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The 39 Melachos

The 39 Melachos

August 25, 2011 Back
The 39 Melachos

Melacha Vs. Avodah

Shabbat is a day of rest and connection with G-d. We obtain this connection and peace of mind  by keeping G-d’s words:  “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy…” (Exodus 20:8) and “guard the Sabbath to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). The first instruction, that of “remembering the Sabbath,” refers to positive commandments that were mandated on this special day, such as lighting Shabbos candles, performing the Kiddush ceremony, etc. The second one, to “guard the Shabbos” refers to negative commandments, activities and works from which are must refrain.

The written Torah is pithy; every single word that is written in it has many meanings, which, if relying only on the written Torah, remain inscrutable.  When Moses received the written Torah on Mount Saini, however, he also received the oral Torah. The latter expounds and elucidates the information in the written Torah. It is because of the oral Torah that our sages have been able to differentiate between the two types of “work” mentioned in the written Torah: avodah and melacha. Avodah refers to general work, while melacha refers to all the creative activities that were performed in order to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Jews built while traveling in the desert en route to the Promised Land.

In Exodus 20:9, it says that “…the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your G-d. On it you shall not do any manner of melacha (labor), you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your  man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger whom is within your gates.” The oral law teaches us about the thirty-nine types of avos melacha, the main types of labor, that are forbidden on Shabbat. Each of the thirty-nine labors includes tolados, “sub-labors,”and it is only due to this invaluable knowledge that the oral Torah imparts that we understand that performing a melacha on shabbos does not depend on how much physical strength is exerted. For this reason, we are forgibben from performing a simple labor as lighting a match, while carrying a heavy weight while we’re at home is not prohibited.

The Thirty-Nine Labors

It is accepted upon many to divide the thirty-nine labors into four categories that pertain to the building of the Mishkan, or tabernacle:

Making the paint for the curtains and coverings:

Binding Sheaves

Making the curtains and coverings:

Searing wool
Cleaning wool
Beating wool
Making loops
Weaving threads
Separating the threads

Making leather coverings:

Salting Meat

Making the Mishkan itself:

Breaking down
Kindling a fire
Extinguishing a fire
Striking final hammer blow
Carrying between two domains
Tolados Melacha, Derivative Labors

The major labors that were performed in order to build the Tabernacle are the avos melacha; these are the foundation upon which the tolados, derived labors, are based. There is no different between the severity levels of the two. There are almost innumerable derivative labors. For example, in order to prepare the paint for the curtains and the coverings of the Mishkan, the Jews would plant sememanim.  In addition to planting, it is forbidden to perform any action that promotes the growth of vegetation, such as watering plants, fertilizing, etc.


Muktzeh is a term instituted by our sages, according to which certain objects cannot be moved.  There are at least four types of objects:

objects whose use is forbidden on Shabbos, for example, a lighter or a match.
objects that normally people would be very careful with it due to its high value, such as painting, a camera or expensive tools, or personal important documents, such as a passport, etc.
objects that have no designated use on Shabbos, such as stones, flowers, objects that are broken and cannot be used such as broken plates, etc.
something that is the basis of a muktzeh object. For example, a candlestick.

The reason the concept of Muktzeh has been instituted, is that Shabbos is meant to be a day different from the rest of the week, and the Sages feared that moving and carrying certain objects could lead to actions that would interfere with the atmosphere of Shabbat and cause us to perform melachot on shabbos, thus interrupting the holy ambiance of the day.

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