How Do We Arrive at 39 Categories of Labor?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

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How Do We Arrive at 39 Categories of Labor?
Translated by Kaeren Fish



Moshe gathered all of the congregation of Bnei Yisrael, and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded, to do them. Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy day for you, a Shabbat of Shabbats to God; anyone who performs labor on it shall be put to death. You shall not make a fire throughout your dwellings on the Shabbat day. (Shemot 35:1-3)

Our parasha, the major portion of which deals with the construction of the Mishkan, opens with the prohibition of performing labor (“melakha”) on Shabbat. Chazal find in these opening verses the source of the connection between the prohibition of performing labor on Shabbat and the labor involved in the Mishkan.  Due to this connection, the “39 categories of forbidden Shabbat labor” are derived from the different types of labor required to build the Mishkan.

How does the Gemara arrive at a total of 39 categories of labor? What is the source of this precise number? From various discussions in the Gemara, it is clear that this number is fixed and cannot be altered. The Amoraim include and exclude various activities, bring several categories together under the same name, merge similar types of labor and separate others, all in order to reach a total of 39. The most expanded form of this phenomenon is represented by Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, in the Yerushalmi: they go so far as to enumerate 39 sub-categories for each of the 39 main categories. So what is the intrinsic significance of the number 39?

The Gemara (Shabbat 49b) quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Rabbi Yossi ben Lakonia, who teaches that the 39 categories of labor correspond to the total number of times that the words “melakha” (“labor”), “melakhto” (“His labor”) and “melekhet” (“the labor of”) are mentioned in the Torah. The Rishonim question this assertion, for the total number of appearances of these words in the Torah is 61, not 39.

A different theory quoted in the Gemara is that the count actually involves the words, “Eleh ha-devarim” (“these are the things/words”): “devarim” implies two (since it is in the plural); “ha-devarim” adds something to that, i.e., it equals 3. The numerical value of the word “eleh” (“these”) is 36. Thus, 36 + 3 = 39. Still, we must wonder whether this can really be the source of the halakhic concept of “39 categories of labor”.

The thesis propounded by Rabbi Shimon ben R. Yossi ben Lakonia makes more sense according to the way it appears in ancient manuscripts of the Gemara, which include only the words “melakha” and “melakhto” in the count. This produces a total of 40 appearances in the Torah – the same total that the Gemara reaches in the discussion in question, followed by some deliberation as to which appearance of one of these words should be disregarded in order to arrive at a total of 39.

The beginning of our parasha would appear to provide another – more convincing – source for the 39 categories of labor; i.e., 39 categories of labor corresponding to the 39 labors associated with the Mishkan.

Every one who is wise of heart among you shall come and do all that God has commanded: (1) the Mishkan, (2) its tent, (3) and its covering; (4) its clasps (5) and its boards, (6) its bars, (7) its pillars and (8) its sockets. (9) The Ark and (10) its poles, (11) the covering, (12) and the veil of the screen. (13) The table, (14) and its poles, (15) and all its vessels, (16) and the showbread. (17) And the candelabrum for light (18) and its vessels, (19) and its lamps, (20) and the oil for light. (21) And the incense altar, (22) and its poles, (23) and the oil for anointing, (24) and the incense of the spices, (25) and the screen for the door at the entrance to the Mishkan. (26) And the altar of burnt offerings, (27) and its brazen grate, (28) its poles, (29) and all its vessels; (30) the laver (31) and its stand. (32) And the hangings of the court, (33) its pillars (34) and their sockets (35) and the screen for the door of the court. (36) The pegs of the Mishkan (37) and the pegs of the court (38) and their cords. (39) And the uniforms, for serving in the holy place – the holy garments for Aharon, the kohen, and the garments of his sons, to minister. (Shemot 35:10-19)

A similar count arises from a list of the activities at the beginning of Parashat Pekudei. Hence, it is clear that Chazal counted the activities listed at the beginning of the labor of the Mishkan, and deduced that the number of types of labor prohibited on Shabbat must be identical to the number of tasks associated with the Mishkan: 39 categories of forbidden labor on Shabbat, corresponding to the 39 types of labor associated with the Mishkan.