PARSHAT VAYAKHEL

WHAT IS MELAKHAH?

“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.”  (Exodus 35:2)

            This week the people begin to build the portable tabernacle they will carry through the wilderness, a symbol of God’s presence.  Moses gathers the people and commands them to do the building.  But they must observe the Sabbath and do no matter of melakhah on the holy day.

            What is melakhah?  Usually it is translated “work” but that is not quite accurate.  I work every Sabbath morning, conducting services, teaching, and giving a sermon.  But I am not doing melakhah.   I am not doing anything forbidden on the Sabbath.  But if I step outside and pick a flower to bring home to my wife, that is melakhah.  Picking a flower (what the Rabbis call reaping) is one of the 39 categories of activity forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath.

            The word melakhah has a triple meaning in the Torah.  First, it refers to the work performed by God when creating the universe.  The Torah teaches that God finished all the work in creating the earth, God saw it, and God blessed the creation.  At the beginning of Genesis, melakkhah refers to God’s creative activity.

            Second, the word refers to the creative work the people of Israel did in building the tabernacle.  The Torah compares God’s creative activity in making a universe with Israel’s creative activity making the tabernacle.  It is almost as if the tabernacle symbolizes the universe itself.  The Rabbis found 39 activities including planting, harvesting, grinding grain, cooking, sewing, writing, building a fire, building a shelter, and carrying in a public place.  The Rabbis admitted that the laws of the Sabbath were like “a mountain hanging by a hair” (Hagigah 1:8).  They all involve making changes in nature.  Whatever creative activity that went into building the tabernacle is precisely what is forbidden on the Sabbath.

            The third meaning of melakhah is creative activity forbidden on the Sabbath.   Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has a wonderful insight based on this idea.  He said that the Sabbath is a tabernacle in time.   The Israelites built a tabernacle in space to carry through the wilderness.  Today Jews build a tabernacle in time by avoiding precisely those activities which the Israelites performed in the ancient desert.  In the desert we had holy space.  Today we have holy time.

            Of course, Einstein taught that space and time are two aspects of the same reality.  In relativity we speak not of space or time, but space-time.  And the Sabbath is a way to make that space-time into a holy palace.  The Sabbath, when observed traditionally, becomes a day set apart from the routine.  Outsiders often do not understand the rigors of traditional Jewish observance.  But those who observe find deep spiritual meaning in separating from the weekday and creating such holy time.

            The laws of the Sabbath are extremely difficult; some would call them picayune.  For example, one of the laws forbids separating the bad from the good in our food.  Technically one should not pick out watermelon seeds while eating a piece of watermelon on the Sabbath.  As a result, Jews developed the tradition of not serving fish where one must pick out the bones.  So began the tradition of gefilte fish.  (How can I describe gefilte fish?  You have to taste it, particularly with horseradish, to understand.)

            Of course, most Jews do not observe the Sabbath with this degree of strictness.  I recommend to people, find something to separate the day, something you do during the week but not on the Sabbath to make the day special.  We can be creative not only by what we do but what we avoid doing.