Four Ways to Derive the Thirty-Nine Avot Melakhot
How Does the Torah Define Melacha?
In the Ten Commandments, the Torah issues a general prohibition: “The seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God, you shall not do any work (melakha),” on penalty of death. The Torah, however, does not systematically define the parameters of such work other than providing a few examples including:
- gathering and preparing food,
- gathering fuel,
- burning a fire,
- doing agricultural work,
- and working a slave or an animal.
The Prophets further mention performing business transactions and carrying wares to the gates for selling. The sages and communities of later generations were left with the responsibility to define more precisely the parameters of Sabbath observance. Mishnah Hagigah 1:8 appropriately comments that “the laws of Shabbat…are like mountains (or “desert plants”) hanging from a strand.”
The Thirty-Nine Melakhot in the Mishnah
Rabbinic sources provide a systematic delineation of prohibited actions at various levels of liability—the highest and most important being the thirty-nine avot (principle labors; singular av). Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 lists these thirty-nine principle labors, which include activities relating to agriculture and food preparation, clothing manufacturing, preparation of parchment and writing, building, kindling a fire, and carrying. However, the Mishnah provides no source for its list of activities, nor does it explain how it arrived at the number thirty-nine.
Gilat’s Suggestion: A Standard List of Work
Yitzhak Gilat demonstrates that the list of avot belongs to a secondary stratum of the Mishnah and all Tannaim did not agree with it. He further notes that there is nothing in this list to indicate any relationship with the work of the mishkan (Tabernacle) as the Talmud claims; in fact, many of the activities listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 bear little connection with any equivalents in the mishkan. Rather, he argues that this list is derived from standard lists of work activities, such as the one found at Tosefta Berakhot 6:2, where Ben Zoma details all the activities that Adam had to do simply to eat bread: “He plowed, harvested, sheaved, thrashed, winnowed, sifted, ground, sieved, kneaded, and baked.” The Talmud, in fact, designates this group of avot, “the process of making bread.”
This conception of melacha as the processes involved in the manufacturing of basic goods has its basis in the Torah, which prohibits field activities, food preparation and fire. The Mishnah simply specifies what these activities are—in part based on common practice, prior tradition, and its own innovation. The Mishnah’s enumeration may have no further textual proof than this. The number thirty-nine does not seem to have any symbolic significance; it may simply be the sum total of items in this grouping of lists. Certainly, the form of the number as “forty-less-one” rather than “thirty-nine” is simply the typical style of rabbinic Hebrew.
The 39 Melachot in Other Rabbinic Texts
Unlike the Mishnah, which rarely cites sources, other rabbinic texts make various attempts to derive the number thirty-nine and the specific contents of the avot from the Torah. We can find four major strategies in the Talmud for this derivation, each with its own history and development.
I – Derivation from Shabbat’s Juxtaposition with the Mishkan: Exodus 35:1
Exodus 35 begins Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about how to build the mishkan. As a prelude to the mishkan instructions, verses 2-3 mention the prohibition of work on Shabbat. Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael (Vayakhel, Shabata 1) derives from this juxtaposition that the building of the mishkan must pause for Shabbat. The Mekhilta continues:
He [Moses] told them, ‘These are the utterances’ (Exodus 35:1) – Rabbi said: “This comes to include the thirty-nine principle labors [prohibited on Shabbat] that Moses told them orally.”
The midrash infers that, “the utterances,” in verse 1 also relate to the Sabbath and its plural form refers to an oral instruction given by Moses regarding the thirty-nine avot. There is no attempt here to derive the specific number or contents of the avot from the wording; rather, this verse alludes to an oral tradition given by Moses delineating the avot.
While the Mekhilta simply accepts the thirty-nine avot as a part of ancient oral law, the Talmudim make various attempts to derive the number itself from this verse.
- Yerushalmi Shabbat 7, 2 (9b) includes two explanations based on gematria .
- Hanina from Sepphoris in the name of R. Abahu counts: אלה=36, “utterance” adds one, and the plural form, “the utterances,” adds two more for a total of 39.
- The sages of Caesarea instead allow a ח to replace the ה of אלה for a total of 39.
- Bavli Shabbat 70a seems to include the first derivation—that of the amora R. Hanina—within a baraita (i.e., a Tannaitic source) of R. Natan; however, it does not make the gematria explicit: “דברים, הדברים – אלה הדברים – אלו שלשים ותשע מלאכות שנאמרו למשה בסיני.”
- Bavli Shabbat 97b also repeats the same wording but as a baraita in the name of Rabbi, the same authority mentioned in the Mekhilta. It is entirely possible that the Bavli texts merely repeat in slightly different wording the sense of Rabbi’s midrash in the Mekhilta that included no gematria. If, however, the Bavli means to imply the gematria of R. Abahu in its formulation “דברים, הדברים, אלה הדברים,” then it is interestingly inserting this gematria back into Rabbi’s original midrash that made no effort to derive the exact number.
II – The Number of Vessels in the Mishkan
Midrash ha-Gadol makes a stronger connection between the mishkan verses and the avot by presenting the thirty-nine mishkan vessels listed at Exodus 35:11-19 as the source for the same number of avot. This source, like the previous one, derives only the number of avot from the mishkan but not the specific types of labor. In other words, the principle Shabbat labors bear no necessary resemblance to the list of vessels of the mishkan; but at least we have the number thirty-nine. Rabbi Bin Nun impressively came upon this midrashic derivation independently and even added a significant insight by finding thirty-nine vessels listed in Exodus 39:33-41 as well.
III – Counting the Number of Words Related to Work
Yerushalmi Shabbat 7, 2 (9b) quotes R. Shmuel bar Nahman in the name of R. Yohanan who claims that the thirty-nine avot correspond to forty-less-one times the word “melakha” is written in the Torah. Bavli Shabbat 49b similarly cites in the name of R. Shimon b’R. Yose ben Lakonia that the avot correspond to the instances of the word “melakha” in the Torah (section C in the chart below).
Despite slight differences in the names of the tradents and the formulation, the Yerushalmi and Bavli sugyot show an overall affinity. Both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli question whether Genesis 39:11 and another verse (Genesis 2:2 or Exodus 36:7) should be included in this count. In both sugyot, an amora asks a question, another amora rejects the basis of the question since the answer can be easily checked in a Torah, and the question is then reformulated and left unanswered (section D). This overlapping structure suggests that the sugyot in each Talmud share a common skeletal origin.
The idea to base the thirty-nine avot on the number of occurrences of the word melakha may have arisen from activity of the early transmitters of the biblical text. Y. Shekalim 5, 1 (48c) states that the Soferim (lit. counters), “made the Torah into many enumerations…avot melakhot are forty-less-one.” As pointed out by Rabbi Hoffman, these Soferim are also mentioned in B. Kiddushin 30a as those who count the number of letters, words, and verses in the Bible. These may have been predecessors of the Masoretes who also recorded such counts as well as counting occurrences of word spellings throughout the Bible. As they were counting occurrences of words, they also connected these counts with relevant halakhot.
Be that as it may, this count is very difficult to calculate since various permutations of the work melakha occur well over thirty-nine times in the Torah. Many commentators ancient and modern have discussed this problem. Most recently, Rav Yoel Bin Nun has brilliantly offered a possible new solution by counting only “melakha” and “melakhto”  but not “melekhet,” yielding forty instances, in which case the ensuing discussion about how to count individual verses makes sense as an attempt to remove one to get thirty-nine.
The Yerushalmi (section E) includes a variant of this method:
“R. Yose b. R. Bun in the name of R. Shmuel bar Nahmani: [The thirty-nine avot] correspond to forty-less-one occurrences of ‘`avodah’ and ‘melakha’ regarding the mishkan.”
As Gilat points out, this opinion actually combines aspects of this strategy with that of the next one, which focuses on work in the mishkan.
IV – Categories of Work Performed in the Mishkan
Very few Tannaitic sources connect the avot with the various specific types of work activity performed in the mishkan. Amoraic sources expand the relationship between the avot and the mishkan to a much greater extent.
To begin with Tannaitic sources:
- Mishnah Shabbat 11:2 derives the manner of transferring from one private domain to another over a public domain based on how the Levites would transfer planks of the mishkan from one wagon to another.
- Mishnah Shabbat 12:3 states that one who writes two letters on Shabbat is liable for the av of writing. R. Yose explains: “They made liable for writing one who makes two letters [as a minimum] because this is how they would mark the planks of the mishkan to know which one goes next to which.”
- Tosefta Shabbat 11:2 states: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says, ‘Even one who strikes a hammer against an anvil during work is liable for that is how they would beat metal sheets for the mishkan’”
These texts look to the manner in which a certain activity was done in the mishkan in order to define a parameter of the av; but they do not derive the av itself from a mishkan equivalent.
The Yerushalmi states:
“All of the principle manners of work (avot) were learned from the mishkan. What plowing was done in the mishkan?…What dying was there in the mishkan?…What tying was there in the mishkan?…What tanning was done in the mishkan?… What erasing was done in the mishkan?…What building was there in the mishkan?”
The Yerushalmi only explicitly connects these few activities with the mishkan but it does begin with the broad statements that all of the avot derive from the mishkan.
By basing all of the avot on the mishkan, the Yerushalmi draws a much closer analogy between the two than the Tannaitic sources do. But the Bavli goes even further in emphasizing and building far-reaching definitions on the basis of this conceptualization. This is reflected in its programmatic statement in the primary discussion of the source for the avot as well as in its conceptualization of the definition of melakha.
Let us compare the loci classici for the origin of the avot in both the Yerushalmi and Bavli. (Below is the English Text – see Appendix for Hebrew text.)
Yerushalmi Shabbat 7, 2 (9b)
Bavli Shabbat 49b
|A||How from the Torah do we know that there are these generative categories?||Again they sat and pondered: Regarding what we learnt, “The principal categories of labor are forty less one,” -to what do they correspond?|
|B||Said R. Hanina b. Hama to them: To the forms of labor in the Tabernacle.|
|C||R. Samuel bar Nahman in the name of R. Jonathan: “They stand for the forty-less-one times the word, ‘work,’ is written in the Torah.”||R. Jonathan son of R. Eleazar said to them, Thus did R. Simeon b. R. Jose b. Lakonia say: They correspond to [the words] ‘work’ [melakah], ‘his work’ [melakto], and ‘the work of’ [meleketh], which are [written] thirty-nine times in the Torah.|
|D||They asked R. Aha, “Are all of the occasions on which the words, ‘acts of labor,’ are written in the Torah equivalent to two [further acts of labor]?
Said R. [A]sian, “R. Aha’s review of the entire Torah was such that he did not find the word, ‘acts of labor,’ written there.
Was that what they were asking? It was not that, but rather [whether the use of the word, “his work,” is numbered, as in the following instances]: “But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house” (Gen. 39:11); and “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Gen. 2:2).
R. Simeon b. Yohai taught, “‘For six days you shall eat unleavened bread; and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God; you shall do no work on it’ (Deut. 16:8). Lo, this reference to the word, ‘work,’ comes to complete the count of forty-less-one acts of labor that are written in the Torah.”
|R. Joseph asked: Is, “And he went into the house to do his work,” included in this number, or not?
Said Abaye to him, Then let a Scroll of the Torah be brought and we will count! Did not Rabbah b. Bar Hanah say in R. Johanan’s name: They did not stir thence until they brought a Scroll of the Torah and counted them?
The reason that I am doubtful, replied he, is because it is written, “For the work they had was sufficient”: is that of the number, while this is [to be interpreted] in accordance with the view that he entered to take care of his needs (sleep with his mistress) ; or perhaps “and he went into the house to do his work” is of the number, while this “for the work they had was sufficient” is meant thus: their business was completed? The question stands.
|E||R. Yosé b. R. Bun in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahmani: “The number stands for the forty-less-one times that the words ‘labor’ and ‘work’ are written in connection with the building of the tabernacle.”|
|F||Said R. Yosé b. Hanina, “‘This is the thing,’ is not written, but rather, ‘[Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel, and said to them,] These are the things which the Lord has commanded you to do’ (Ex. 35:1). The expansion from ‘thing’ through ‘things of’ to ‘things’ is meant to signify that there are both generative categories and also secondary analogies.”
R. Hanina of Sepphoris in the name of R. Abbahu: [Among the letters for the word, ‘these’] alef stands for one, lamed for thirty, he for five. Thing stands for one, things for two. On this basis we learn of the forty-less-one aspects of a work that are written in the Torah.”
Rabbis of Caesarea say, “From the basic proof text before you there is nothing lacking in any event. [That is to say,] alef stands for one, lamed for thirty, and het for eight.” The rabbis then do not differentiate between a he and a het.
|G||It was taught as the opinion that it corresponds to the forms of labor in the Tabernacle.
For it was taught: One is liable only on activity that was analogously performed in the mishkan. They planted so you may not plant. They harvested so you may not harvest. They carried the planks from the ground to the wagon so you make not transfer from public domain to private domain. They lowered the planks from the wagon to the ground so you may not transfer from private domain to public domain. They transferred from wagon to wagon so you may not transfer from private domain to private domain.
Both sugyot open with the same question (section A). Sections C and D, as we analyzed above, are more or less equivalent between the two Talmuds and focus on counting the occurrences of melakha in the Torah. Section E, which counts words for work found in the mishkan context, appears only in the Yerushalmi. Section F appears in the Yerushalmi sugya and has no parallel in the corresponding Bavli sugya at 49b.
Most significantly, sections B and G appear only in the Bavli. R. Hanina (bar Hama) says that the avot correspond with the work performed in the mishkan and section G cites a baraita to back up this opinion. The Yerushalmi does include a similar statement in the continuation of the chapter, as cited above. However, I think it is significant that only the Bavli cites this opinion in this central sugya and that only the Bavli quotes this baraita.
Analyzing the overall structure of the Bavli sugya, we see that it omits any mention of the gematria derivation here, it cites the third strategy but leaves the question about that count unanswered, and it advocates decisively for the fourth strategy. It thus begins and concludes with the strategy that it clearly prefers. The Yerushalmi, on the other hand, does cite snippets of this strategy in the ensuing discussion but shows no preference for it and does not even mention it in this primary sugya.
The Bavli’s emphasis on the connection between the avot and the mishkan activity likely relates to its overall tendency towards greater conceptualization and systematization. The Bavli’s project of conceptualization also has far-reaching effects on defining conditions for liability. Tannaitic sources require that one have intention to perform the forbidden act in order to be liable to bring a sin offering. But only the Bavli expands this to also require that the act be work of craftsmanship.  This Bavli innovation may stem from its conception of avot as deriving from the work performed in assembling the mishkan.
In sum, Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 presents these lists of creative activities without any hint as to their source, and other Tannaitic texts make only slight reference to an analogy between these avot and the mishkan activities. Amoraic sources, on the other hand, present four different strategies for the derivation of the avot and of the number thirty-nine. These various “derivations” come after the legislation of the system of the avot; nevertheless, they help to define and refine the conceptualization of the avot over the generations of the halakha’s development. These laws, which were once likened to “mountains hanging from a strand,” have now been attached to the Torah with a fourfold cord.
Appendix – Hebrew Table of Comparison
(ירושלמי שבת ז, ב (ט ע”ב) (ונציה)
בבלי שבת מט, ב
|A||אבות מלאכות ארבעים חסר אחת מניין לאבות מלאכות מן התורה||הדור יתבי וקא מיבעייא להו הא דתנן אבות מלאכות ארבעים חסר אחת כנגד מי|
|B||אמ’ להו ר’ חנינא כנגד עבודת המשכן|
|C||רבי שמואל בר נחמן בשם רבי יונתן כנגד ארבעי’ חסר אחת מלאכ’ שכתוב בתורה||אמ’ להו ר’ יונתן בן אלעזר כך א”ר שמעון בן יוסי בן לקונייא כנגד מלאכות שבתורה ארבעים חסר אחת|
|D||בעון קומי ר’ אחא כל הן דכתי’ מלאכות שתים
אמר רבי שיין אשגרת עיינה דרבי אחא בכל אוריתא ולא אשכח כתיב דא מילתא
בעיא דא מילתא ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו מנהין ויכל אלהי’ ביום השביעי מלאכתו אשר עשה מנהין
תנא רבי שמעון בן יוחי ששת ימים תאכל מצות וביום השביעי עצרת לה’ אלהיך לא תעשה מלאכה הרי זה בא להשלים ארבעים חסר אחת מלאכות שכתוב בתורה
|בעי רב יוסף ויבוא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו ממניינא הוא אילאו ממניינא הוא
אמ’ ליה אביי ולייתי ספר תורה ולימני מי לא אמ’ רבה בר בר חנה א”ר יוחנן לא זזו משם עד שהביאו ספר תורה ומנאום
אמ’ ליה כי קמיבעייא לי משום דכת’ והמלאכה היתה דיים ממניינא הוא והאיך ויבוא הביתה כמאן דאמ’
לעשות צרכיו נכנס או דילמ’ ויבוא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו ממניינא הוא והאיך והמלאכה היתה דים והכי קאמ’ דשלימא לה עיבידתא תיקו
|E||רבי יוסי בי רבי בון בשם ר’ שמואל בר נחמני כנגד ארבעים חסר אחת פעם שכתוב במשכן עבודה ומלאכה|
|F||אמר רבי יוסי בן חנינא זה הדבר אין כתיב כאן אלא אלה הדברים דבר דברי דברים מיכן לאבות ולתולדות
ר’ חנינא דציפורין בשם ר’ אבהו אל”ף חד למ”ד תלתין ה”א חמשה דבר חד ודברי’ תריי מיכן לארבעים חסר אחת מלאכות שכתוב בתורה
רבנין דקיסרין אמרין מן אתרה לא חסרה כלום אל”ף חד למ”ד תלתין ח’ תמניא לא מתמנעין רבנן דרשין בין ה”א לחי”ת
|G||תנייא כמאן דאמ’ כנגד עבודות המשכן
דתנייא אין חייבין [אלא על] מלאכה שכיוצא בה במשכן כיצד הן זרעו אתם לא תזרעו הן קצרו אתם לא תקצורו הן העלו קרשים מקרקע לעגלה אתם לא תכניסו מרשות הרבים לרשות היחיד הן הורידו קרשים מעגלה לקרקע אתם לא תוציאו מרשות היחיד לרשות הרבים הם הושיטו את הקרשים מעגלה לעגלה אתם לא ת[ו]צאו מרשות היחיד לרשות היחיד
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Dr. Rabbi Richard Hidary is Associate Professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University. He is also the Distinguished Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation Shearith Israel. He received his ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a Ph.D. from N.Y.U. He is the author of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud.
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