Hidden Symbolism of the Mishkan and the 39 Melakhot of Shabbat

A Modern Replica of the Mishkan in Timna, Israel

This week we read a double parasha, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which focuses on the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile Tabernacle that served as the Israelites’ Temple in the Wilderness (and for centuries afterwards). The parasha begins with the command to observe the Sabbath: “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to God…” (Exodus 35:2) Immediately following this command is the instruction for the Israelites to gather materials for the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, for “every wise-hearted person among you shall come and make everything that God has commanded.” (Exodus 35:10)

This juxtaposition classically alludes to the fact that the types of actions and works forbidden on Shabbat are those specifically used in constructing and maintaining the Mishkan. The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) lists 39 such actions:

sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, combing, dyeing, spinning, weaving, the making of two loops, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, tearing down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, [and] carrying out from one domain to another…

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melakhot, by Anshie Kagan

These are the avot melakhot, major categories of labour from which stem myriads of sub-categories and related actions. The Talmud (Shabbat 49b) derives the value of 39 from the fact that the word melakhah (and its derivatives) appear exactly 39 times in relation to the work of the Mishkan. This is precisely the word God used when He commanded not to work on Shabbat, ie. He specifically said not to do melakhah, as opposed to the more general term avodah, which can mean any “work”.

In another place (Shabbat 70a), the Talmud adds further proof from the two words that introduce the law of Shabbat (אלה הדברים, eleh hadevarim) in the first verse of this week’s parasha. The gematria of אלה is 36, plus the word דברים implies two more. (In Hebrew, adding the suffix ים makes something double, or more broadly, turns a singular into a plural, which always means at least two.) The definite article ה, “the”, in front of דברים implies one more. Altogether we have 36 plus 2 plus 1, which makes 39 total “things” (דברים) which God prohibited on Shabbat!

The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343), adds another beautiful proof from the word la’asot (“to do”) in the first verse of the parasha. He points out that this word (לעשת) is an anagram of ל-תשע, literally “thirty-nine”. The same word was previously used by God when He first taught Moses the details of Shabbat on Mt. Sinai (before Moses relayed the message to the people in this week’s parasha):

And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to fulfil the Sabbath [la’asot et haShabbat] throughout their generations, an eternal covenant. It is a sign between Me and the Children of Israel forever; for in six days God made Heaven and Earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested. (Exodus 31:16-17)

From this, we see a clear connection between the forbidden labours of Shabbat, and the “labours” of God in creating Heaven and Earth. Just as God rested from these labours on the Seventh Day, we rest from the same types of activities on Shabbat. In fact, mystical texts state that the 39 categories of labour are the same types of labour that God “performed” in Creation! God “plowed” and “sowed” the Earth before He brought forth the first fruits and vegetables. He “kindled” the stars and turned them into giant furnaces that “baked” all the elements into existence. He “selected”, “sifted” and “bound” those various elements into all the chemical compounds of nature. One can go through all 39 and find clear parallels to processes that took place over the course of Creation. When the Jewish people observe the Sabbath, we bear witness to the fact that God created this universe.

Of course, on a mystical level everything that a Jew does is meant to serve as a tikkun, a rectification of some sort. Keeping Shabbat is among the greatest possible rectifications, for it repairs the entire universe that God created with 39 labours. These repairs refer to the damage done at the very beginning when Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit. As a result, God brought 39 curses upon the world, 10 each on Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, plus 9 upon the Earth (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 14, Zohar Chadash on Ruth, and Eruvin 100b). The curses upon Eve (and all women) include the “afflictions of menstruation” as well as the pain of childbirth. The curses upon Adam (and all men) include the struggle to make a living and sustain a family, and that God severely “curtailed his strength” and made his body weak. Death was the final curse upon all, except the Earth (which is why it got 9). Keeping Shabbat is a grand tikkun that slowly eases these curses, and with each passing Sabbath, brings us one step closer to the World to Come when those curses will be entirely lifted.

In that coming Seventh Millennium, a world described as being kulo Shabbat, “entirely Shabbat”, every day, there will be no need to work or struggle to make a living. The pain of childbirth will disappear. Death itself will be gone, for God will resurrect the righteous. The Sages teach that God will do this through a divine dew, tal (טל), as the Prophet said: “Your dead shall live, dead bodies shall arise; those that dwell in the dust will awake and sing, for Your dew is the dew of light…” (Isaiah 26:19) Fittingly, the gematria of “dew” (טל) is also 39.

100 Pillars, 100 Blessings

The Mishkan was constructed through the same 39 labours that God created the universe with. This is because the Mishkan was designed as a microcosm of the universe. At the same time, it was a microcosm of man, who is himself called olam katan, a “mini-universe”. This is why everything made in the Mishkan was symbolic of the anatomy of man, as well as the anatomy of the whole universe.

For example, the seven light-giving branches of the Menorah correspond to the seven major luminaries in the night sky that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Simultaneously, they correspond to the seven orifices of the human face, which “shine forth” one’s inner light and are the major marks of beauty: the eyes, ears, nose/nostrils, and mouth.

An Artist’s Rendition of the Shulchan

The Shulchan for lechem hapanim, “Table of Showbread”, was made in two columns of poles mirroring the human rib cage. Just as the rib cage has 12 pairs of bones, the Shulchan was filled with 12 loaves of showbread. Cosmically, these 12 correspond to the 12 major astrological constellations of the zodiac. They also correspond to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The same set of 12 correspond to the 12 stones on the Breastplate of the High Priest (worn over his rib cage).

The Midrash HaGadol writes that the 15 types of materials that were collected for the Mishkan, as listed at the start of our parasha, all correspond to body parts:

“Gold” is the soul; “silver” is the body; “copper” is the voice; “blue” are the veins; “purple”, the flesh; “red,” the blood; “flax,” the intestines; “goat hair,” the hair; “ram skins dyed red”, the skin of the face; “tachash skins”, the scalp; “shittim wood”, the bones; “oil for lighting”, the eyes; “spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense”, the nose, mouth and palate; “shoham stones and gemstones for setting”, the kidneys and the heart.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, showing the upper sefirot (Keter/Da’at, Chokhmah, and Binah, known as the Mochin), and the seven lower sefirot.

A total of 11 spices were used to make the special incense, and a total of 11 curtains hung around the Mishkan. The Arizal explains how these correspond to the Sefirot (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Ki Tavo). More specifically, they rectify the Sefirot in the realm of evil. The Ba’al haTurim (on Exodus 26:6) adds that the curtains were held up by a total of 50 hooks corresponding to the 50 Gates of Understanding (Nun Sha’arei Binah). These 50 come from the seven lower Sefirot, each of which is made up of the same seven. (We go through these, and rectify them, during the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot.) The 50 Gates of Understanding originally emanated from the primordial light of Creation, Or haGanuz, the hidden light of the universe (Pardes Rimonim 23:1).

The Mishkan was held up by a total of 100 pillars. The Arizal taught that these correspond to the 100 pillars of Creation (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Iyov). These parallel the Ten Sefirot, each of which is made up of ten, for a total of 100. The Ba’al HaTurim (on 38:24) adds that they correspond to the 100 blessings that a Jew is supposed to recite throughout the day. These blessings hold tremendous spiritual power, and keep Creation going. After all, God Himself proclaimed: “If it were not for My covenant day and night, I would not have set the ordinances of Heaven and Earth.” (Jeremiah 33:25) If we did not uphold His covenant throughout the day, Creation would cease. While the greatest sign of the covenant is observance of Shabbat (as we read in Exodus 31, above), the daily recitation of blessings (whose formula begins with the declaration that God is “King of the Universe”) is a more frequent micro-fulfilment of that covenant.

Indeed, whenever observance of the covenant wanes, catastrophes tend to come upon the Earth. This is especially important now, in light of what is going on in the world. It is worth mentioning that reciting 100 blessings a day was instituted by King David during a time when a virulent disease was decimating the people, as the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:21) describes: “Every day, one hundred men of Israel were dying. [So] David came and ordained [the daily recitation of] one hundred blessings. Once he ordained them, the pestilence ceased.” The 100 pillars of the Mishkan kept the universe going, and the 100 blessings we (hopefully) recite each day do the same. This applies to both men and women for, as Rashi comments (on Exodus 35:17), the “pillars and sockets” of the courtyard is strangely written in the Torah in both masculine and feminine tenses.

The Zohar (I, 76b, Sitrei Torah) explains that it isn’t only us that bless God one hundred times a day, but more significantly, that God blesses us with 100 blessings a day. Just as He instructed Abraham, God tells each soul every day, “lech lecha!” The gematria of this phrase (לך לך) is 100, alluding to the 100 blessings conferred upon a person daily. And each time a person recites a berakhah, they “unlock” of one of those blessings. The berakhah goes both ways, which is why the root of the word (ב.ר.כ.) is composed only of the letters that have values of two (ב is 2, ר is 200, כ is 20).

To summarize, through our careful observance of Shabbat, our recitation of blessings each day, and our heartfelt prayers (which take the place of offerings in the Mishkan), we maintain the spiritual Tabernacle in the Heavens, uphold the covenant, and keep the universe going. We reverse the primordial curses and instead unlock the blessings of Heaven. May we merit to receive all of the tremendous blessings showered upon us each day!