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Mishkan and Shabbat

  • Rav Ezra Bick







By Rav Ezra Bick



As is immediately obvious, Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei is about the construction of the mishkan.  God's instructions and commands to Moshe concerning the mishkan are the entire content of parshiot Teruma and Tetzave; the fulfillment of those commands by Moshe and the Jewish people is detailed in this week's (double) parasha.


There is one rather striking exception to this description.  The parasha begins with a short section containing the commandment to observe the Shabbat.  This singular exception is so obviously out of place that the impulse to connect the observance of Shabbat to the construction of the mishkan is unavoidable, and hence nearly all commentators cite the principle that the intention of the section on Shabbat is to forbid the construction of the mishkan on Shabbat.  In other words, the passage should be read as "observe Shabbat and do not let the building of the mishkan override the observance of Shabbat."


Rashi comments, "(The Torah) presented the prohibition of Shabbat before the commandment of the construction of the mishkan to teach us that (the mishkan) does not override Shabbat."


The Ramban strengthens this connection between the construction of the mishkan and the prohibition of working on Shabbat by pointing out that the relationship between Shabbat and mishkan in the verses is more than proximity.  The introduction to the prohibition of Shabbat reads, "These are the things (plural) which God has commanded to be done." This is followed by the commandment of Shabbat, and then a new opening.  "Moshe spoke to the entire community of Israel saying; This is the thing (singular) which God has commanded, saying." This is followed by the detailed commandment to build the mishkan.  The Torah has demonstrated its ability to distinguish between things and thing – so why is the short and concise commandment of Shabbat introduced with the plural "things"? The Ramban answers that the introductory verse is not referring to Shabbat at all but to the multifaceted building of the mishkan, with its many vessels and constructions.  The verse is an introduction to the entire parasha, and specifically not to the section on Shabbat.  Why then does it precede Shabbat? The Ramban answers by reading the first two verses of the parasha as being in opposition: These are the things – all the work needed to construct the mishkan – which you are commanded to do, but "six days shall the work be done, and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you, a day of cessation for God." The prohibition in the verse is explicitly referring not to work in general but to "these things," the work of the mishkan, and is restricting it to the six days of the work week. 


Actually, the connection between Shabbat and mikdash had already been made in the original instruction section beginning in parashat Teruma, and, like all the elements of the mishkan construction, is being repeated in Vayakhek-Pekudei.  However, that original Shabbat injunction was not actually found in Teruma or Tetzave, but in parashat Ki Tisa.  This highlights one striking difference between that appearance and the one in our parasha.  The first part of Ki Tisa is, in fact, a direct continuation of the mishkan construction instructions of the previous two parshiot.  Although towards the end of Tetzave, there appears a closing verse indicating that the mishkan is complete (29, 45-46), there are a number of "additional" instructions, firstly, the altar of incense at the end of Tetzave, and then shekalim, the kiyor, the anointing oil, the composition of the incense, and the appointment of Betzalel, at the beginning of Ki Tisa.  Immediately afterwards (31, 12-17), there appears a parasha of Shabbat, and this concludes the entire section of the construction of the mishkan.  So, while God included the Shabbat commandment at the end of the mishkan instructions, Moshe placed it at the very first position in our parasha. 


There are also differences of content between the two parshiot.  The first, in Ki Tisa, includes a number of themes absent in Vayakhel.  In Ki Tisa, God says that Shabbat should be observed "because it is a sign (ot) between Me and you for all your generations." Later, the verses add that Shabbat is "an eternal covenant (brit olam)" as well as an "eternal sign," referring back to the creation of the world in six days.  These themes are not mentioned at all in our parasha. 


However, I would like to concentrate on a distinctive common denominator in both parshiot, albeit one which, as we shall see, is emphasized more clearly in Vayakhel.


Firstly, these parshiot state for the first time that one who desecrates the Shabbat is punished with death and with karet.  This is not mentioned in the previous commandments about Shabbat, neither in the asseret hadibbrot, nor at the next explicit commandment of Shabbat, at the end of parashat Mishpatim (23,12).  In Ki Tisa, God states:


You shall observe the Shabbat, for it is holy unto you; those who desecrate it shall surely be put to death, for anyone who does work on it shall be cut off from his people.

Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day (shall be) a cessation (Shabbat Shabbaton), holy unto God; anyone who does work on the Shabbat day shall surely be put to death.  (31, 14-15)


At the beginning of Vayakhel, Moshe says to the assembled people:


Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day shall be for you holy, a cessation, unto God; anyone who does work on it shall be put to death.  (35,2)


But what is even more striking is that these two parshiot, which mandate the death penalty for one who does forbidden work on Shabbat, do not explicitly state that it is forbidden to do work.  Obviously, if one receives the death penalty for working, it is apparently a crime; and equally, if you are to do your work for six days, and the seventh day is a Shabbat, a cessation, then apparently you are not to do any work on the seventh day – but the simple and halakhically required statement that "you shall not do any work on Shabbat" is not explicitly present.  It is, of course, clearly stated elsewhere, for instance in the asseret hadibbrot in parashat Yitro.


The seventh day is Shabbat for HaShem your God; you shall not do work, neither you, nor your son and daughter, your servant and maid and your animal, nor the stranger who is in your gates.  (20,9).


How do the verses in our two parshiot indicate that one is forbidden to work on Shabbat? They do not address the work of the person; they address the nature of the day.  Where the verse in Yitro commands the individual to not do work, our parshiot define the day of Shabbat as being "Shabbat Shabbaton," which literally means a day of cessation, and, in context (six days shall work be done), clearly means a cessation from work.  This focus on the nature of day rather than on the permitted and prohibited activities of the individual is already set in place in the beginning of the verse (both in Ki Tisa and Vayakhel): "Six days shall work be done (yei'aseh)," rather than "six days shall you work (taaseh)"(Yitro – 20,8).


But even more striking is the introduction of a new designation for Shabbat, at least new in relation to the cessation from work.  Both verses in our parshiot state that Shabbat is a day of cessation, and also that it is holy.  In context, they are hinting that six days are appropriate for work, but Shabbat is different because it is holy.  "Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day, a cessation, holy unto God." It does not say that you should not do work; it simply says that the day is holy, and that makes it clear that work shall not be done.


Now the idea that Shabbat is holy is not found for the first time in this verse.  It is stated explicitly already in Bereishit, at the first Shabbat.  God blessed and sanctified the Shabbat.  In the asseret hadibbrot as well, the Torah repeats that God blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it (20,10).  The new idea here is that one is forbidden to work on Shabbat because it is holy, or, in a more accurate formulation, it is the fact of its holiness that causes the cessation that grants Shabbat its name. 


Now, you will point out, there is another mention of the holiness of Shabbat before our parasha.  In the beginning of the commandment of Shabbat in the asseret hadibbrot, we read "Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it," followed by the prohibition of work.  But that is precisely my point.  In the asseret hadibbrot, we sanctify Shabbat by not working.  In other words, not working is the cause of sanctity.  In the parshiot of the mishkan, the relation is reversed.  The sanctity of Shabbat is the cause of the prohibition of work. 


In fact, this is subtly emphasized even more in Vayakhel than in Ki Tisa.  When God spoke to Moshe, he said, "Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day a cessation, holy unto God." The phrase I translate as "cessation" – Shabbat Shabbaton – is a noun defining the day of Shabbat, but it also directly refers to the fact that one ceases to work on Shabbat.  This is followed by the statement that the day is "holy unto God." When Moshe transmits this command to the people, he reverses the order of the designations of the seventh day.  "Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day shall be for you holy, a cessation, unto God." The implication here is that six days you can work, but on the seventh day, you meet up with a day of holiness – and hence it is a day of cessation.  In other words, work on Shabbat is not merely a prohibition imposed by God, it is a contradiction to the nature of the day.


This is exactly what the word used in Ki Tisa to describe transgression of the Shabbat laws – desecration (chillul) means.  One who works on Shabbat is not only transgressing, he is desecrating the holy.  His sin is an affront to the holiness of Shabbat.  We are so used to speaking of one who "keeps" (shomer) Shabbat and one who desecrates (mekhalel) Shabbat that we are perhaps not sensitive to the singular use.  One who eats chametz on Pesach is not mekhalel pesach; he is not desecrating the day, but "only" disobeying God.  But working on Shabbat is desecrating the holiness of Shabbat, for the holiness of Shabbat is what causes the necessary cessation of work on the holy day. 


Combining these two points – the death penalty and the holiness of Shabbat as a cause of the prohibition – it is logical to reach the conclusion that the severity of Shabbat transgression as expressed in the death penalty is a result of the desecration involved.  So long as Shabbat was presented as a memorial to God's creation of the world, failure to observe its laws did not result in death and karet.  Now that Shabbat is itself a holy day, and working on Shabbat is desecration of the sacred, the penalty is death.


There may be a subtle reference to the special nature of a punishment engendered by desecration rather than by individual transgression.  The Meshekh Chokhma on Vayakhel points out that usually the death penalty is written "mot yumat," which is, in fact, the way it appears in Ki Tisa.  In Vayakhel, the unusual form "yumat" appears.  He claims that "mot yumat" refers to juridical punishment, while "yumat" means death at the hand of God.  The parasha in Ki Tisa is defining chillul Shabbat for the future (as evidenced by the phrase li-doroteikhem (for your generations, meaning for all generations).  However, in Vayakhel, the verse is specifically referring to not constructing the mishkan on Shabbat.  Until the mishkan is completed, claims the Meshekh Chokhma, the legal system does not operate, and hence yumat at the hands of God rather than mot yumat in court.  I would suggest, based on the analysis above, that the verse in Vayakhel is not reacting to a personal act of disobedience, but to one of desecration.  Desecrating the sacred results in death almost as a natural consequence, the way children expect to be struck by lightning after an act of blasphemy.  It is not that one is subject to the death penalty, but that one dies on the spot, cut off from the basis of life. 


The Netziv, analyzing the subtle differences between Vayakhel and Ki Tisa, claims that Vayakhel contains certain implications which are not, in fact, halakhically true.  This unusual approach is not our concern now, but his actual examples fit in very well with our interpretation.  First he claims that use of the word ta'ase (ta'ase melakha) in Vayakhel rather than the word ya'ase in Ki-Tisa could imply that it is forbidden that work be done on Shabbat even if the human action was arranged before Shabbat (in other words, you couldn’t use a Shabbat clock).  The Netziv writes the reason is that "even though it is permitted according to Torah law, it is not appropriate to the honor of the mishkan that the sanctity of Shabbat be desecrated because of it." In other words, even if no one is doing anything wrong (since the human intervention was finished before Shabbat), there is still an element of desecration of the holiness of Shabbat if the machine continues to work.  This apparently is true, even if it does not result in a halakhic prohibition.  There is reason to protect the sanctity of Shabbat aside from the prohibition of doing work yourself. 


A second example of the Netziv is based on the phrase yehiye lakhem kodesh – it shall be holy to you.  The Netziv understands this to imply that we should add kedusha to Shabbat, and his example is taken from the practice of some people to avoid any sin, such as dishonesty, on Shabbat more than on a weekday.  Here too, we see a reaction to the sanctity of Shabbat rather than a prohibited action.


What is the connection between this concept of Shabbat and the mishkan? The answer is obvious.  In the context of the mishkan, the holy place, Shabbat assumes the character of the holy time.  Just as the mishkan is the repository of God's real presence in the world, in terms of location, so too Shabbat is the embodiment of God's presence in the world, in terms of time.  There is sanctity of place – mikdash – and there is sanctity of time – Shabbat.  Both are real, and therefore create, aside from ceremonial required performance, a demand for respect and withdrawal.  The specific exclusion from holiness of place is related to tum'a, and the exclusion from holiness of time is work.  Hence, in the parasha which defines the existence of the sanctity of place, the Torah also, for the first time, defines the sanctity of time. 


Therefore, since Shabbat and mikdash are two different aspects of the same manifestation, we have the complex and seemingly contradictory situation whereby in the mishkan and mikdash the sacrificial service continues even on Shabbat, whereas in constructing the mishkan, Shabbat calls a halt in the work.  Shabbat is holy from all time, and hence cannot be subjugated to create a new sanctity in place.  However, once the mishkan is finished, the service of God there combines the two forms of sanctity, for both are truly one, both the presence of God.  They are not in competition but are two sides of God's presence in the world.  Hence, the Torah needed to explicitly warn us not to use Shabbat to construct the mishkan, even though once it is operational Shabbat will be part of its daily routine.