Mystical Meanings of the 39 Melachot

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VaYakhel Pikudei – Parshat Parah

Shabbat Chazak / Shabbat Mevarchim Chodesh Nissan
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The Torah portion of Vayakhel begins with Moshe gathering the Jewish people and teaching them to observe the Shabbat. He said to them, “Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the L-rd; whoever performs work on this day shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Shabbat day.”[1] He then instructed them as to how to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The order of these two instructions differs from the order in which G-d gave Moshe these commandments. As we read in the last several parshiyot, first He gave the commandment to Moshe about the Mishkan[2] and then he reiterated the mitzvah of keeping Shabbat.[3]
Rabbi Dovid Ohrmacher of 17th-century Brody, Poland, explained[4] that the Eirev Rav (converts who joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt) were excluded from donating to the Mishkan. In order not to dishearten them, Moshe changed the order of the commands so that the first mitzvah he taught was Shabbat, a most fundamental mitzvah in which the Eirev Rav were included.
Rabbi Ohrmacher also explained the precise wording of the verse,”Six days work shall be done” instead of “Do work for six days.” This indicates that one must realize that it is G-d who is actually doing the work (i.e., making our work successful) while we merely go through the motions (i.e., without His help, our work would yield no profits). If one realizes this, then even during the week one can achieve a state of equanimity and not be overwhelmed by his daily chores and responsibilities. When one lives like this, even their weekdays are restful. They therefore realize that Shabbat is not about resting physically but is, primarily, a day of holiness and sanctity.
When one realizes that Shabbat is a day of spiritual elevation, one will make sure to spend the day in an appropriate manner instead of only feasting and relaxing. This is the meaning of the next verse, “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” This means that one should not treat Shabbat as a mere physical day of rest and waste time chatting with groups of idlers as doing so would be kindling the fire of Gehinnom (hell) which may not be done on Shabbat.
Spiritual Aspects of the Melachot
As mentioned in last week’s e-mail, the 39 forbidden melachot (labors) are derived from the various types of labor that were necessary to build the Mishkan.
The Chassidic masters have expounded on many of these melachot, explaining how they represent certain spiritual activities which should be done during the week but which are not appropriate for Shabbat.
Here is a selection of some of these explanations:
Plowing – Breaking One’s Heart[5]
The labor of plowing which softens the ground represents a person’s toiling to soften his heart by subjugating his inner negative character traits.
On Shabbat, we are elevated to a higher level where we need not subjugate or repress one’s negative tendencies but may instead transform them to good. The labor of plowing is therefore inappropriate on Shabbat.
Planting – Self Abnegation[6]
When one plants a seed, it can take root only after it rots somewhat. The seed is then able to activate the power of the earth which causes it to grow.
This can be compared to one who studies Torah. The Torah, as it was given to mankind, discusses (mostly) physical stories and laws. Through studying it, we “awaken” the spiritual source of the Torah which can then be infused into the Torah that we learn. However, we will only fully experience the revelation of this spiritual aspect of the Torah when our souls reach Gan Eden. In order for the Torah we learn to activate this corresponding spiritual revelation, we must study it with a sense of mesirat nefesh – complete abnegation and devotion to the Almighty – which corresponds to the rotting of the seed. (It seems that on Shabbat, our devotion to G-d should be innate and obvious, and that a conscious effort towards mesirat nefesh should be unnecessary. In addition, on Shabbat the spirituality in the Torah is [more] apparent and we need not toil to reveal it.)
Grinding – Crushing One’s Ego[7]
Grinding grain and making it into flour involves breaking the grain into fine particles. This represents the fact that a person must serve G-d with an absolutely broken heart, as the verse says, “G-d will not reject a broken and crushed heart.”[8]
This is especially true when one studies Torah – that one must study with a sense of absolute humility. (Torah is compared to grain, see below.) This explains why the word used for study in the Talmud is garsinan which also means to crush (see Menachot 66a “a grinder of gerusot [coarsely ground grain]”).
(On Shabbat we need not crush our egos to achieve unity with G-d as the negativity in our hearts is automatically subdued by the innate holiness of the day.)
Kneading – Awakening the Love[9]
One kneads flour into dough by adding water and mixing them together. So too a person must awaken love for G-d within his heart so that he is drawn like water towards Him. This love will unite him to G-d, like the water which binds the flour together.
(This awakening of love towards the Almighty must be done during the week so that on Shabbat we are already in a state of unity with the Divine.)
Baking – Making a Reckoning[10]
Once the dough is prepared, one must bake it. Otherwise it will be inedible and undigestible. Bread represents Torah, as it says, “Come, partake of my bread”[11] (see the commentaries on the verse). In order to absorb and be spiritually nourished by the Torah one learns, one must go through the process of baking.
Baking, which is done is done by the heat of a fire, represents a flaming love and burning desire to “gaze at the countenance of the King.”[12] This differs from the love (mentioned above) that is like water, for in that case the person maintains his identity while cleaving to G-d. With this fiery love, however, all of one’s soul-faculties become nullified and subsumed within “the lap of their Father” – the infinite light of G-d.
Baking also alludes to the compassion one must awaken for one’s own soul by making a reckoning of how he allowed his Divine soul to descend (spiritually) to a deep pit. This should move a person to tears of Teshuvah (the warmth of the tears is compared to the warmth of the fire). The Torah one studies after this spiritually cleansing experience will be absorbed into one’s soul and will enable the person to nullify himself to the Almighty G-d.  (On Shabbat it is inappropriate to make this sort of reckoning as it can lead to feelings of sadness which are not proper for Shabbat. Such reckonings should be made before Shabbat so that one is already spiritually cleansed on Shabbat.[13])
Igniting – Awakening Divine Judgment[14]
Lighting a fire in this world represents an increase in the celestial harsh judgments. On Shabbat, one may not ignite a fire as Shabbat is a day when Divine judgments are not revealed in this world.
Borer – Elevating the Hidden Spiritual Sparks[15]
During the week, it is our avodah (Divine service) to purify the latent spirituality in this world by extracting the positive from the negative energy. We do this by using the various aspects of this physical world to serve G-d. This purification can be accomplished in one of two ways: either by removing the negative (e.g., getting rid of negative character traits or negative desires) or by emphasizing the positive so that it simply outweighs, and thus overpowers, the negative. The first way is similar to one of the forbidden forms of borer (selecting) – removing the bad from the good – while the second way can be compared to another forbidden form of borer – removing the good from the bad. (This is forbidden unless it is done by hand immediately prior to eating.[16])
Both of these forms of borer are forbidden on Shabbat as on Shabbat all of the worlds are elevated to a higher plane and there is no negative energy (that we can elevate) in this world at all.
Although when we eat on Shabbat, the food (and the energy in it) is elevated to a higher spiritual plane, this is not considered an act of borer as all of the energy in the food has already been cleansed of any negativity when Shabbat began. By eating it, we are merely elevating something that is already holy to an even higher plane of holiness.[17] This is similar to selecting food from the same type of food which is permissible on Shabbat.[18]
May we merit to experience the ultimate Shabbat with the imminent arrival of Moshiach!

[1] Exodus, 35:2-3
[2] Ibid, chapter 25 – 28
[3] Ibid, 31:12-18 The Jewish people had already been commanded to observe Shabbat while they were in Marah. Observing Shabbat is also one of the Ten Commandments.
[4] Yefeh Einayim on the beginning of the Parsha
[5] Likutei Torah, Parshat Beshalach, 2a, as explained in Chassidut Mevu’eret, Shabbat, pages 183 and 184
[6] Likutei Torah, Parshat Behar, 40c. In this Mamar (Chassidic discourse), the Alter Rebbe explains the spiritual counterpart of the labors as I quoted above. He alludes to the fact that these activities are not appropriate for Shabbat but does not clarify as to precisely why this is so. So, the parenthetical explanations above on this matter are my own extrapolation (A. Citron).
[7] Ibid
[8] Psalms 51:19
[9] Likutei Torah, ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Proverbs 9:5
[12] See Zohar, vol. 1, 38b
[13] See Tanya, Vol. 3 (Iggeret HaTeshuvah), chapter 9
[14] Sefer HaLikutim, Tzemach Tzedek, erech shin, page 108
[15] Sefer Hama’amarim of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, 5705, pg. 83 and 114 – 117
[16] O.C. 319:1
[17] See Sefer Halikutim, ibid, page 108, that the Tzemach Tzedek heard this explanation from his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, in the final days of his life.
[18] See Rama, O.C. 319:3
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach and a Chodesh Tov!


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