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Question 7.5:
I've heard that Jews can't tear on Shabbat? Why? What is "work"?


One of the things that traditional Jews are prohibited from doing on Shabbat is "work"; more specifically, the hebrew word "melachah".

Most people hear that Jews cannot work on Shabbat, and think of the English sense: physical labor, employment, jobs. Under this definition, tearing, opening the refrigerator, cooking, etc. would be permitted, but a Rabbi leading a service would not be permitted. However, Jewish law prohibits the former and permits the latter. This is because traditional Judaism does not prohibit "work" in the modern sense; the Torah prohibits "melachah", often translated as "work".

Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment. The best example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day (and is a reason we observe Shabbat). Just as G-d rested from the work of creation, so we too rest on shabbat from creation.

The word melachah is rarely used in the Torah outside of the context of Shabbat and holy day restrictions. The only other repeated use of the word is in the discussion of the building of the sanctuary and its vessels in the wilderness (Exodus 31:35-38). Notably, the Shabbat restrictions are reiterated during this discussion (Ex. 31:13), thus we can infer that the work of creating the sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, the rabbis concluded that the work prohibited on Shabbat is the same as the work of creating the sanctuary. They found 39 categories of forbidden acts, all of which are types of work that were needed to build the sanctuary:

  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 wool
  13. Washing wool
  14. Beating wool
  15. Dyeing wool
  16. Spinning
  17. Weaving
  18. Making two loops 19.
  19. Weaving two threads
  20. Separating two threads
  21. Tying
  22. Untying
  23. Sewing two stitches
  24. Tearing
  25. Trapping
  26. Slaughtering
  27. Flaying
  28. Salting meat
  29. Curing hide
  30. Scraping hide
  31. Cutting hide up
  32. Writing two letters
  33. Erasing two letters
  34. Building
  35. Tearing a building down
  36. Extinguishing a fire
  37. Kindling a fire
  38. Hitting with a hammer
  39. Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain. (Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)

As a result, all of these tasks are prohibited on Shabbat. Additionally prohibited is any task that operates by the same principle or has the same purpose (for example, driving a car uses an internal combusion engine, which creates fire). In addition, the rabbis have prohibited coming into contact with any implement that could be used for one of the above purposes (for example, you may not touch a hammer or a pencil), travel, buying and selling, and other weekday tasks that would interfere with the spirit of Shabbat.

Let's look at one of these as an example: The lighting of fire. We don't do it, simply put, because G-d said so -- Exodus 35:3. "You shall not kindle fire in any of your communities on the Shabbat day." What can we learn from this? From the phrasing, it would seem that G-d had to make a point of telling us that this law applies even when not living in Israel. Why would we think it was only connected to living in Israel? As noted above, there are actually 39 types of activities prohibited on Shabbat. Lighting fires is only one of them; the others are extrapolated from context. Why was it mentioned separately? The way the laws of exegesis work, if all 39 were derived by the same derashah, the same oddity in the text, then all 39 would be the same prohibition. Someone who violates more than one would have committed only one sin.

R' Akiva explains (Pesachim 5b) that by specifying one separately, it shows that all 39 are distinct. They are related to the 39 activities required to construct the Tabernacle. This connection is implied by the juxtaposition of the two topics -- Shabbos work and building the Tabernacle -- in the book of Exodus, as well as the fact that both speak of "melachah" or "meleches avodah" [melachah of avodah, losing yourself in construction]. This connection to construction follows through to the laws.

For example, tearing is one of the 39. However, the Torah's prohibition only includes tearing as part of repairing or to measure out a portion. To do so just to destroy is not Torahitically prohibited.

The philosophical connection is implied by the number 39, particularly as the mishnah describes it as "40 missing 1". 40 is associated with creation, as G-d created the world through 10 pronouncements, each of which had 4 aspects. So, there are 40 acts of creation whose absence is commemorated on Shabbos. Of the 40, one is ex nihilo which is prohibited by the conservation laws of physics. So only 39 are prohibited by the laws of Shabbat -- "40 missing one". One of those 39 is kindling. So, when we rest from kindling fires on Shabbat, we do so in part because it corresponds to some aspect of creation, be it the creation of light on day 1, of the sun and stars on day 4, or some step whose connection is less obvious.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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