Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
The Bible does not specifically list those labors that are prohibited on the Sabbath, although it alludes to field labor (Exod. 34:21; Num.15:32-36), treading in a winepress and loading animals (Neh. 13:15-18), doing business and carrying (Isa. 58:13; Jer. 17:22; Amos 8:5), traveling (Exod. 16:29-30), and kindling fire (Exod. 35:2-3) as forbidden work.
Beyond Torah: What Can and Can’t We Do?
In the Mishnah, the Rabbis enumerated 39 major categories (with hundreds of subcategories) of labor that were forbidden (avot melakhah) based on the types of work that were related to the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which ceased on the Sabbath (Shab. 7:2).
Activities that cannot be performed on the Sabbath are basic tasks connected with preparing the showbread (sowing, plowing, reaping, binding, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking), work related to making the coverings in the Tabernacle and the vestments used by the Kohanim (shearing sheep), bleaching, carding (changing tangled or compressed material into separate fibers), dyeing, spinning, stretching (material), making two loops (meshes), threading needles, weaving, separating, tying (a knot), untying (a knot), sewing, tearing, activities concerned with writing and the preparation of parchment from animal skin (trapping or hunting), slaughtering, flaying (skinning), treating skins (curing hides), scraping pelts, marking out (to make ready for cutting), cutting (to shape), writing, erasing, construction (building, demolishing), kindling a flame (lighting, extinguishing), carrying (from private to public domain, and vice versa), and putting the finishing touches to a piece of work already begun before the Sabbath.
The Rabbis decreed that one not only should avoid forbidden acts but also must not do anything that (1) resembles a prohibited act or could be confused with it, (2) is a habit linked with a prohibited act, or (3) usually leads to performing a prohibited act.
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