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Why Are 39 Labors Prohibited on the Sabbath?
People familiar with the Jewish Sabbath laws know that the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, doesn’t list the activities prohibited on the Sabbath; rabbis instituted these laws and say that the laws are “hinted” in the Torah.
These hints are based on two of many rabbinical methods rabbis use in interpreting the Bible: (1) When facts or incidents are placed near one another in the Bible, they draw a lesson from the juxtaposition. (2) A law can be derived from such things as counting the number of times an item appears in the Torah.
Thus the rabbis said: (1) Since the Sabbath is mentioned near the laws of the building of the Tabernacle, this juxtaposition shows that labors necessary to construct the Tabernacle are forbidden on the Sabbath. (2) Because the Hebrew term melakhah, “work,” is found in the discussion of the Sabbath 39 times in the Bible, Scripture is teaching that there are 39 categories of proscribed work on this holy day.
Why are they prohibited?
Some scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, suggest that the 39 categories of Sabbath prohibitions are comprised of melekhet machshevet, a phrase found in Exodus 35:33, which they translate as “creative acts.” Creative acts, they say, are forbidden on the Sabbath to remind Jews that God created the world and ceased creating on the first Sabbath.
Critique of the rabbinical approach
Critics of these views point out that no hint of the 39 labors exists in the Torah itself, and it is clear that the register of prohibitions is clearly rabbinical in origin. If the Torah wanted to teach that work performed in the Tabernacle or creative acts should not be done on the Sabbath, it would have stated this clearly. Furthermore, the reliance on the word melakhah appearing 39 times is unreasonable. The word is present in 166 verses throughout the entire Bible, including 65 in the Pentateuch alone, and these numbers are not used to teach any lesson.
Additionally, hundreds of jobs were performed by Tabernacle workers but were not included in the 39 categories listed by the rabbis. These include: (1) carrying work instruments and other items in the Tabernacle structure, (2) washing before and after work and before and after eating, (3) setting the table to eat, (4) using utensils in eating and drinking, (5) cleaning the table after the meal, and (5) clearing work areas when work was completed. Many of these were “creative acts,” such as: (6) measuring boards and cloths and placing them in their proper places in the Tabernacle based on the measurements, (7) counting, (8) reading, (9) studying, (10) giving directions to subordinates, and other activities for which a specialist is generally consulted. Why were these activities not prohibited on the Sabbath?
Additionally, whether one is convinced that the 39 labors are biblical or rabbinic, certain questions arise. Why were 39 banned behaviors chosen and not another number? Why did the rabbis call the number “forty minus one”? Why didn’t they say 39?
The Significance of the Number Forty
The number forty is a symbolic figure associated in Jewish thought with a long period or a large number of difficulties. It reminds Jews, for example, of the forty years of struggle and challenges that the Israelites endured as punishment for accepting the wrong-headed assessment of the ten spies sent to evaluate the land of Canaan when the Israelites refused to rely on the divine assurance that they could conquer the land.
The number also recalls the forty days and nights when the flood raged and destroyed all earthly inhabitants; only Noah, his family and the animals he sequestered on the ark were saved.
The number forty brings to mind the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, with no one but God, without food and drink. This was a period of deep mental and physical exertion, when Moses obtained the Decalogue from God, learned its meaning, and then brought it to the Israelites.
The Meaning of the Words “Forty Minus One”
The unusual phrase “forty minus one” also appears to have special symbolic meaning, for if it did not, the number 39 would have been used. Aside from being employed in reference to the Sabbath, “forty minus one” is also utilized as the count for the lashes inflicted to punish criminals for certain crimes.
The rabbis were conscious of the severity of the 39 lashes and the enormous strain and bodily destruction it produced. Only a few rather strong men could endure so many harsh beatings. Therefore, the full count of 39 lashes was rarely inflicted, the rabbis required that a doctor examine and evaluate a prisoner’s physical condition before lashes were inflicted, and, if the doctor determined that the criminal could not stand the large number of whippings, the amount was reduced. Thus, the number “forty minus one” is symbolic, not real. Why, then, did the rabbis invent the phrase “forty minus one”?
It seems that the rabbis wanted to say two things. First, as indicated by the symbolism of the number forty, the criminal deserved a harsh and unpleasant punishment because of his misdeed. Second, by reducing the number and making it clear that they were decreasing it by using the phrase “forty minus one,” they were teaching that people must not act ruthlessly without sensitivity and consideration – even with criminals.
Applying This Concept to Shabbat
Even rabbis who contend that the list of prohibited Sabbath labors was derived from the Torah recognize that there are more than thirty-nine categories of work that are disallowed on the Sabbath. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for example, adds, in its concluding paragraph, acts unbecoming the tone of the Sabbath day, such as: buying, selling, loaning, placing an article in deposit, legal judgments, legal claims, appeals, other court activities, marriage, divorce, and accounting – eleven more. This Midrash cites what it considers to be scriptural proof for each of these items. Why, then, if the sages themselves recognized that more than thirty-nine activities were prohibited on the Sabbath, was “forty minus one” chosen as the official count?
Consistent with corporal punishment, it appears that the rabbis chose 39 categories of prohibited acts and called them “forty minus one” to teach two lessons. First, by mentioning forty, which denotes difficulty, they made it clear that Shabbat should be a day when Jews scrupulously abstain from creative acts. The abstention must be noticeable, clear, obvious, unambiguous – an unmistakable demonstration that Jews are thinking of God and recalling that God created the world and ceased creative acts on the Shabbat. This demonstration can only occur when a significant number of creative acts are noticeably disallowed on the Shabbat.
And the rabbis stressed a second lesson. The Sabbath is not a sad, negative day devoted to abstentions and ascetic behaviors, a time, as the ancient Sadducees insisted, when Jews sequester themselves in their homes, set themselves apart from company, and sit in the dark and cold, passively, without light and fire. The rabbis insisted that the Sabbath is a day of pleasures.
Beside 39 seemingly negative certainly restrictive acts, the rabbis instituted sabbatical laws that emphasize the enjoyment and the possibility for improvement on the holy day, such as eating delicious foods, imbibing tasty drinks, beginning meals with a blessing and wine, wearing one’s best clothes, devoting time to study and self-improvement, and starting the Sabbath with the lighting of candles, symbolizing the light, warmth, and joy that is contrary to the Sadducean dark and negative Sabbath.
Thus, the Sabbath labors are “forty minus one,” which marks a day in which Jews understand both the rigorous duty to remember God and the delightful duty to do so with joy and self-improvement.
 This article, an original idea, is based on a chapter in my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets,” published by Gefen Publishing House.
 In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 49a.
 Halakhah in Hebrew.
 Many say that the thirty-nine prohibited acts are divine laws unstated in Scripture but passed on to Moses by God orally who, in turn, taught them orally to the people, and such unrecorded laws are called the “Oral Torah.”
 In such places as Mishnah Shabbat 73a and the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 49b.
 arba’im chaser achat in Hebrew.
 Mishnah Shabbat 7:2.
 Mishnah Makkot 3:1–10.
 Mishnah Makkot 3:10.
 They existed from around 300 BCE to100 CE. The exact dates are unknown.