Shaya Cohen -


How Do we Know what “Work” is Forbidden on Sabbath?

Every faith that relies on the Torah has some form of Sabbath Day – a day of rest. But the way in which the Sabbath is honored varies a great deal, not least because of what seems to be a very flexible definition of “work.” Most people who say they observe a day of rest for the Sabbath tend to write their own definitions of “work.”

The text seems to be ambiguous.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of your G-d: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

It just says “don’t do any work.” That seems pretty ambiguous, right?

Maybe not. Let’s look at what the word means in the text. And that is quite clear, indeed. The word used in the Torah for “any work” on Sabbath is kol-melacha, כָּל־מְלָאכָה֙, and it appears a mere 17 times. [click this link to see them]. Of those, 9 are as prohibitions: don’t do kol-melacha, “any work.” Which means that the meaning of kol-melacha is found in the other examples. And here they are, in order of appearance in the text:

I have filled [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge and in ­kol-melacha

… to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to make in kol-melacha

Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for kol-melacha that G-d, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to G-d.

I have filled [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge and in kol-melacha.

have been endowed with the skill to do kol-melacha —of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as doers of kol-melacha and as makers of designs.

So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for kol-melacha to be done.

And when Moses saw kol-melacha [the people] had done as G-d had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.

Fat from animals that died or were torn by beasts may be used for kol-melacha but you must not eat it.

With the partial exception of the last verse, every single example of kol-melacha – “work forbidden on the Sabbath” – applies solely and exclusively to the making of the tabernacle, the mikdash!

And so the Torah gives us a clear answer. Work that is forbidden on the Sabbath is not “doing” or “creating.” Nor is it “work” as someone today might choose to label something they consider to be work. It is instead nothing more or less than the labors necessary for constructing G-d’s house.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

P.S. Conventional Orthodox Judaism reaches the same conclusion but in a different way. This tradition (thousands of years old) asserts that the definition of kol-melacha comes from the juxtaposition of the tabernacle instructions and the commandment to observe the Sabbath day, which follows immediately after (See Exodus 31). Note that the development of what was required to make the tabernacle is highly developed within the Jewish Oral Law. It can be researched here. My explanation from kol-melacha, shared above, is not a contradiction. To my knowledge, this explanation has not been discovered before now.

P.P.S. This post may have much deeper implications as much ink – and some blood – has been spilled over millennia over whether or not to accept the rabbinical explanation of the sabbatical prohibitions. Sadducees, for example, rejected rabbinical interpretations for Shabbos observance, because they did not see any textual support for it.

Comments are welcome!

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