One of life’s biggest questions is: do our actions have true significance? The performance of mitzvot is metaphysically meaningful, but what about our day-to-day activities? Ultimately, how much of our lives and pursuits truly matter?
The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) enumerates 39 categories of melachah, activities which are forbidden on the Sabbath, such as planting, cooking, and building. What is the source for these categories of melachah?
The Talmud in Shabbat 49b presents two possibilities. The first opinion is that 39 types of work were performed when constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert.
The second opinion is that the word melachah (in its various forms) appears 39 times in the Torah.
In fact, the word melachah appears 65 times, but the Sages were only counting verses that are connected to the Sabbath or the Tabernacle. As a result, the Sages sometimes disagreed which verses should be included in this count. One of the verses in question, from the reading of VaYeishev, speaks of Joseph’s labor for his Egyptian master, Potiphar: “And he came to the house to do his work (melachto)” (Gen. 39:11).
Why should this verse be counted? Surely it has no connection to the Sabbath!
We must first analyze the two views presented in the Talmud, connecting the 39 categories of activity either to building the Mishkan or to the word melachah in the Torah.
The Sabbath day of rest is in complete contrast to the weekdays filled with activity and work. The Sabbath belongs to the final goal of the universe, a time when all activity is finished. Work, by definition, indicates a state of incompleteness. Shabbat, on the other hand, is “mei'ein olam haba,” a taste of the future world, perfected and complete.
We live in an unfinished world of preparations and labor, a time of development and progress. The Tabernacle was a center of holiness within a spatial framework, subject to the limitations of our incomplete world. The Divine command to build the Tabernacle required that all the various categories of human activity be utilized in constructing it. The Jewish people needed to overcome and master the obstacles of mundane activity which hinder elevated life; then they could attain their ultimate objectives, living a life of holiness and closeness to God.
The second opinion quoted in the Talmud is based on a loftier perspective. The distinction between kodesh and chol, between the holy and the profane, only exists within our incomplete and divided reality. But when all of the forces and actions in the world are gathered together towards one elevated center, when all of life is directed to fulfill its true purpose, then the distinction between holy and profane disappears, and all aspects of life are bound together in the elevated union of kodesh kodashim, the Holy of Holies.
When we view the world through this higher prospective, adding the dimension of kodesh kodashim, then all activities become connected to the Sabbath ideal. All of life is bound to the sublime aim of absolute rest, without toil and preparations, only lofty joy and eternal truth. The view that sees in every mention of melachah in the Torah as relating to the Sabbath is not satisfied with ascribing meaning and significance only to that which is kodesh, only to those activities utilized to build the Mishkan. This is a inclusive vision that encompasses the holy and the profane, the natural and technological. Bound together, all activities are elevated with the holiness of the Sabbath day and the future realm of complete Sabbath. Not only is the holy center raised up, but also the branches — all forms of activity and melachah as recorded in the Torah.
In short, these two opinions deliberate our original question. The Talmudic discussion of what may be counted as the source for the melachot is, in fact, our question of how much of life truly ‘counts.’ Are only holy activities truly meaningful? Or is there eternal significance even in other aspects of life?
According to the second, more inclusive view, the Sabbath encompasses all activities of the Jewish people, both past and future, personal and national. However, the Jewish people in their long history have expended much time and energy in dispersed directions. Many Jews invested their talents to serve alien agendas. This is the essence of the Talmud’s doubt regarding Joseph’s labors in Egypt. Can individual activities performed in foreign lands for foreign goals still be counted as part of the accumulated service of the Jewish people over the millennia? Do they have eternal value?
On the one hand, it cannot be that the labors of a Jewish soul will not carry some residual imprint of the Jewish nation. Even if it was ‘planted’ on foreign soil, that which is suitable can be added, after removing the dregs, to the treasury of elevated Sabbath rest that Israel will bequest to itself and all of humanity.
On the other hand, labor that was performed under foreign subjugation and enslavement is perhaps so far removed from the spirit of the Jewish people that it cannot be added to the national treasure of Israel.
Joseph, the Midrash states, represents the entire Jewish people (Tanchuma VaYigash 10). Even when laboring in Egypt, even as a slave under Potiphar and a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon, his actions carried the mark of blessing and Divine success:
“His master realized that God was with him and that God granted him success in all that he did.... God blessed the Egyptian because of Joseph” (39:3,5).
Nonetheless, we should not forget Potiphar’s position: Pharaoh’s chief executioner! The activities that Joseph performed under Potiphar’s direction were certainly alien to the spirit of Israel. Could the inner blessing of Joseph’s labors under such conditions be added to the treasury of activities connected to the perfected realm of Shabbat? This was the unresolved doubt of the Sages, whether to include the verse describing Joseph’s labors in a foreign land.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 7-9)