The Fortieth Melacha

Shabbat (7:2) | Ben-Zion Hain | 17 years ago

The second Mishnah of the seventh perek of Masechet Shabbat deals with what is commonly referred to as “the thirty-nine melachot”. This Mishnah lists the thirty-nine activities prohibited to perform on Shabbat by the Torah.

As we know, these activities are prohibited due to the fact that they were all connected in some way to the building of the Mishkan – a project that stopped on Shabbat and continued during the other six days of the week. This idea is learnt from the juxtaposition of the laws pertaining to the building of the Mishkan and the laws pertaining to Shabbat in Shmot chapter 31.

However, if we examine the wording of this Mishnah we will see very clearly that the Mishnah does not mention the number thirty-nine at all. Rather, the Mishnah states that “the primary labours (Avot Melachot) are forty less one.” Why would the editor of this Mishnah have used such convoluted wording and not simply stated that there are thirty-nine primary labours?

The most common answer to this question is that our Mishnah follows the language of a Mishnah in Makkot (). That Mishnah begins by asking how many lashes a person sentenced to lashes receives, and answers that they receive “forty less one”. However, if both Mishnayot use the same language, how do we know that the Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat follows the language of the Mishnah in Masechet Makkot and not the other way around?

This is due to the fact that the Mishnah in Masechet Makkot quotes a verse from the Torah (Devarim 25:2-3): “with the number forty”. The Rabbis learn from here that the next number you count after giving someone lashes should be forty. In other words, the Rabbis learn from this verse that you stop after thirty-nine and before forty. Our Mishnah, which is not based on any specific Torah verse, therefore utilises the same language as the Mishnah in Makkot to convey the number thirty-nine.

However, based on the Gemara (Shabbat 74a), we are able find another reason as to why the Mishnah wrote “forty less one” and not thirty-nine. The Gemara examines the activities related to baking bread – the first eleven primary labours – and asks why the melacha of “kotesh” (pounding the dough) is not included, as it is surely an important part of baking bread? Abaye answers this question by stating that despite the fact that pounding may have been done in the Mishkan to make the bread, it is not an activity that is done by the poor when they make bread and therefore not essential to the process. Had Abaye not come up with this solution, it would seem that there would have in fact been forty Melachot. It is possible that the wording in the beginning of our Mishnah is alluding to this fact.

The “melacha” of pounding may also be at the centre of another dispute. Rabbi Steinsaltz brings down a dispute where Rashi and the Tosfot hold that the 39 melachot only include labours used in the actual making of the Mishkan and not the korbanot - so the process of baking was used for the making of dyes and not bread. Therefore pounding the dough was not an activity related to the building of the Mishkan and not included in the primary labours. However, Rabbeinu Channanel and Rabbi Hai Gaon hold that the primary labours include those activities required for anything related to the Mishkan, including korbanot so pounding may well have been included.

All of these ideas could have been expressed in the choice of language undertaken by the editor of this Mishnah. Rather then seemingly wasting words, the editor may have been teaching us critical ideas related to the origin of the melachot.

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