Parashat Vayakhel: Halakhah

Halakhah הֲלָכָה

While most of our Torah reading this week focuses on the mishkan, the beginning reminds us about the expectation to observe Shabbat. We don’t get very many details, just a warning not to do any מְלָאכָה (melakhah) (Shemot 35:2).
What is melakhah?
We often translate it as “work,” but that doesn’t fully capture it. In the Torah, the word melakhah is almost always used to talk about what is not allowed on Shabbat and holidays, or what had to happen in the mishkan.
The Talmud notices this and teaches that all the kinds of melakhah the Torah forbids on Shabbat are the same kinds of melakhah used to build the mishkan (Yerushalmi Shabbat 47a).
In our parashah, the kind of actions needed to make and maintain the mishkan are called מְלֶאכֶת מַחֲשֶׁבֶת (melekhet mahashevet, skilled crafts). Based on this, the general rule is that something is only considered melakhah on Shabbat—at least on a biblical level—if it is done in a skilled way, or a way that will last.
The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 317:1) explains how this idea plays out with tying knots:
  1. If you tie a knot that will last a long, long time and that requires some skill, that is considered melakhah. (Think about knots you might tie on a sailboat, or a scout knot that you use to set up a clothesline for the summer.)
  2. If you tie a knot that either lasts for a long time or requires some skill (but not both), then that knot is not a form of melakhah, but you still shouldn’t tie it on Shabbat. (Think about quickly tying a rope to a bucket or a scout knot on a tent that you will undo the next morning.)
  3. It is permitted to tie a knot that is meant to be temporary and is something simple that anyone can do. (Think about tying your shoes!)
Building the mishkan took a lot of creative work, and it’s good for us to create things in the world… six days a week. On Shabbat, we take a break to remember that God is the real Creator of the whole world. So that’s when we stop doing melekhet mahashevet and just enjoy the world that God created.