Issur Melakha and the Shabbat Day of Rest Part 1

  • Rav Doniel Schreiber



By Rav Doniel Schreiber


Shiur #16: Issur Melakha and the Shabbat Day of Rest



I.  Introduction


            The Jewish people, by observing Shabbat, continuously affirm their sanctity and their eternal covenant with Hashem.  This is expressed, in part, by performing certain obligations, such as kiddush, se'uda, and havdala.  Hashem, though, also demands that the Jewish people rest and refrain from melakha (work) on Shabbat.  What does this entail?


            When encountering the topic of "issur melakha," the prohibition to do work on Shabbat, one must deal with an apparent inconsistency.  On the surface, it seems that the type of work forbidden on Shabbat is limited to physical and strenuous labor, as the pasuk states: "Do not perform melakha (work)" (see Shemot 20:10 and Devarim 5:14).  Clearly, however, this is not the case, as even plucking a blade of grass can be defined as melakha.  Thus, melakha is not synonymous with toil.  Violation and desecration of the Shabbat can occur with even the most casual of actions.


             Yet, physical toil is prohibited on Shabbat for a different reason.  Beyond the prohibition to perform melakha, the Torah informs us that Shabbat is a day of "shabbaton" (a solemn day of rest - Shemot 16:23) and one must "tishbot" (rest - Shemot 23:12).  This requires one to maintain the Shabbat as a day of rest (menucha) from strenuous activities, even though they may not be defined as melakha (Shabbat 24b and 114b, Rambam Shabbat 21:1, Maggid Mishneh ibid., and Ramban Vayikra 23:24).


            Thus, moving heavy furniture around one's home, while not considered melakha, would be a Torah violation of "shabbaton."  It is even possible that the tedious task of keeping one's business open, though not necessarily arduous, may violate the Torah command to rest (see Ramban ibid. and Chatam Sofer EH, vol. 2, no. 173 and CM no. 195).  Thus, according to Torah law, one must refrain from both strenuous and tedious activity as well as from melakha on Shabbat.


            Rabbinic legislation prohibits other forms of activity; these include 1) acts which undermine the spirit and sanctity of the Shabbat; 2) acts which resemble melakha; and 3) acts which may lead to Torah violations.  We will discuss these categories in a later shiur.


II.  The 39 Forbidden Categories of Work (Avot Melakhot)


            The Torah prohibition of melakha forbids 39 categories of work (avot) and their corollaries (toladot), (see Mishna Shabbat 73a and Yerushalmi, end of chap. 7).  Most of these prohibited activities do not involve extreme physical exertion and 38 of the primary categories are not even mentioned in the Torah she-bikhtav (the Written Law).  What, then, is the source and nature of prohibited work on Shabbat?


            Immediately after Hashem commanded us to build the mishkan (Tabernacle) and all its vessels, He enjoined us to keep the Shabbat, as the Torah says: "My Shabbatot you shall keep" (Shemot 31:12).  Further on in the Torah, the command to keep Shabbat is placed immediately prior to the details involving building the mishkan (Shemot 35:1-3).  From the juxtaposition of the mishkan and Shabbat in these verses, as most Rishonim understand, Chazal derived that the 39 primary categories of work involving the building of the mishkan are forbidden on Shabbat (see Shabbat 49b, Rashi ibid. s.v. Ke-neged, and Rashi Shemot 31:13).


            The rationale for this derivation lies in the message implicit in this juxtaposition.  Hashem is instructing us that although He commanded us to build the mishkan, we must cease from the activities involved in building it upon the arrival of Shabbat (Mekhilta, beginning of parashat Vayakhel, and Rashi Shemot 35:2).  Chazal called these primary categories "Avot" (lit. fathers) because of their distinction of being associated with the building of the mishkan (Bava Kama 2a).


            For further research: Some Rishonim understand the derivation of 39 primary categories of work on Shabbat differently.  See Rashba Shabbat 49b, and Ran Shabbat 74a, s.v. Amar Abaye.


            Rishonim debate which aspect of the mishkan serves as the blueprint for prohibited work on Shabbat.  Most Rishonim understand, based on Shabbat 73b, that it is the actual building of the mishkan (hakamat ha-mishkan).  Some Ge'onim rule that it also includes the service performed in the mishkan (avodat ha-mishkan), such as aspects of the sacrificial order.  This latter position seems to be generally that of the Yerushalmi, as well (see Yerushalmi Shabbat 10:3).  For further research: See the introduction of the Eglei Tal, note 1 and 2; "The Debate between the Talmudim with regard to Melekhat ha-mishkan," by R. Yakov Genack in Alon Shevut vols. 132 and 133; and Encyclopedia Talmudit "avot ve-toladot."


III.  Toladot (Corollaries)


            Rishonim are divided on how to define a tolada.  One opinion asserts that any form of work not associated with the building of the mishkan but similar to such work, i.e. to an av, either in form or purpose, is called a tolada, a corollary (Tosafot Shabbat 96b s.v. U-leRabi Eliezer and gemara Shabbat 73b with Rishonim).  Thus, an av melakha does not prohibit merely a particular act, but rather serves as an illustration of prohibited activities (Rambam, Commentary on Mishna, Shabbat 7:2).  See Vayikra 4:2, Bava Kama 2a, Tosafot ibid. s.v. Hakhi garsinan, Shabbat 70b, Rashi ibid. s.v. Mei-heina, and Rambam Shabbat 7:9.


            For further research: Some Rishonim introduce a third category of melakha, called mei-ein melakha achat (a melakha equivalent to an av), aside from avot and toladot.  A melakha is categorized this way when both its action and purpose resemble an av, or when both the object upon which it acts and its purpose resemble those of an av.  According to this view, such a melakha can have toladot as well.  It is not counted as an av because its form was not present in the mishkan.  See Rambam Shabbat 7:9, Rashi Shabbat 73b s.v. Kulan, and Kalkelet Shabbat of Tiferet Yisrael.  Compare with Mishna Shabbat 7:1.


            The only practical implication in the existence of distinct categories of avot and toladot is with regard to the obligation to sacrifice a korban chatat (a sin offering).  That is, if one violates two different avot melakhot be-shogeg (unknowingly - see next section), then he is obligated to bring two sin offerings.  However, if one violates one av and a tolada of that av be-shogeg, then he is obligated to bring only one sin offering.  See Bava Kama 2a and Rambam Shabbat 7:7.  Since we cannot bring sacrifices today, there is no practical difference nowadays between avot and their toladot.


IV.  Punishment for Violation of Avot and Toldot


            Purposeful violation on Shabbat of one of the 39 melakhot or their corollaries, when there has been an accompanying warning and witnesses present, is punishable by the penalty of death through stoning (sekila), as the Torah says: (Shemot 31:14) "He that profanes it (i.e. the Shabbat) shall surely die."  This refers to death by stoning, since the Torah records (Bamidbar 15:32-36) that the gatherer of wood on Shabbat received the penalty of death by stoning for violating the prohibition of hotza'a (carrying in a public domain) on Shabbat.  See Rambam Shabbat 1:2.


            Purposeful violation of a melakha, where there has been no warning or no witnesses present, incurs the penalty of karet (spiritual excision or premature death), as the Torah states: (Shemot 31:14) "For whoever shall do work (on Shabbat), his soul shall be cut off."  If melakha was done be-shogeg (unknowingly) i.e. one did not know that the particular act was forbidden on Shabbat, or one did not know that the day was Shabbat, in the times of the beit ha-mikdash (Temple) there was an obligation to bring a sin offering (korban chatat).  This is based upon an established principle that all acts which incur a penalty of karet when done purposefully require a sin offering when committed be-shogeg (Shabbat 69a).  See Rambam Shabbat 1:2.


            Sometimes a person can be obligated to bring two sin-offerings for one act.  This occurs when one action violates two melakhot on Shabbat.  For instance, zomer ve-tzarikh le-eitzim, i.e. if one prunes a tree to both encourage its growth and use the branches for firewood, he has violated both the melakhot of sowing and reaping.  If this was done be-shogeg, he must bring two sin offerings.  See Rambam Shabbat 8:4.


            [For those studying the laws of Shabbat from the primary texts, be advised that there are three types of terms employed in the sources with regard to liability or permissibility of activities on Shabbat.  "Chayav" refers to an act prohibited according to the Torah.  "Patur" refers to an act exempt according to Torah law, but liable according to rabbinic law.  "Mutar," "patur mi-klum" and "eino chayav klum" refer to acts which are completely permissible.  See Rambam Shabbat 1:3,4.]


V.  Minimum Amount Required for Violation


            Every melakha has a minimum amount required to incur the above penalties of stoning, karet, or bringing a sin offering.  If one does less than this amount there is no penalty, but a violation has nonetheless been committed.  The nature of this violation is either a Torah one called "chatzi shiur asra Torah" (the Torah forbids even less than the required amount), or a rabbinic one springing from a concern that in doing only part of the amount, one may ultimately achieve the full amount and profane the Shabbat.


            For further research into "chatzi shiur asra Torah:" See Yoma 74a, Shabbat 93b, Rambam Shabbat 18:23, Rashi Shabbat 74a s.v. Ve-khi mutar, OC 340:1, Sha'agat Aryeh no. 81, Tiferet Yisrael on Mishnayot Shabbat chap. 1, note 4 in the Boaz, Magen Avraham OC 340:2, and Biur Halakha ibid. s.v. Al shnei sa'arot.


VI.  Definition of Melakha


            In order for an action on Shabbat to be defined as melakha, it must be identified as "melekhet machshevet" (thoughtful or purposeful work), in other words "melekhet uman" (craftsmanship).  See Beitza 13b and Rashi ibid., s.v. Ele mai.  This is because the type of work prohibited on Shabbat is derived from the categories of work in building the mishkan, and the labor in constructing the mishkan is characterized as melekhet machshevet (Shemot 35:33).  In other words, not only does the work involved in building the mishkan tell us which melakhot are forbidden on Shabbat, but also they serve as a model for how the melakhot must be done on Shabbat to be considered a Torah violation.


            Thus, one does not violate a Torah prohibition if one's actions on Shabbat do not meet the standards of melekhet machshevet.  Nonetheless, in many instances, there is still a rabbinic violation (see next shiur).  In order that one's actions be defined as melekhet machshevet, the following conditions must be fulfilled; a more detailed explanation will follow in the next shiur:


1.  The purpose of the action must be to achieve the melakha's goal - a melakha she-eina tzrikha le-gufa fails this condition;

2.  The action must be performed in a manner where one is aware of the deed being accomplished - mit'asek fails this condition;

3.  One must have intended for the result he caused to occur - davar she-eino mitkaven fails this condition;

4.  It must be done in the normal manner - shinui fails this condition;

5.  It must be done for a constructive purpose - derekh kilkul, a destructive action, fails this condition;

6.  It must be permanent in nature - davar she-eino mitkayem fails this condition;

7.  It must be done completely, i.e. a complete melakha - shnayim she-asua, two people dividing up a melakha fails this condition;

8.  It must be done in a direct manner - grama, indirect action, fails this condition.


            If any one of these eight conditions are not fulfilled, then no Torah violation has occurred; in many cases, though, a rabbinic violation has occurred.  The next shiur will discuss these principles in greater detail and present instances in which one has failed to meet the requirements of melekhet macheshevet.