The Sabbath is a puzzle. The Torah, saying almost nothing about Sabbath practice beyond various forms of the command “don’t do work on it,” left it to subsequent generations to make sense of its purposes.
Because it was so open to interpretation, the Sabbath became a very different occasion for different Jewish groups throughout history. Some associated “work” with trade and business, others with using tools. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to the first century BCE, prohibited transgressing of the Sabbath to save a life, while the Karaites, medieval Jewish scripturalists who rejected rabbinic tradition, forbade a burning flame in the household and also forbade sexual relations.
More recently, interpreters have suggested that the “work” forbidden on the Sabbath is creative work, or work that makes fundamental changes to our environment. Perplexed by the use of the term “work” and their intuitive sense of what should or should not be included in this category, many have wondered about some of the traditional Sabbath prohibitions, particularly the one forbidding the carrying of even small items in the public domain.
The general prohibition on doing “work” (melachah) on the Sabbath is articulated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:10) and elsewhere, but what is considered work is left completely undefined on these occasions. The Torah does explicitly forbid the lighting of fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3). One narrative also makes it clear that one must not gather wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-6). A further narrative — the story of the manna in the desert — might also be understood to suggest that food preparation should not be done on the Sabbath (Exodus 16, especially verses 23-5). But beyond this, the Torah leaves the contours of the Sabbath to our imagination.
And other biblical books add little to the Torah’s foundation. Interestingly, the one prohibited labor that the biblical authors agree upon — one not found in the Torah itself — is carrying (Jeremiah 17:21-5, Nehemiah 13:15-19). In both contexts, carrying is clearly the labor of trade, so what is truly to be forbidden on the Sabbath is trading, and perhaps, by extension, any business. There is no evidence of formal or technical categories of prohibited work; what is forbidden is conducting one’s daily business affairs. Isaiah 58:13 emphatically highlights that this is the concern; according to the prophet, the avoidance of pursuing one’s daily affairs, and business in particular, will lead one to become a “delight” of the Lord. Throughout, “work” seems to have a “common sense” meaning. There is no formal system or fundamental principle to be found.
But to a significant extent, this early “history” of the Sabbath is beside the point. When we try to make sense of the Sabbath, it is not the Karaite Sabbath or even the Torah’s Sabbath that we are asking about. It is the Sabbath that we have inherited, that is, the rabbinic Sabbath. For however the Sabbath was understood by one historical Jewish group or another, it was the rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era who defined Judaism more or less as we know it, including the Sabbath. And despite the lack of “explicit” rabbinic statements clarifying their understanding of the Sabbath, how the rabbis understood this day is actually quite clear: they systematized the Sabbath and its prohibitions in the first of their documents, the Mishnah (tractate Shabbat 7:2). Crucially, though several of the labors they list in the Mishnah find precedent in earlier Jewish texts, this precise enumeration in this precise form is unprecedented. This means that the system, and the interpretation it assumes, is rabbinic through and through. Until today, all discussion about what is permitted and prohibited on the Sabbath is rooted in this foundational text.
The Mishnah states:
(1) The generative categories of acts of labor [prohibited on the Sabbath] are forty less one: he who sows, plows, reaps, binds sheaves, threshes, winnows, selects, grinds, sifts, kneads, bakes;
(2) he who shears wool, bleaches it, beats it, dyes it, spins, weaves, makes two loops, weaves two threads, separates two threads, ties, unties, sews two stitches, tears in order to sew two stitches;
(3) he who traps a deer, slaughters it, flays it, salts it, cures its hide, scrapes it, and cuts it up, he who writes two letters, erases two letters in order to write two letters;
(4) he who builds, tears down;
(5) he who puts out a fire, kindles a fire;
(6) he who hits with a hammer;
(7) he who transports an object from one domain to another
— these are the forty generative acts of labor less one.
I have separated the Mishnah into sections to make it clear that we do not have here merely a list of 39 disparate categories of work. Rather, read as a series of “narratives,” the Mishnah clearly describes the production of several crucial products: the first section describes the production of bread, the second the production of clothing and the fourth (and possibly the fifth and sixth) describe those acts needed for the creation of shelter. Food, clothing, and shelter — the labors necessary to provide these are the ones the rabbis understand to be forbidden on the Sabbath, the labors that, as this idiomatic combination suggests, are essential for the maintenance of human life.
Indeed, there is no doubt that the rabbis understood that this was the meaning of their lists. Consider the following Talmudic teaching (Berakhot 58a):
When Ben Zoma saw a crowd on steps of the Temple Mount, he said, “Blessed is he who is wise in knowing secrets. Blessed is he who created these [people] to serve me.” He would say, “How hard did Adam toil before he could taste a morsel!: he sowed, plowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, selected, ground, sifted, kneaded, and baked, and only then could he eat. But I arise in the morning and find all these [foods ready] before me. How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment!: he sheared, bleached, beat it, spun, and wove, and only then could he put it on. But I arise in the morning and find all these [garments ready] before me.
The lists given here are almost exactly those found in the Mishnah (shortened in the second case because the point has been made). These are the labors that must be performed to produce food (bread) and clothing. That sections 4-6, therefore, describe the labors for the building and maintenance of shelter is barely in doubt.
But what of the third section? At first, one might be deceived into concluding that this list, too, is about food (specifically, meat). But the Mishnah’s interest here is not the meat but the hide. And the hide is important because it is the material (parchment) on which letters will be written — at least sacred letters, which, together with parchment, form sacred scrolls. In other words, the third section of the Mishnah recounts the production of Torahs and other sacred writings. But why is this category found by the side of “food, clothing and shelter?” Because, in the view of the rabbis, these are the things one needs to live: food, clothing, shelter and Torah. (Carrying is included because it is the most consistently forbidden category, historically speaking.)
That the rabbis understood “melachah” to be “survival work” is clear from a teaching in which they indicate what the Torah’s category excludes: “‘You shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:10) — excluding blowing the shofar and the separation of bread from the oven wall, which is an act of skill and not work” (Shabbat 117b). In other words, in the rabbis’ view, the Torah forbids, on the Sabbath, the work needed for our survival, not special creative skills that might enhance our lives but which we do not need to survive.
So the rabbinic Sabbath is a time when we pretend that all of the essentials of our survival are already provided to us, a day when we do not have to worry about the struggle of surviving from one day to the next. When, in our remembered history (or in our anticipated future) did we experience such conditions? In the Garden of Eden, then during our sojourn (following the Exodus) in the desert and finally in the World to Come. Not coincidentally, this is precisely what we say in our liturgy — rabbinic liturgy — about the Sabbath: it is “a memorial to creation” (the Garden), “a recollection of the Exodus from Egypt” (the desert) and “a taste of the World to Come.” These times and states are what the rabbis hoped the Sabbath could be — times when everything we could need was and will be provided by God. It is a Sabbath that promises not the world that is, but the better world that can be.
David Kraemer is the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary. His most recent book is “Jewish Eating and Identity through the Ages” (Routledge).