Today’s daf includes what is possibly the most significant mishnah in the entire (very long) tractate. The mishnah provides a list of what are referred to as av melachot, literally “father” labors, meaning primary categories of labor which are prohibited on Shabbat. The secondary categories of labor not included in this list are called toladot, or “children,” subgroups of acts derived from the primary categories. There are 39 in total.
(You might be wondering why this all-important mishnah does not come at the opening of our tractate. The reason is that, with some significant digressions, the mishnahs of this tractate loosely follow the chronological order of preparing for and experiencing the day of rest, beginning with Friday afternoon activities and then continuing on to what one may take or wear out in public once Shabbat begins. We will see a similar pattern of discussing holidays chronologically in other tractates, including Pesachim which we will start in about six months from now.)
This long but important mishnah reads:
The primary categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat, which number forty-less-one: One who sows, and one who plows, and one who reaps, and one who gathers sheaves into a pile, and one who threshes (removing the kernel from the husk), and one who winnows threshed grain in the wind, and one who selects the inedible waste from the edible, and one who grinds, and one who sifts the flour in a sieve, and one who kneads dough, and one who bakes.
One who shears wool, and one who whitens it, and one who combs the fleece and straightens it, and one who dyes it, and one who spins the wool, and one who stretches the threads of the warp in the loom, and one who constructs two meshes (tying the threads of the warp to the base of the loom), and one who weaves two threads, and one who severs two threads, and one who ties a knot, and one who unties a knot, and one who sews two stitches with a needle, as well as one who tears a fabric in order to sew two stitches.
One who traps a deer (or any living creature), and one who slaughters it, and one who flays it, and one who salts its hide (a step in the tanning process), and one who tans its hide, and one who smooths it, removing hairs and veins, and one who cuts it into measured parts.
One who writes two letters and one who erases in order to write two letters. One who builds a structure, and one who dismantles it, one who extinguishes a fire, and one who kindles a fire. One who strikes a blow with a hammer to complete the production process of a vessel and one who carries out an object from domain to domain.
All these are primary categories of labor, and they number forty-less-one.
Elsewhere, the Talmud (Shabbat 49b) explains that the list of 39 prohibited acts of labor is derived from the work which was done in the mishkan (the Tabernacle). The Talmudic commentator Rashi explains that this is based on biblical exegesis of the book of Exodus where the command to build the mishkan is adjacent to the command to observe Shabbat (Rashi, Shabbat 49b). For instance, the first 11 types of work in the mishnah alone were part of the siddura de’pat, the order of baking the bread in the mishkan.
Building the mishkan was the ultimate “labor” of love in the Torah. The main architect, Bezalel ben Uri was said to have been endowed with the divine spirit and his craft was called “inspired design.” (Exodus 35:31) Hence, it is no wonder that the ultimate model for understanding what resting from “labor” meant was derived from the tabernacle. The creation of the mishkan also shares linguistic and thematic parallels with the creation of the world by God, and even God paused to rest on the Sabbath day. Both narratives include references to “completing the work” (Genesis 2:1-2 and Exodus 40:33) and Moses blesses the tabernacle as God blessed creation (Genesis 2:3 and Exodus 39:43). These parallels highlight both the tremendous potential of humankind’s ability to create and innovate and the importance of pausing to acknowledge and appreciate such creations on Shabbat.
Yet, there were many types of work associated with the tabernacle which are not included in the list of “40 minus 1” in the mishnah. The Talmudic rabbis attempt to understand why these particular labors were included while others were not and conclude that this list was passed down from Moses at Sinai (Shabbat 97b), a checklist that would offer Sabbath observers a sense of the overarching structure of the prohibitions, as well as the tools to determine the details — a shorthand for both the forest and the trees.
And why is the number of prohibited labors called “40 minus 1”? The number 40 in Judaism signifies transformation: Noah emerges to a new world after 40 days, the Jews spent 40 years wandering in the desert and rabbi Akiva starts studying Torah at age 40. The mishnaic language highlights that even amongst a list of prohibitions there is a positive, transformational message: keeping Shabbat adds up to appreciating and enhancing human creativity.