Shabbat's Work Prohibition

A discussion on prohibitions for the Jewish day of rest.

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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).
work on shabbat
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.

The rabbinic enactment of measures to prevent these possibilities was termed "putting a fence around the Torah" (Avot 1:1). For example, ripping up a piece of paper was forbidden since it resembles "cutting to shape" or could be confused with it.

Similarly, agreeing to buy something was prohibited, because most agreements are confirmed in "writing"; climbing a tree is forbidden, because it may lead to breaking twigs or tearing leaves, which could be construed as "reaping" (i.e., separating part of a growing plant from its source). Other activities that by extension are prohibited on the Sabbath include the following:

Adding fresh water to a vase of cut flowers (sowing--any activity that causes or furthers plant growth).

Making a bouquet of flowers (making a sheaf).

Removing good fruit from spoiled fruit (winnowing, selecting, sifting).

Brushing dried mud from boots or clothes (grinding).

Adding cold milk directly to hot tea or coffee (baking-cooking in any form, including adding ingredients to a boiling pot).

Cutting hair or nails (shearing sheep-removing outer covering of a human or animal).

Applying makeup (dyeing).

Braiding hair (weaving).

Drawing blood for a blood test (slaughtering).

Rubbing soap to make lather, applying face cream, polishing shoes, using scouring powder for utensils or other surfaces (scraping-smoothing the surface of any material by grinding, rubbing, or polishing).

Sharpening a pencil (cutting to shape-altering the size or shape of an item to make it better for human use).

Painting, drawing, typing (writing, making durable marks on a durable material).

Tearing through lettering on a package (erasing).

Opening an umbrella or unfolding a screen (building).

Smoking a cigarette, using the telephone (kindling a fire).

Switching off an electric light (extinguishing a fire).

Setting or winding a clock or watch (finishing off).

Wearing eyeglasses not permanently required (carrying from private to public domain and vice versa).

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.