Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Parashat Vayakhel-P’kudei - What's Work Got to Do With It?

Sheishet yamim tei’a’she melacha uvayom hash’vi’i yiyeh lachem kodesh Shabbat shabbaton lAdonai…
Six days you shall melacha, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord… (Shemot 35:2)
When discussing Shabbat people often say to me, “But I don’t understand why I can’t do that.  I find it relaxing.” We have fallen into the trap of trying to understand halakhah in English terms. “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord.” It’s the word “work” that gets us in trouble.  There is a common Italian phrase “Traduttore traditore.” It means the translator is a traitor. In every translation there is a commentary, an interpretation of the text that cannot fully encompass the original meaning of the words. While it’s true that the word melacha means work, all work is not created equal.  Melacha refers to a very specific category of work. In English we have the word “work,” but in Hebrew we have melacha, avodah, peulah, esek, la’amol, and even asakah. Each of these refers to a type of activity. While it is true that in English we speak of work and of rest when referring to Shabbat, in Hebrew we say “tei’a’she melacha” to do melacha, and only melacha.
According to the Sages, there are 39 categories of melacha.  Each of these categories refers to an act related to the construction of the Mishkan. Once we have moved beyond these categories, any action is permitted on Shabbat.  The common example I give is you may carry a couch up and down you stairs, but you may not carry a feather outside your home without an eruv. We are a people of rule and of law. However, it is said that for everything God forbade, there is something permitted. Each Shabbat there are 39 categories of work, and all their sub-sections, which we cannot do, but there are so many other activities we can do. By forbidding the creative actions involved in the building of the Mishkan, God has taught us that despite the importance of the work we do daily, there are activities and values beyond it that must come first. Even when we were building the Mishkan, the dwelling place for God’s presence on earth, when Shabbat came, all melacha ceased in order to allow us to maintain our being in the image of God, resting and renewing on Shabbat, a Shabbat for us and for God. It maintains and keeps us.  As Ahad Ha'am said, “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

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