Solving the Problem of the 39 Shabbos Labors

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by R. Gil Student

It is well known that the biblical prohibitions of Shabbat can be classified into 39 labors — melakhos — that are listed in the second Mishna of the seventh chapter of Shabbos. The Gemara (Shabbos 49b) relates an attempt to find a source in the written Torah for this ancient oral tradition. The various forms of the word labor — melakhahmelakhto, and melekhes — can be found exactly 39 times in the Torah. This is certainly a worthy hint for the 39 forbidden labors of Shabbos. While it is a hint, it is not the origin of the 39 melakhos. That ancient oral tradition was known long before the rabbis tried to find a hint for it in the written Torah. Even if this hint turned out to be incorrect, the tradition of 39 labors remains unaffected because it predated the attempt to connect the oral and written Torahs.

But are the various forms of the word melakhah in the Torah 39 times? Working before the writing of the first concordance, Rabbeinu Chananel (11th cen., Tunisia; Shabbos, ad loc.) pointed out that there are over 60 mentions of the word melakhah in the Torah. There are, in fact, 65 uses of the word melakhah in its various forms in the Torah. This discovery, and the unfortunate scribal error in the commentaries that led some to believe that there were 61 mentions, gave rise to a literature trying to explain the Gemara’s hint. See the Yefeh Enayim at the end of Eruvin for a summary.[1]An excellent investigation of the scribal errors in the early commentaries can be found in the journal HaDarom (Tishrei 5726 pp. 159-180). We now have the tools to say with certainty that forms of the word melakhah appear in the Torah exactly 65 times (see the Even Shoshan Concordance pp. 659-660). Below we will list each instance.

If the word melakhah is in the Torah 65 times and not 39, does that mean that there are really 65 labors of Shabbos? It does not, for two reasons. The first is that the 39 labors were known from an oral tradition and not from this count. The Gemara was only trying to find a hint for this tradition and if the hint does not work, that only undermines the hint and not the underlying tradition. Furthermore, the fact that melakhah is in the Torah 65 times does not demonstrate that the Gemara was wrong. When we understand the Gemara properly we realize that it is entirely consistent with the count of 65. The following elegant explanation is taken from R’ Yisrael Yaakov Kellner’s (20th cen., Israel) Piryo Be-Ito on Eruvin (pp. 456-457).

This is what the Gemara (Shabbos 49b) says:

R. Yonasan ben R. Elazar said: Thus said R. Shimon ben R. Yossi ben Lekunia: [The 39 labors] correspond to the melakhakmelakhto, and melekhes that are in the Torah 39 times. Rav Yosef asked: “And he entered the house to do his work (melakhto)” (Gen. 39:11) — is it from the count or not? Abaye said: Let us take out a Torah scroll and count. Rabbah bar bar Chanah said: They did not leave from there until they brought a Torah scroll and counted. He [Abaye] said: What is unclear to me is whether “But the work (vehamelakhah) had been enough” (Ex. 36:7) is in the count.

The Gemara clearly says that there are 39 times in which forms of the word melakhah appear in the Torah. But it also implies that not each appearance is necessarily counted towards the 39. What are the questions regarding Gen. 39:11 and Ex. 36:7? From the fact that these verses may have not been counted we see that not all instances are included in this count. But what are the guidelines for determining what is counted and what is not? The Gemara does not tell us but we can work backwards from the result and arrive at extremely reasonable rules.

The Piryo Be-Ito offers the following two rules — 1) repeated phrases are only counted once and 2) only uses of the word melakhah that relate to Shabbos or the building of the Mishkan are counted. The first rule is certainly sensible. The second reminds us that we are looking for a hint to the prohibited labors of Shabbos and, since these labors are derived from the actions needed to build the Mishkan, they are quite reasonably referred to only in the context of Shabbos and building the mishkan. With these two simple rules, Piryo Be-Ito conclusively answers the question on the Talmudic count of the Shabbos labors.

Of the 65 times the word melakhah appears in any form in the Torah, 25 times consist of 7 repeated phrases (5 are repeated twice, 1 three times, and 1 twelve times). Subtracting 25 from 65, but adding in 7 so that the repeated phrases are counted once, we are left with 47 times. Of these 47 times, 8 do not refer to either Shabbos or the building of the Mishkan. Subtracting 8 from the 47 yields exactly 39, the number of prohibited labors. We thus see that the Gemara’s count is exact. But there is more. Note the two verses about which the Gemara questions whether they are in the count. The first refers to Yosef returning to do his work (melakhto). This seems clearly not to be relevant but the Yalkut Shimoni learns that the word melakhto tells us that this occured on Shabbos. Rav Yosef was then asking whether this was an actual melakhah, and would then be in the count, or something else. Abaye did not think this was a difficult question but he had another of his own. Exodus 36:7 uses the word melakhah to refer to the work of bringing the material needed to build the Mishkan. This is not technically part of building the Mishkan but it is so close that clarification is required.

The following list of verses should make the above explanation more clear. The first set of numbers lists all of the verses and the second set lists only those included in the count based on the above guidelines. X marks those phrases that are not relevant to Shabbos and = marks those phrases that are exact repetitions.

1.1.Gen. 2:2 “By the seventh day G-d completed His work (vayechal E-lokim bayom hashvii melakhto)”
2.2.Gen. 2:2 “And He abstained on the seventh day from all His work (vayishbos bayom hashvii mikol melakhto)”
3.3.Gen. 2:3 “Because on it He abstained from all His work (ki vo shavas mikol melakhto)”
4.XGen. 33:14 “According to the gait of the drove before me (leregel hamelakhah asher lefanai)”
5.4.Gen. 39:11 “And he entered the house to do his work (vayavo habaisa laasos melakhto)”
6.5.Ex. 12:16 “No work may be done on them (kol melakhah lo ye’aseh bahem)”
7.6.Ex. 20:9 “Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work (sheshes yamim taavod ve-asisa kol melakhtekha)”
8.=Deut. 5:13 “Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work (sheshes yamim taavod ve-asisa kol melakhtekha)”
9.7.Ex. 20:10 “You shall not do any work (lo saaseh kol melakhah)”
10.=Deut. 5:14 “You shall not do any work (lo saaseh kol melakhah)”
11.XEx. 22:7 “Had not laid a hand on his fellow’s property (lo shalach yado bimlekhes re’ehu)”
12.XEx. 22:10 “Had not laid a hand on his fellow’s property (lo shalach yado bimlekhes re’ehu)”
13.8.Ex. 31:3 “With knowledge and with every craft (uvedaas uvekhol melakhas)”
14.=Ex. 35:31 “With knowledge and with every craft (uvedaas uvekhol melakhas)”
15.9.Ex. 31:5 “To peform every craft (laasos bekhol melakhah)”
16.10.Ex. 31:14 For whoever does work on it (ki kol ha’oseh bah melakhah)”
17.11.Ex. 31:15 For six days work may be done (sheshes yamim ye’aseh melakhah)”
18.12.Ex. 31:15 “Whoever does work on the day of Shabbat (kol ha’oseh melakhah beyom ha-Shabbos)”
19.13.Ex. 35:2 “On six days work may be done (sheshes yamim te’aseh melakhah)”
20.=Lev. 23:3 “On six days work may be done (sheshes yamim te’aseh melakhah)”
21.14.Ex. 35:2 “Whoever does work on it (kol ha-oseh bo melakhah)”
22.15.Ex. 35:21 “For the work of the Tent of Meeting (limlekhes ohel moed)”
23.16.Ex. 35:24 “For any work of the labor brought it (lechol melekhes haavodah hevi’u)”
24.17.Ex. 35:29 “To bring for any of the work (lehavi lekhol hamelakhah)”
25.18.Ex. 35:33 “Every craft of design” (kol melekhes makhsheves)”
26.19.Ex. 35:35 “To do every craft of the carver (laasos kol melekhes charash)”
27.20.Ex. 35:35 “Artisans of every craft (osei kol melakhah)”
28.21.Ex. 36:1 “To do all the work for the labor of the Sanctuary (laasos es kol melekhes avodas hakodesh)”
29.22.Ex. 36:2 “To approach the work (lekarvah el hamelakhah)”
30.23.Ex. 36:3 “For the work of the Sanctuary (limlekhes avodas hakodesh)”
31.24.Ex. 36:4 “Those performing all the sacred work (ha’osim es kol melekhes hakodesh)”
32.25.Ex. 36:4 “Each of them from his work (ish ish mimlakhto)”
33.26.Ex. 36:5 “For the labor of the work (midei haavodah lamelakhah)”
34.27.Ex. 36:6 “Shall not do more work (al yaasu od melakhah)”
35.XEx. 36:7 “But the work had been enough (vehamelakhah haysah dayam)”
36.28.Ex. 36:7 “To do all the work (lekhol hamelakhah laasos osah)”
37.29.Ex. 36:8 “Among those doing the work (be’osei hamelakhah)”
38.30.Ex. 38:24 “That was used for the work (he’asui lamelakhah)”
39.31.Ex. 38:24 “For all holy work (bekhol meleches hakodesh)”
40.32.Ex. 39:43 “And Moshe saw the entire work (vayar Moshe es kol hamelahhah)”
41.33.Ex. 40:33 “So Moshe completed the work (vayechal Moshe es hamelakhah)”
42.XLev. 7:24 “May be put to any use” (ye’aseh lekhol melakhah)”
43.XLev. 11:32 “With which work is done (asher ye’aseh lekhol melakhah)”
44.XLev. 13:51 “For whatever purpose the leather has been fashioned (lekhol asher ye’aseh ha’or limlakhah)”
45.34.Lev. 16:29 “You shall not do any work (vechol melakhah lo saasu)”
46.=Lev. 23:28 “You shall not do any work (vechol melakhah lo saasu)”
47.35.Lev. 23:30 “Who will do work (asher taaseh kol melakhah)”
48.36.Lev. 23:3 “You shall not do any work (kol melakhah lo saasu)”
49.=Lev. 23:31 “You shall not do any work (kol melakhah lo saasu)”
50.=Num. 29:7 “You shall not do any work (kol melakhah lo saasu)”
51.XLev. 13:48 “In anything fashioned of leather (bekhol melekhes or)”
52.37.Lev. 23:7 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
53.=Lev. 23:8 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
54.=Lev. 23:21 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
55.=Lev. 23:25 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
56.=Lev. 23:35 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
57.=Lev. 23:36 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
58.=Num. 28:18 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
59.=Num. 28:25 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
60.=Num. 28:26 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
61.=Num. 29:1 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
62.=Num. 29:12 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
63.=Num. 29:35 “You shall do no laborious work (kol melekhes avodah lo saasu)”
64.38.Num. 4:3 “To do work (laasos melakhah)”
65.39.Deut. 16:8 “You shall not perform labor (lo saaseh melakhah)”

We have seen that the puzzling Gemara is explained simply with the use of two basic rules. While forms of the word melakhah can be found 65 times in the Torah, there is a pattern in which all relevant phrases using forms of the word melakhah are found 39 times in the Torah, hinting vaguely to the 39 labors of Shabbos.

(adapted from an essay I originally published in June ’02)

Endnotes

Endnotes
1An excellent investigation of the scribal errors in the early commentaries can be found in the journal HaDarom (Tishrei 5726 pp. 159-180).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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