Parashat Vayak'hel: The Sabbath Prohibitions

It is well-established in Judaism that there are 39 categories of activity which are not permissible on Shabbat. These categories have been identified as deriving from the activities incumbent upon the building of the Tabernacle structure, as Hashem commanded Israel to cease any such activity on His Holy Day. Sabbathkeeping trumps Tabernacle-building.

(ב) שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַיהֹוָ֑ה כׇּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת׃

(2) 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.

(א) ששת ימים. הִקְדִּים לָהֶם אַזְהָרַת שַׁבָּת לְצִוּוּי מְלֶאכֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, לוֹמַר שֶׁאֵינוֹ דוֹחֶה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת (מכילתא):
(1) ששת ימים SIX DAYS [MAY WORK BE DONE] — He intentionally mentioned to them the prohibition in reference to the Sabbath before the command about the building of the Tabernacle in order to intimate that it does not set aside (supersede) the Sabbath (cf. Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 35:1:1).

הֲדוּר יָתְבִי וְקָמִיבַּעְיָא לְהוּ: הָא דִּתְנַן אֲבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אַחַת, כְּנֶגֶד מִי? אָמַר לְהוּ רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר חָמָא: כְּנֶגֶד עֲבוֹדוֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.

The Gemara relates that those same Sages who sat and discussed the issue of hides, sat again and they raised a dilemma: That which we learned in the mishna: The primary categories of labor, which are prohibited by Torah law on Shabbat, are forty-less-one; to what does this number correspond? That is to say, what is the source of this number? Rabbi Ḥanina bar Ḥama said to them: They correspond to the labors in the Tabernacle. All types of labor that were performed in the Tabernacle are enumerated as primary categories of labor with respect to Shabbat. However, other labors, even if they are significant, are not enumerated among the primary categories of labor since they were not performed in the Tabernacle.

(ב) אֲבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אֶחָת. הַזּוֹרֵעַ. וְהַחוֹרֵשׁ. וְהַקּוֹצֵר. וְהַמְעַמֵּר. הַדָּשׁ. וְהַזּוֹרֶה. הַבּוֹרֵר. הַטּוֹחֵן. וְהַמְרַקֵּד. וְהַלָּשׁ. וְהָאוֹפֶה. הַגּוֹזֵז אֶת הַצֶּמֶר. הַמְלַבְּנוֹ. וְהַמְנַפְּצוֹ. וְהַצּוֹבְעוֹ. וְהַטּוֹוֶה. וְהַמֵּסֵךְ. וְהָעוֹשֶׂה שְׁנֵי בָתֵּי נִירִין. וְהָאוֹרֵג שְׁנֵי חוּטִין. וְהַפּוֹצֵעַ שְׁנֵי חוּטִין. הַקּוֹשֵׁר. וְהַמַּתִּיר. וְהַתּוֹפֵר שְׁתֵּי תְפִירוֹת. הַקּוֹרֵעַ עַל מְנָת לִתְפֹּר שְׁתֵּי תְפִירוֹת. הַצָּד צְבִי. הַשּׁוֹחֲטוֹ. וְהַמַּפְשִׁיטוֹ. הַמּוֹלְחוֹ, וְהַמְעַבֵּד אֶת עוֹרוֹ. וְהַמּוֹחֲקוֹ. וְהַמְחַתְּכוֹ. הַכּוֹתֵב שְׁתֵּי אוֹתִיּוֹת. וְהַמּוֹחֵק עַל מְנָת לִכְתֹּב שְׁתֵּי אוֹתִיּוֹת. הַבּוֹנֶה. וְהַסּוֹתֵר. הַמְכַבֶּה. וְהַמַּבְעִיר. הַמַּכֶּה בַפַּטִּישׁ. הַמּוֹצִיא מֵרְשׁוּת לִרְשׁוּת. הֲרֵי אֵלּוּ אֲבוֹת מְלָאכוֹת אַרְבָּעִים חָסֵר אֶחָת:

(2) This fundamental mishna enumerates those who perform the primary categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat, which number forty-less-one. They are grouped in accordance with their function: One who sows, and one who plows, and one who reaps, and one who gathers sheaves into a pile, and one who threshes, removing the kernel from the husk, and one who winnows threshed grain in the wind, and one who selects the inedible waste from the edible, and one who grinds, and one who sifts the flour in a sieve, and one who kneads dough, and one who bakes. Additional primary categories of prohibited labor are the following: One who shears wool, and one who whitens it, and one who combs the fleece and straightens it, and one who dyes it, and one who spins the wool, and one who stretches the threads of the warp in the loom, and one who constructs two meshes, tying the threads of the warp to the base of the loom, and one who weaves two threads, and one who severs two threads for constructive purposes, and one who ties a knot, and one who unties a knot, and one who sews two stitches with a needle, as well as one who tears a fabric in order to sew two stitches. One who traps a deer, or any living creature, and one who slaughters it, and one who flays it, and one who salts its hide, a step in the tanning process, and one who tans its hide, and one who smooths it, removing hairs and veins, and one who cuts it into measured parts. One who writes two letters and one who erases in order to write two letters. One who builds a structure, and one who dismantles it, one who extinguishes a fire, and one who kindles a fire. One who strikes a blow with a hammer to complete the production process of a vessel (Rabbeinu Ḥananel), and one who carries out an object from domain to domain. All these are primary categories of labor, and they number forty-less-one.

As discussed in my d'var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim, this "death" may include a spiritual karet ​​​​​​​(cutting off) as well as a physical one. The build-up to the "abstain or die" prohibition is a reminder that Hashem Himself rested from His labor on Shabbat and was refreshed.

(יג) וְאַתָּ֞ה דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ כִּי֩ א֨וֹת הִ֜וא בֵּינִ֤י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם לָדַ֕עַת כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ (יד) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת כִּ֛י קֹ֥דֶשׁ הִ֖וא לָכֶ֑ם מְחַֽלְלֶ֙יהָ֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת כִּ֗י כׇּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה בָהּ֙ מְלָאכָ֔ה וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמֶּֽיהָ׃ (טו) שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֧ת שַׁבָּת֛וֹן קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַיהֹוָ֑ה כׇּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֧ה מְלָאכָ֛ה בְּי֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃ (טז) וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם׃ (יז) בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃ {ס}

(13) Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you. (14) You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. (15) Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (16) The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: (17) it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.

The final two verses of the passage above comprise the Veshamru, which is commonly recited in prayer. The video below presents a Sephardic rendition.

Later d'rabbanan halakha is more restrictive with regard to Shabbat prohibitions than the halakhic code we find in the Talmud. In Shevut Teimani, for example, dancing is among the prohibited activities on the Holy Day (see below).

Sirâj al-Uqûl 85b (1397)1

The motions that are permitted on the Sabbath are bowing, and the motions that attend food, drink, and common acts and bedding. The motions forbidden are: riding an animal, climbing a tree, writing, running, dancing, and striking. The reason for these is shevut. But removing [an object] from one territory to another entails seqilah [stoning] or karet [cutting off], if the person had not been properly warned of the matter.

The Torah has allotted to us on the Sabbath 2000 cubits in each direction; this is by enactment of the Scribes. It is on condition that it is for something that is related to one of the [positive] commandments - for example, going to meet one's [Torah] teacher or a scholar, for a bridal party, to comfort the bereaved, a circumcision, to visit the sick, or anything connected with charitable deeds.

All things that are eaten are permitted on the Sabbath except for those that are still connected to the ground; or that which was brought from one territory to another, or from beyond the limit, for the sake of a Jew. Appropriate speech, praises, lectures, and accounting that has something to do with the [positive] commandments are [all] permitted; other speech is forbidden. All clothing is permitted except that which is made of metals. It is not permitted to look into medical books or books on astronomy, nor to look at that which is sold in the marketplaces in order to buy it after the Sabbath. A Jew is also not allowed to make a point of sitting in the marketplaces on the Sabbath day. All of this is forbidden.

One should discuss nothing other than matters of Torah. Do you not see that they, may their memory be blessed, have forbidden the lighting of candles made from beeswax and the like on Shabbat because they come from honey, and they are also appropriate for trading? Thus one may think about trading, and so they forbade it.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's work on Shabbat is unmatched in its eloquence and brilliance. Here is a brief excerpt.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1979), p. 28

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily tuned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath?


  1. Written by Montṣûr bin Sulaymân al-Dhamârî, aka Choṭer ben Shlomo, ca. 1397. Translation by Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann in Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper Collins, 1996), 96 (5.13).