by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Reconstructing the Prohibitions of ShabbatIn this week's parashah, Vayakhel, as we near the conclusion of Shemot (which will take place next Shabbat), we read of Moses relaying God's instructions to the people concerning the building of the Mishkan/Mikdash (Tabernacle). In the earlier part of Shemot God gives Moses detailed instructions concerning the Mishkan/Mikdash which are followed by the commandment to observe Shabbat as a day of rest. This is followed by the incident of the Golden Calf, which is then followed in Vayakhel by a reminder to observe Shabbat, including the prohibition against kindling fire on Shabbat. Moses then transmits the instructions concerning the building of the Mishkan/Mikdash to the people and to Bezalel, the artisan entrusted with the actual construction.
Rashi (12th c. France) comments on the reminder that after six days of working we are required to rest on Shabbat by stating that God "prefaced the instructions about the Mishkan work with the warning about Shabbat, to tell them that the Mishkan does not supercede Shabbat." As Aviva Zornberg then states in her analysis (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 462) "an intimate tension is set up between Shabbat and the Mishkan: before even beginning to speak of the building work, it is necessary to articulate a kind of 'anti-Mishkan' principle. One might indeed have thought that the Mishkan does displace Shabbat, that that the crafts that go to create the holy space would continue through the weekly day of sacred [or holy] time. Therefore Moses speaks of Shabbat before the Mishkan work, to counteract perhaps a natural hypothesis." Furthermore, Zornberg reminds her readers that the beginning of the verses concerning the building of the Mishkan begin with the words 'eileh ha-devarim' (these are the things) the 39 letters of this phrase are viewed by the Sages as pointing to the 39 categories of work involved in the building of the Mishkan which then become the 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat.
The Talmud teaches that acts of creation are forbidden on Shabbat, not just destructive acts. For just as God ceased creation on Shabbat in order to enjoy the beauty of the world, so too are we meant to simply revel in God's created world each Shabbat. It would seem, according to Zornberg and others, that the work of the Mishkan, which was also holy, became such an obsession on the part of the people that perhaps God was worried that the people would not cease this creative work on Shabbat. Though it may seem extreme to threaten death for those who desecrate the Shabbat, as the Torah does time and again, perhaps it was necessary in order to emphasize the importance of Shabbat and that it supercedes all other holy activities of creation - no matter how important they might seem. Even the ultimate in holy work, the building of the Mishkan (a holy place/space), is suspended in order to observe holy time, Shabbat.