If Shabbat is meant to be a day of rest, then why are some of the most effortless activities prohibited? Turning off a light, one would think, would not be prohibited on this “day of rest,” and yet the act of flipping the switch is a Torah prohibition. And at the same time, strenuous activities may be permissible. Many Jewish thinkers have tried to formulate a conception of the Laws of Shabbat, and the explanation of Rav Hirsch stands out as the most satisfying to the modern mind.
Shabbat is a testimony to Hashem as the Creator of Heaven and Earth — after six days of creation, He rested on the seventh. We are instructed not to perform any work on Shabbat; it is a day for Hashem. By ceasing work on the seventh day we demonstrate that we are not masters of the world. When we cease creative activity we acknowledge that the world is not ours to change or improve. Every object and action, every single breath, moment, movement, skill, and even creative spark is from Hashem, and for Hashem. When He enjoins our work, we lay ourselves, and our mastery over the natural world, in homage at His feet.
On Shabbat, we cease all melachah. It is not laborious work that is prohibited. Rather it is creative work that is banned. The word melachah is related to malach, a messenger or agent. Malach means “angel” because an angel is primarily an agent or messenger of Hashem. Melachah denotes an action that is subservient to the will and bidding of intelligent man. The act of melachah is the agent of the mind — it endows the material or object with a new form, more fit for the purpose we assign to it. This creative, productive activity exercises our mastery over the natural world.
The nature of prohibited activity is seen clearly from the defining feature of melachah. Melachah always also takes into account the product, the outcome, and not just the general intention. For activity to be prohibited it must have an intelligent, creative purpose — only melechet machsevhet, intelligent work, is proscribed.
The concept of melachah applies only to constructive, not destructive acts. The same act, however strenuous, when performed with intent to destroy is not prohibited by the Torah. For example, if one were to knock down a house simply with the idea of destroying it, this is not melachah. (We discuss here Torah prohibitions to understand the nature of melachah; this sort of destruction is prohibited by rabbinic law.) If, however, one were to destroy a house with the constructive purpose of clearing the site for rebuilding, the act is prohibited melachah.
Similarly, to be considered melachah, the work must be intentional — i.e. a messenger of the productive will of man, not an unintended byproduct. Furthermore, if an act is performed in an unusual manner, it is not considered to be melachah — melachah requires the full application of human intelligence in the manner in which intelligent man will do something.
All of the thirty-nine categories of melachah are productive activities which engender productive change. Any act, however small or effortless, which demonstrates man’s mastery of nature by exercise of his intelligent and creative skill, is prohibited. Striking a light, washing a garment, tying a knot, baking bread, plowing a field, and building a house are all marks of man’s conquest of nature, regardless of the spectrum of energy and effort they may or may not require.
By complete renunciation of constructive, intelligent activity on Shabbat, man pays homage to his Creator. He affirms that the world does not belong to him but to He Who created man and the world, and it is only because of Hashem’s dominion, and His endowment of creativity, that man achieves any mastery at all. The restraint from melachah on Shabbat infuses all of weekly creative activity with awareness of its true Source.
- Sources: Commentary, Shemot 35:1-2; 20:9-10; Collected Writings VIII, The Jewish Sabbath, p. 211; Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, The Sabbath: A Guide to Its Understanding and Observance, Feldheim, 1959