One of the most important practices in Judaism, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, is to refrain from work on the seventh day, to sanctify it and make it holy. Yet, the exact definition of rest and forms of labor prohibited on Shabbat are not explicitly stated in the Torah.

The Sages of the Talmud explain that the Torah alludes to there being 39 categories of prohibited labor. Whenever the Torah discusses the commandment to build the Tabernacle, the sanctuary constructed in the desert, the Torah also reiterates the commandment of Shabbat. Case in point is this week’s Torah portion. After more than two full portions dedicated to the intricate details of the sanctuary, the Torah concludes with the theme of Shabbat:

. . . The children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days the L‑rd created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested.1

From the juxtaposition of Shabbat and the commandment to build the Tabernacle, we derive that the Tabernacle may not be constructed on Shabbat. This implies that any labor that was needed for the construction of the Tabernacle is considered “labor” according to Jewish law and is prohibited on Shabbat.

This derivation may seem far from straightforward. Why does the Torah communicate its definition of labor through the seemingly unrelated Tabernacle? What does the prohibition of working on Shabbat have to do with building a sanctuary?

The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about the purpose of labor. The conventional understanding is that we spend six days of the week working and pursuing our physical needs, and on the seventh day we rest from the pursuit of the physical and dedicate a day to our family, our soul and our spiritual life. Yet the Torah is signaling to us that we should think about labor in the context of the work necessary to construct the sanctuary.

Thus, the halachic definition of “labor” is derived from the labor used for the construction of the sanctuary because the spiritual purpose of all our labor is to create a metaphorical sanctuary, a home for G‑d. We do so by using our physical possessions and experiences to enhance our soul and advance the purpose for which we were created, namely, to transform this earth into a vessel for G‑dliness by filling the world with goodness and kindness.2