Shabbat 47

Pausing our creativity.

If Ikea existed in Talmudic times it probably would have been mentioned in today’s daf.

Shabbat 47 discusses whether or not one is permitted by Jewish law to build or assemble kelim (objects). Building is one of the 39 melachot (labors) which are forbidden on Shabbat, but what exactly defines the act of building?

The rabbis take their cues from the biblical text. The 39 melachot are derived from rabbinic interpretation of the book of Exodus, specifically from the building of the mishkan (tabernacle). The midrash explains that the text’s description of building the mishkan was interrupted by the command to observe Shabbat in order to teach that even the building of a home for God does not override the requirement to rest from work on Shabbat. Hence, the 39 primary types of forbidden labors are derived from the acts which were necessary to build the tabernacle.

But this is not the first time Shabbat is mentioned in the Bible. In the very beginning of Genesis, Shabbat is introduced as a day on which God rested from the work of creating the world:

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Genesis 2:3)

Both the story of creation and the description of the building of the mishkan emphasize the creative potential of humanity, modeled after the divine creation of the world.

The daf includes a list of various objects from talmudic times and discusses whether it is permitted to assemble them on Shabbat, such as: a collapsible weaver’s loom, the pieces of a candelabrum, a plasterer’s pole, a trumpet with a straight horn (vs. a round horn), a bed frame, legs of a bed or an archer’s tablet. Assembling which of these would constitute building and thereby violate Shabbat? In the end, the rabbis rule in accordance with the opinion of Rabban Gamliel:

And one may not fasten the pieces together forcefully, and if he fastens them, he is liable to bring a sin-offering for performing a labor prohibited by Torah law. 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: If it was loose and could be assembled with ease, it is permitted.

Rabban Gamliel’s statement emphasizes the strength of the act: if the assembling of the pieces requires force it is prohibited while if it is easily fastened it is permitted. However, one could also read this as a conceptualization of the act of assembling pieces or building objects (some talmudic commentaries take this approach) — if it results in some small insignificant change it is permitted but if there is innovation and expertise in the act, it is prohibited.

This small excerpt about assembling Talmudic objects or furnishings makes a big point about the experience of Shabbat. By finding ways to refrain from innovation and creative acts on Shabbat, one reflects on and celebrates the human potential for invention and creativity during the other six days of the week.

Read all of Shabbat 47 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 22, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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