeared earlier in the Torah - in this case, the way the Tabernacle was built and the actual construction of its various vessels. Since we have already discussed this subject, let us now concentrate on those few things in this parshah that have not been spelled out elsewhere.

The parshah begins with the assembly of the entire community and with the command to keep Shabbat, a mitzvah that has already been mentioned several times in the Torah.

The most basic characteristic of Shabbat, in both the Torah and halachah, is the prohibition on Melachah (work), as it says in this parshah, “The seventh day must be kept holy as a Shabbat of Shabbatot unto G‑d. Whoever does work on [that day] shall be put to death”1

But the mention here of Shabbat and the prohibition of Melachah on that day as an introduction to all the work that went into the construction of the Tabernacle is extremely significant. The only simple explanation for this juxtaposition is that although the construction of the Tabernacle is an exceedingly important value in the eyes of G‑d, nevertheless, the command to keep Shabbat is more important. The implication is that the command to rest on Shabbat pertains not only to ordinary matters (“your work,” as it says in the Ten Commandments) but to sacred work as well.

The juxtaposition of the Shabbat prohibitions to the work performed in the construction of the Tabernacle has both technical and halachic significance. It teaches us the central halachic basis of all the laws of Shabbat. In and of itself, the concept of Melachah can be expansive or limited according to one’s reasoning; nevertheless, only acts performed in the same manner as they were performed in constructing the Tabernacle are prohibited on Shabbat. Tractate Shabbat’s designation of the thirty-nine categories of Melachah is based on the tradition concerning the number of melachot performed in the Tabernacle. Thus, the work of the Tabernacle serves as a basic, though not exclusive, model for the forms of work prohibited on Shabbat.

What is Melachah?

A deeper look into the definition of Melachah reveals that the problem is far from simple. Even someone with a thorough knowledge of the laws of Shabbat must grapple with the complicated question of what exactly is considered work by the Torah’s definition.

On the one hand, one may carry heavy loads, and labor and sweat over any number of undertakings, without violating any Melachah according to halachah. On the other hand, simple acts such as lighting a fire, writing two letters, or moving a pin from one place to another are considered Melachah, and entail a serious penalty.

Moreover, the fine details that create the complex system of the laws of Shabbat become intertwined and together form a structure that is full of puzzling questions and, seemingly, contradictions and illogic as well.

The challenge of finding one all-inclusive and complete definition of Melachah – a question complicated by the profusion of details in talmudic and post-talmudic halachah – is uniquely difficult. And even if we are able to find such a definition, there is a more basic question: What is the inner logic that informs this definition?

In order to clarify the problem of cessation from work on Shabbat, we must first consider a broader question: How do we define work and rest in general? The concept of work – and along with it, the parallel concept of rest – can be understood in various ways. But if we dismiss the various professional senses and scientific definitions, there are essentially two possibilities.

The first possible definition that comes to mind is largely responsible for the common misunderstanding of the Torah’s concept of work: the identification of work with effort. According to this understanding, work is any activity in which one invests effort, and which is characterized by labor, toil, and sweat. Accordingly, defining a particular act as work depends on the amount of effort invested in it. An endeavor in which a great deal of effort is invested is considered major work, whereas one that does not require much effort is hardly considered work at all.

Connected with this understanding of work is a parallel rationale. According to this understanding, the exact definition of work is not effort; rather, the effort must be a forced effort, an act that one is obliged to perform, and not an act of one’s own free will and desire. Thus, an act that brings enjoyment to its performer is not considered work but play and delight.

This understanding would obviously bring into question the prohibition against performing certain forms of work on Shabbat. Take, for example, light, relaxing work that a person might perform in his garden. Since this is not unpleasant labor, one might think to consider it oneg Shabbat (Shabbat enjoyment) rather than Melachah.

This view of work is clearly based on the physical feeling that the work brings. It is a conception that begins and ends with the feeling of the physical exertion that work provides, and has nothing to do with the act that is performed. This perspective is not unlike that of a horse that works the land. The horse does not understand the meaning or result of its actions, only the physical experience that accompanies its exertion. It does not consider the aspects of cause and purpose, value and benefit.

This understanding of work would then affect the meaning of rest. Rest is the opposite of work; hence, rest would mean the cessation of physical exertion, and its ideal form would be inactivity. Indeed, according to halachah, this understanding of work and rest does exist, within certain parameters. As the Torah expressly states, “so that your ox and your donkey may rest.”2

Creative effort

Let us suggest a different approach to the concept of work, one that is not at odds with the preceding one but that nevertheless is essentially different from it. Work can be viewed not primarily with respect to the effort involved but with respect to the result that is produced. One cannot determine what is work and what is not work by comparing the effort invested in each case, but by the results produced. No matter how much labor was involved, an unorganized effort that produces no results whatsoever, or that produces results that have no positive value, will not be classified as work.

This conception of work is essentially connected with the intention and thought that inform the effort. Hence, only a purposeful activity can be considered work. That is, the defining concept of work is not toil but creation. This conception of work is a characteristically human conception, since it is based on the existence and activity of a guiding intentional faculty.

In this conception of work, the existence and measure of work are defined by the quantity and value of the result. Furthermore, the creative act is not merely an act of organized, intentional effort; rather, it must essentially be an effort whose result is a positive act. Creativity has a strictly positive meaning, the essence of which is building and progress. An act of destruction can be considered Melachah only when there is some purpose to this destructiveness, when it is not destruction for its own sake but for the sake of achieving some other purpose. In such a case, even destruction can be a creative act, since it serves as a preliminary step to an act of positive creation.

Correspondingly, rest need not be defined as cessation of all effort, because effort itself is not important in this context. Rather, rest is defined as cessation of creative effort.

It stands to reason that the Torah’s definitions of work and rest would be based on this human conception, and in fact, almost all of the detailed and complex laws of Shabbat derive from the principle that Melachah is a physical act performed with intention and thought. As our sages put it, “The Torah prohibits work entailing the fulfillment of one’s intent,”3 and “One who does work without awareness is exempt.”4 Melachah is a creative act; hence, “all who engage in destructive action are exempt,”5 but a destructive act that is intended as preparation for something creative, such as “erasing in order to write,”6 is considered Melachah.

Why stop creating?

The myriad of details in the laws of Shabbat are all essentially practical corollaries of this definition, from which all of the Shabbat prohibitions derive, whether directly or indirectly. In essence, Shabbat is the suspension of work, the silencing and cessation of all creative activity. Here, however, arises the central problem: What is the reason for this suspension of creation and for those long Shabbat hours of noncreative inactivity?

First of all, let us look at the rationale provided by the Torah for resting on Shabbat: “For in six days G‑d made heaven and earth…and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, G‑d blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy.”7 The simple meaning of this verse is that because G‑d rested on the seventh day, we too must rest. What, however, is the reason for and meaning of this imitation? To be sure, Shabbat is an eternal testament to the creation of the world, one of the basic tenets of Judaism. But the cessation from work on Shabbat does not attest directly to the world’s creation but, rather, to the cessation from its creation, which seems secondary in importance to the creation itself.

A comprehensive analysis of this question would entail a great deal of deep thinking, but the essence of it is the following: To a large degree, the imitation of G‑d is man’s task in this world. As our sages put it, “Try to emulate Him. As He is gracious and merciful, so you be gracious and merciful.”8 In this way, man becomes a vehicle for carrying out G‑d’s work in the world. Man was created in G‑d’s image and likeness, or as one of the greatest chasidic masters put it: Man’s soul is “truly a part of G‑d from on high.”9 Thus, his whole essential purpose is to be like a spark of divinity in this world. “You have made him but little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and majesty. You have made him master over the works of Your hands, placed all things at his feet.”10 Man’s distinction in this world is the channeling, imitation, and completion of G‑d’s work.

Creation – the work of creating the world – concluded on Shabbat. However, although the direct, manifest, and deliberate divine creation came to an end, and since then, the world has operated according to the laws and patterns originally established in it, nevertheless the act of purposive creation never stops. The task of deliberately rectifying the world by completing the divine creation now devolves upon man. As it says in the Torah at the end of the Creation, “The heaven and the earth were finished…And G‑d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His work which G‑d created to do (laasot).”11 The Midrash expounds on the last word of the verse, “Everything created during the six days of Creation requires rectification.”12 For G‑d only began the work that He created laasot – in order that it should be perfected by man.

This first Shabbat, which heralded the suspension of creation, was not, then, the absolute conclusion of creation. Rather, it was merely the demarcation of one stage in creation. Shabbat serves both as a separation and as a bond between the divine work of the Creation and the human work of creation. This would explain the command to keep Shabbat just as G‑d rested from His work, as our creation is truly part of the process of His Creation.

As we have stated, the prohibition on performing Melachah on Shabbat means ceasing from all creative work. All the detailed laws and prohibitions merely elaborate and clarify this general command.

Even the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat, in its various forms – a prohibition that is considered an anomaly in halachah, since it seemingly does not entail any suspension of creative work – begins to make sense once we understand that Shabbat is a day of stillness, in which we suspend the practical-physical aspect of creation. The prohibition of carrying conveys the idea of a standstill, of upholding the status quo – standing at attention quietly and attentively.

The role of rest

The essence of Shabbat, G‑d’s rest from the work of Creation, is not just suspension of work. There is an additional element as well: the command to rest. Here, too, we must stress the fundamental distinction between rest and inactivity. The same distinction we made between exertion and work – between a random action and a deliberate effort – exists between inactivity and rest as well. Inactivity is random inaction, complete desistance from any exertion, whereas rest entails the practice of deliberate, purposeful inaction in preparation for further action in the future. That is to say, although rest does not involve exertion, it, too, is a creative act, because it creates the possibility and prepares for all further creation.

In addition, rest has another, more spiritual aspect. In the course of continuous, routine work, it is generally impossible to appreciate the totality of the work that has been done, to attain perspective and plan for the future. Rest, on the other hand, enables one to take stock in this way, which is necessary for perceiving the spiritual significance of one’s work. Thus, even though, with respect to exertion, rest is a state of stillness and passivity, with respect to the purposeful-essential aspect of work and creation, it is an incredibly dynamic activity.

The first Shabbat, too, was not just the sheer suspension of the Creation. Its significance was the summation, looking back on the Creation, finding its spiritual and meaningful content, and making it possible to raise the entire enterprise to a higher level. Only after a period of rest could work and creation be renewed in the second week, which was the week of man.

“And G‑d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His work.”13 Shabbat assumed an enhanced level of blessing and holiness precisely because of this cessation of active creation, because G‑d took the time, as it were, to look at His creation and see all that He had made, and find that it was very good. Even loftier than this, Shabbat enabled finding the pure purpose that lay in this creation.

The stillness of Shabbat

Although the act of divine creation was a one-time event, it is also the paradigm and prototype for everything that happens afterward in the world through man and his actions. Just as the divine creation paused for summation, thought, and exaltation, so too, man – who continues the work of creation, who is the divine instrument for deliberate, purposeful creation – must cease his actions for one day of suspended creation, rest, and stillness: Shabbat.

Shabbat, the holy day of cessation and rest, is the culmination of everything that was done during the week. The stillness of Shabbat is a state of contemplation, a state of preparation for a deeper understanding of the essence of things, in a greater effort to attain their purpose.

Certainly, as long as Shabbat is perceived as a time of forced idleness, it becomes an incomprehensible, unwelcome burden. But this is not the true nature of Shabbat; its true nature is elevation from the mundane activities of the week to the attainment of a higher and holier level of creation.