The 30 Categories of Melachot

“Malachah” commonly translated as “work”.

Has no English equivalent.

Does not mean “work” in the traditional sense.

We can define the meaning by the context in which it is used.

Genesis 2 account of creation and G-D resting from all the “malachah”.

Most closely translated as to produce, make, or create.

 Rabbi S.R. Hirsch puts it like this

“Thus for six days you shall exercise, in the service of G-D, your dominion over the things of your world which he conferred upon you. You shall utilize them for your purposes and, like a creator, modify them for these purposes. You are to shape them all into servants of your might. But the seventh day is to put a stop top all of these activices of yours; opn it you are  to desist from your creating, in order to render homage to Hashem as your G-d.”

The 39 are not meant as halachah for Sha’arey Tzion but as a guide.

It would be virtually impossible to establish these 39 as halachah for they are not specifics but only general categories.

There is a tendency to witness the extreme interpretation of the category and assume the whole category lacks weight.

 Example: We would all agree that it is appropriate for women to dress modestly.

An extreme example is the demand by Muslim law for women to wear a Burka that covers the entire body.

Does this mean that the entire concept of modest dress is bunk?

 As we examine the 39 we will look at some of the extreme examples and weigh them against the contextual evidence.

 The 39 categories can be divided into 4 groups by the rabbi’s.

  • The first 11 Categories are activities required to make bread
  • The next 13 are activities required to make a garment
  • The next 9 are activities required to make leather
  • The final 6 categories are activities required to make a house.

1. Carrying a load

How is carrying a form of “malachah”?

Carrying is really a prototype of all types of “melachah”.

As we have already talked about work prohibited on the Shabbat is any act where man demonstrates his mastery of nature.

If we relinquish our mastery over creation on the Shabbat the first requirement is that we should not carry anything unnecessary.

 Jeremiah 17:19-22“Thus said the L-rd to me: “Go and stand in the People’s Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the L-rd, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the L-rd: Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. “

The context of this verse is the carrying of commerce and merchandise.

From this passage we can logically buying and selling falls under the category of carrying.

If it is not connected with the Shabbat or necessary then my opinion is that we probably should not carry items on the Shabbat.

2. Making a fire on the Shabbat

Just like carrying this passage can be directly tied to the Torah.

 Exodus 35:2-3 “Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the L-rd. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

 The words of the Torah simply says “to burn a fire” with no indication of how easily or difficult the fire to light.

How is burning associated with “malachah”?

If carrying is a prototype for all “malachah”, then fire is the key element of all “malachah”.

If it is not directly connected to a specific form of “malachah” then it is connected indirectly.

It is the use of fire that is one of the prime ways in which man demonstrates his mastery over creation.

It is the most basic element of manufacturing.

It is fire that allows man to extract energy, his most basic requirement, from nature.

It is one of the cornerstones of human civilization.

Fire transforms substances.

It transforms matter to energy.

Fire makes smoke, heat, light, and energy.

Within this category it is safe to include the following activities.

  • Gathering material to burn
  • Striking a match
  • Turning on a stove
  • Smoking
  • Turning on an automobile engine

 Two important lessons from Talmud.

  1. If two commandments are in contradiction to each other by our circumstances we are to uphold the positive command.
  2. The preservation of life takes precedence.

 For our community starting our vehicles is a necessary violation of the Shabbat.

It is a matter of the preservation of the life of this Torah community and young movement.

Is me driving on the Shabbat going to enable me to keep more of the positive commandments of the Shabbat?

3. Extinguishing a fire

Of the 39 categories of malachot this is the only one that I am having a difficult time linking to the Torah and to a black and white definition of malachot.

Just as lighting a fire allows man to extract energy from nature for his own purpose extinguishing a fire stops the natural process, thus man influencing nature.

We must be careful when interpreting in this fashion because almost anything we do has influence over nature.

Let us use common sense.

Putting out your Shabbat candles before going to bed is probably ok.

4. Finishing

This malacha refers to an act of completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form.

Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day G-d finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.”

 Some of the rabbinical prohibitions include…

  • Setting a watch
  • Winding a clock
  • Putting new laces in a shoe
  • Tearing TP
  • Using a stapler
  • Slicing open
  • Tearing a poorly separated newspaper

 The prohibition of applying a finishing touch literally translates as “striking with a hammer”.

Sanding or planning wood.

Smoothing a stone.

Sharpening a knife.

 As we think of the prohibition of finishing let us remember this…

The Shabbat is about preparation.

It is purposefully and intentional.

The Shabbat doesn’t ask your permission.

It doesn’t wait for you to finish all your work.

It comes whether you are prepared or not.

The Shabbat is a special guest in your home.

5. Writing

According to Orthodox halachah this includes all forms of writing and drawing.

Typing printing, and using a rubber stamp are also included under this heading.

 Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains like this…

When the Sages established these 39 malachot writing was included under the covering of business activities.

The intension is to avoid legal and contractual arrangements on the Shabbat.

These would include the following.

  • Writings checks to be mailed after the Shabbat
  • Signing closure papers for a home
  • Signing other legal documents


Others included in this category are calculations and measurements.

What about taking notes from a sermon or midrash on the Shabbat?

 I believe you would do well to think on these three things.

  1. Is there an obvious connection to what the Torah describes as malachah?
  2. Does it keep with the spirit of the holiness of the Shabbat?
  3. Does it enable us to keep positive commandments?

6. Erasing

This include erasing or destroying any form of writing.

Again the intension is to avoid legal and contractual arrangements on the Shabbat.

7. Cooking

This includes all forms of cooking, baking, or boiling.

Besides the issue of lighting a fire cooking involves malachah in a very direct way.

The making of Challah should be done before the Shabbat begins.

This does not mean hot foods are not eaten on the Shabbat.

The Shabbat is about preparation.

I will also use the microwave occasionally.

8. Washing

This category is primarily connected with the washing of garments.

One could also include dishes, everyday household chores, and automobiles.

The washing of the hands and body perfectly fine.

9. Sewing

This includes all forms of sewing, needle work, pasting, taping, and stapling.

Sealing an envelope falls under this category.

This category is intended to apply to things that are permanent.

Attaching something together with a safety pin is considered acceptable.

10. Tearing (Considered the opposite of sewing.)

11. Knotting

Includes the tying of a permanent knot.

12. Untying (The untying of knots that are meant to be permanent.)

13. Shaping

This includes cutting any object to a desires shape.

Foods are not included and may be cut to be served.

14. and 15 . Plowing and Planting

Includes working ion your gardens and watering your plants.

16. and 17. Reaping and Harvesting

This includes cutting or plucking of any growing thing and the gathering into piles.

18. and 19. Threshing and Winnowing

This includes food separated into it’s edible portions.

20. Selecting

Selecting the good from the bad.

Applies particularly to agriculture.

21. Shifting

22. Grinding (includes coffee)

23. Kneading (combining powder and liquid)

 The next seven are all involved with the production of fabric materials used for the Mishkan.

24. Combing

25. Spinning

26. Dying

27. Chain Stitching

28. Warping

29. Weaving

30. Unraveling

31. and 32. Building and Demolishing

If it is profane to build the Mishkan on the Shabbat then how much more so a mundane structure.

33. Trapping

If gathering mannah is prohibited then certainly trapping animals would be as well.

Fishing would fall under this category.

34. Shearing (Removal of hair, wool, or feathers fro any living creature)

35. Slaughtering (For the purpose of sacrifice it is acceptable)

36. Skinning

37. Tanning

38. Smoothing

The intended focus is upon gems, leathers, and surfaces.

39. Marking

This includes marking or scoring lines on a surface for cutting or shaping.

Example: The marking of lumber for cutting.

 As we have listed to the 39 categories of malachot you might come to feel that keeping the Shabbat is an impossibly complex task.

The Shabbat is not about a list of do’s and don’ts.

It is another way of life.

When presented as a list of do’s and don’ts or in a handbook format it seems stressful and burdensome.

As our Master teaches us we make the Shabbat burdensome by making it an inflexible set of rules and regulations.

We must be careful in our judgments of others as they too are only beginning the journey. We must also avoid becoming prideful in our journey.

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