Pekudei: Marking our Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

“It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first
day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up. Moshe set up the
Mishkan, placed its sockets, put up its planks, put in its bars, and
set up its pillars.. . . . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 40:17-18)

Hello again! This week we’re reading the final portion of
Shmot/Exodus, Pekudei, in which the Torah relates the building and
assembly of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, as quoted above. Later
in Jewish history, the rabbis of the Talmudic period [up to about 600
C.E.] expounded many laws and teachings about even the most minute
aspect of the Mishkan and its successor, the Beit HaMikdash [Temple]
in Jerusalem. The rabbis taught that every board forming a wall or
boundary of the Mishkan had to be placed on the same side as it was
when the Mishkan was originally set up- that is, a board in a certain
spot had to be in the same place every time the Mishkan was
reassembled, in the same spot on the east or west side, for example.

OK, I can hear the fiber optic cables resonating with your puzzled
exclamation: “uh, so, what does the punctiliousness of Biblical-era
construction crews have to do with current Jewish practice?”

Glad you asked!

Some of you may remember that most of the laws of “resting” on
Shabbat, like not building, planting, sewing, cooking, etc., are
derived by the rabbis from the various sorts of labors that went into
building the Mishkan. The rabbis saw that the commandment for Shabbat
was given along with the instructions for building the Mishkan (cf.
Shmot/Exodus 31 and 35). They then reason that the “work” [melachah,
or creative, purposeful labor] which is being prohibited on Shabbat
must be conceptually related to all the positive instructions for
building the Mishkan which follow.

Thus, if you have to build structures or tie knots to make the
Mishkan, you should not do those things on Shabbat.

Getting back to our current Torah portion and the verse quoted at the
top of the page, the ancient rabbis taught that each board of the
Miskan- in order to be put in its proper, regular place- had a special
identifying mark on it. Thus, even though writing is not an obvious
part of building the Mishkan, writing or making identifiable marks is
still within the original categories of things we don’t do on Shabbat
because they were done for the Mishkan. (Cf. Mishnah Shabbat 12:3)

With me so far? OK, let’s take it one step further to clarify a common
misunderstanding. Many people who incorporate aspects of Shabbat into
their weekly practice refrain from buying and selling, which makes so
much sense in a world of 24 hour commerce and oppressive materialism.
Yet what’s interesting is that the traditional discipline of not
handling money on Shabbat is actually derived from the primary
principle of refraining from writing: the ancient rabbis were
concerned that if we handled money, we’d be tempted to buy or sell,
which would lead to writing a contract or receipt.

Not writing on Shabbat hardly seems like “work,” as we commonly
understand the term, but I remind you that the Hebrew word is
“melacha,” which does not mean “work” in the sense of bodily exertion,
but it means effecting power over the world, engaging in some
deliberate action to change something in the physical cosmos. To put
it another way, Shabbat is the day that we change our doing so that we
have a different context for being. We write to remember, we write to
make our thoughts permanent, we write to record a transaction- but on
Shabbat, there is an opportunity to experience the world as it is,
right in that moment. On Shabbat, we reencounter the world, finding it
very good, being present in it as best we can, without saving the
moment for later. That’s why we put the pencil- or computer- down, and
lift our eyes up to the Heavens, once a week, on the seventh day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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