Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 21 March 2020 / 25 Adar 5780

Parshat Vayakhel - Pekudei

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Carrying the Nation

On Shabbat, we cease all melacha. It is not laborious work that is prohibited; it is productive work. Creative, productive activity exercises our mastery over the natural world, and by ceasing these activities on Shabbat we affirm that the world does not belong to us, but to He Who created man and the world.

The thirty nine prohibited categories of activity are all productive work: plowing, threshing, grinding, dyeing, weaving, writing, to name a few. Only the last of the thirty nine — carrying from one domain to another — appears to lack this quality of productive, creative activity. Yet, this prohibition assumes great significance in the teachings of the prophets. In the last days of the Jewish state, Yirmiyahu was commanded to proclaim that the state would endure and even flourish only if the nation would observe the Shabbat and keep it holy. Apart from the general admonition, Yirmiyahu singled out carrying:

For the sake of your own souls, take care not to carry anything on the Sabbath day… if you will earnestly obey Me, not carrying anything through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, and keeping the Sabbath day holy, not doing any work on it, then through the gate of this city with come kings and princes… But if you will not obey Me to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to carry things through the gates of Yerushalyaim on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it will consume the palaces of Yerushalayim and not be extinguished.” (Yirmiyahu 17)

Why is the prohibition on carrying treated as separate, running parallel to the general keeping of Shabbat?

The common idea underlying the other melachot is man’s position as master of all things of the physical world. Carrying, however, belongs to the social sphere. It is symbolic of a robust societal life, where the individual contributes to the society and the society contributes to the individual. Hence, the scope of the prohibition includes carrying from the individual domain to the public domain and vice versa.

If the prohibition of the other melachot subordinate man to G-d as regards his position in the physical word, the prohibition of carrying expresses man’s subordination to G-d in the social sphere. The former affirms G-d as the master of nature, and the latter affirms G-d as the master of history. His sovereignty over the world includes His direction of both. These two facets of our homage on Shabbat are memorialized in the two reasons mentioned in the Torah for Shabbat: the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt. The former attests to G-d’s sovereignty over nature and the latter to His sovereignty over the lives of nations.

Now it is clear why the words of Yirmiyahu hang the survival of the Jewish state on keeping Shabbat specifically through obeying the laws of carrying, and why their desecration heralds the fall of the state. Carrying tears away the banner of G-d from the state and from the social life within it — but honoring the Sabbath by refraining from carrying impresses the seal of G-d on national life.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 35:2

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