The Torah reading of Vayakel concerns the building of the Tabernacle, which is a portable tent like structure that is seen as the dwelling place of the presence of God, and is the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel (and continues to be a center of ritual and sacrificial worship after the Israelites enter the land of Israel until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon). However, the very beginning of the Torah reading Vayakel is a commandment to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 35, 2-3). It is clear that the reason for this command to observe the Sabbath prior to the building of the Tabernacle is that the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle in holiness and importance. In what sense, though, is the Sabbath greater in holiness than the Tabernacle?
The very first time that the term holy appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is in connection with the Sabbath in the opening Biblical account of the creation of the universe (Genesis 2, 3) – “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it (literally made it holy)”. In addition, the Sabbath is the only commandment of the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments) of a ritual nature. But, the holiness of the Sabbath is very different in nature than that of the Tabernacle. The holiness of the Tabernacle as a physical structure is of place or space, and thus of a physical and material nature. Furthermore, the Tabernacle was the center of ritual worship in the ancient Israelite culture, and the main form of ritual practice was sacrificial offerings – especially animal sacrifices. Such ritual practice as sacrificial offerings is of a very physical and material nature. The holiness of the Sabbath, by contrast, is of time and is of a spiritual nature – every seventh day is a holy day in the Biblical conception and in the Jewish tradition.
The term Sabbath (שבת) literally means to stop or cease, and the essence of the Sabbath from a legal point of view is the prohibition of creative work (מלאכה) in imitation of God ceasing on the 7th day from the creative work of creating the universe in the opening Biblical account of creation. The prohibition of creative work does not appear in the opening Biblical account of creation, but the concept of creative work does appear in the story (Genesis 2, 2) – “And on the seventh day God finished His work (מלאכתו) which He had made, and He ceased (וישבת) on the seventh day from all His work (מלאכתו) which He had made”.
Not all work is prohibited on the Sabbath according to Jewish law – only creative work based upon the concept of creative work in the opening Biblical account of creation. For example, if one moves a heavy piece of furniture on the Sabbath, even though this is clearly a form of work and exertion, this does not constitute creative work that is prohibited on the Sabbath. However, if one lights a match, which really involves no work or exertion, this is a form of creative work prohibited on the Sabbath. The meaning of the concept of creative work, in the plain meaning of Scripture, is learned from two passages – the opening Biblical account of the creation of the universe and the story of the building of the Tabernacle.
The central message of the opening account of creation is, in my view, the idea of the repair of the world (תיקון עולם), which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term repair of the world does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but there are very deep roots of the idea in the opening account of creation. After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the creative power to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread. After God creates the entire universe according to the Biblical account, the Bible says (Genesis 2, 3) “because on it (the 7th day) He ceased from all His work which God created to do” – God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair in which there is what to do for the human being (the human being is to repair and improve the world). So, it is clear that in the plain meaning of Scripture, creative work is unique to the human being created in the image of God involving transformation and improvement of nature.
In the story of the Tabernacle, Betzalel is charged by Moses with the work of the building of the Tabernacle, and Moses says of Betzalel (Exodus 31, 3) – “and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of creative work (מלאכה)”. The word creative work here in the verse is the very same word creative work that appears in the opening account of creation – and, it is this word that is used throughout the account of the building of the Tabernacle. Moreover, it is clear that creative work here that Betzalel is to do is unique to the human being created in the image of God and is the result of wisdom, understanding and knowledge as these are the qualities that he is singled out for.
Creative work is defined in the Mishnah, the foundation of the rabbinic tradition from a legal point of view, as consisting of 39 categories of creative work (Shabbat 7, 2):
Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches, hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it, writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.
The Talmud (Shabbat 49b), which is commentary upon the Mishnah, raises the question of where these 39 categories of work come from – and, Rabbi Ḥanina bar Ḥama says that the 39 categories correspond to the work that was done in the Tabernacle. There is another suggestion, which I will leave aside – but, the point is that the Talmud does not really know where these 39 categories came from, and the Talmud is then citing several possibilities by way of speculation one of which is that the 39 categories correspond to the work of the Tabernacle.
As I pointed out, there is some support in the plain meaning of Scripture that there is a connection between the Sabbath and the Tabernacle because the very same word creative work (מלאכה) is used in relation to both the Sabbath and Tabernacle. However, in the Talmud (Shabbat 74b), Rav Pappa points out that kneading and baking, two of the 39 categories of creative work, are really connected to the making of bread – and not to work in the Tabernacle. So, it seems clear then that the Talmud does not really know the origin of these 39 categories of creative work – and, in their plain meaning they do not correspond to work done in the Tabernacle.
If we analyze the list of 39 categories of creative work in the Mishnah, it is very clear that there are three main groups of categories, with some miscellaneous categories at the end. The three main groups of categories relate to the making of bread, to the making of clothing, and to writing. Hunting a deer, and skinning it, is for the purpose of creating parchment from animal skin in order to write. What do these three things have in common? These three things (and, this is true of the miscellaneous categories at the end such as making or extinguishing of fire) distinguish the human being from all other animals. All other animals do not have the power over nature to create bread, clothing or writing. If we return to the opening Biblical account of creation, the human being is created in the image of God and is the only animal who has the power to transform or repair nature and improve the world – to take wheat and make something even better bread. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal in the Biblical account of creation given dominion over nature – and, from the use of this power to transform and repair we cease (the literally meaning of the term Sabbath) on the Sabbath in imitation of God who ceased from creative work on the seventh day according to the Biblical account.
Yet, the prohibition of doing creative work on the Sabbath is only an external, legal expression of the holiness of the Sabbath regulating behavior on the Sabbath – and, the prohibition of creative work on the Sabbath is really only a means to attain the ultimate purpose of the Sabbath, which is complete rest in a spiritual sense. The essence of the holiness of the Sabbath is a holiness of time and spiritual in nature. The ultimate purpose of the Sabbath is revealed in a passage that stands out in the Bible (Exodus 31, 14-17) – “You shall observe the Sabbath for it is holy unto you…It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased (from work) and rested (literally was refreshed)”. The Sabbath according to this passage is a sign, and it is a sign of the covenant of Moses as reflected in the verse immediately following the passage (Exodus 31 18) – “And He gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon mount Sinai, the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God”.
There are two covenants between God and the Jewish people in the Bible – the covenant of Abraham of which the sign is circumcision (Genesis 17, 11) and the covenant of Moses of which the sign is the Sabbath (Exodus 31, 17). These two covenants represent the two fundamental elements of Judaism as a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people – the covenant of Moses is the element of Judaism as a way of life, and the covenant of Abraham is the element of peoplehood (as Abraham is the spiritual father of the Jewish people). These two covenants in the Biblical conception are united in that the essence of Judaism and of being a descendant of Abraham is morality. The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”, and the essence of being a descendent of Abraham is reflected in the verse (Genesis 18, 19) in which God says “For I have known him (Abraham), to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice”. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel, if divided in the middle, literally means righteous of God – and, the Jewish people then are to be a people devoted to a life of righteousness.
If we return to the passage in which the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant of Moses, the Sabbath is to be a time of spiritual rest (literally refreshment) in imitation of God who in the Biblical account of creation ceased from creative work and rested (Exodus 31, 17) – “on the seventh day He ceased and rested (literally was refreshed)”. The Hebrew term (וינפש) translated as rest comes from a root that is often inadequately translated as soul – however, in the Biblical conception, the term refers not to the soul in distinction to the body, as the Biblical conception is holistic and not dualistic, but to the soul in the sense of a person who has both body and soul with the soul being the essence of human life.
Thus, the rest and refreshment of the Sabbath is both of a physical and spiritual nature – but, the essence of Sabbath rest and refreshment is an inner spiritual experience of deep spiritual fulfillment and joy. On the Sabbath in traditional Judaism we are forbidden to be preoccupied with ourselves, and we are forbidden to be fearful, worried, anxious, sad, angry or upset in any way – the Sabbath is to be a time of complete fulfillment and joy as written in our traditional Sabbath afternoon prayers “a day of rest and holiness…a rest of love and generosity, a rest of truth and faithfulness, a rest of peace and serenity and tranquility and security, a perfect rest…”. The essence of the Sabbath is a time when we refrain from creative work and doing as a means in order to attain the spiritual experience of being in an inner spiritual state of complete fulfillment and joy.