These three sources provide us with a window into the spiritual and aesthetic experience that the observance of Shabbat is supposed to create. In Mishnah Shabbat 7:2, we see, delineated for the first time, the number and types of labors we are to refrain from on Shabbat. I have quoted only the first four of the thirty-nine here, due to constraints of space, but we shall see the list in full another time.
The Torah is explicit that one type of work is forbidden on Shabbat (called melakhah, usually translated as labor) while another type is permitted (called avodah, usually translated merely as work, or sometimes, service). While the Torah does give us some minimal examples of melakhah (e.g., lighting a fire, plowing, and harvesting), for the most part, the Torah is silent on the question of which activities constitute melakhah and are therefore forbidden. It is left to the Sages of the Mishnah to provide a detailed list of behaviors that fall into this category.
Interestingly, our Sages did not see physical exertion as a form of melakhah. Their list is not derived from the common definition of work, which seems more akin to the Torah's permitted category of avodah; instead their explication of melakhah has its genesis in some other place. This question ("what is the origin of the Mishnah's list of melakhah labors?") is what occupies Rabbi Haninah b. Hama in the second source above, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 49b.
Rashi (the most important of the medieval commentators on the Talmud) explains Rabbi Haninah b. Hama's answer to this question in the following way: in chapter 35 of Exodus, we find Moses directing the construction of the desert sanctuary, the Tabernacle (or Mishkan). Just prior to the actual act of construction, Moses reminds the people that melakhah is forbidden on Shabbat-they are not to violate Shabbat in order to build the Mishkan. Since Moses requires that the people cease their labors in building the Mishkan, it follows that these labors are what constitute melakhah. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we create the holy sanctuary of Shabbat each week when we refrain from doing the things that were necessary to build the desert sanctuary at the time of the Exodus.
But Rav Papa is troubled by Rabbi Haninah b. Hama's answer, as we see above in the third source, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 74b. He notes that our Mishnah's author does not seem to phrase the list in terms of the labors employed in the building of the Mishkan, but seems to have some other objective. For instance, he says, the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat should have its foundation in the act of boiling ingredients for textile dyes-a basic construction labor of the Mishkan. But the Mishnah refers to baking instead of boiling. Stepping back from the problem, he notes that the first eleven labors in the Mishnah's list make up a set: from sowing through baking, these are the labors one must perform to make bread, a tangible product in the world of everyday life. Shabbat must be the sublime sanctuary each week, but it must also be a relevant to us: a rest from the productive labors of our everyday lives.
1. How can we go about making Shabbat a sanctuary in our own lives?
2. In what ways is Shabbat relevant to us as a rest from our everyday labors?