Exodus 35:2-3 – Observing Shabbat

God gave to Moses the commandment to build the Tabernacle. Now Moses is going to tell the Jewish people about this task. But first, he tells them to observe Shabbat.

God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf and gave Moses the second set of tablets. According to Jewish tradition, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with those tablets on Yom Kippur.

The Gathering

The next day Moses gathered the people together to tell them about the commandment to build the Tabernacle. He began by telling them to observe Shabbat:

Exodus 35

2. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death.
3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.

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Observing Shabbat

God had previously commanded the Jewish people to observe Shabbat. Here are those verses along with the context of each verse:

  • Exodus 16:23 about cooking or baking the manna
  • Exodus 20:8-11 part of the 10 Commandments
  • Exodus 23:12 a day of rest for your animals and servants
  • Exodus 34:21 refraining from agricultural work

There is one other set of verses about observing Shabbat. These verses were told to Moses after God had instructed him on all of the details about building the Tabernacle:

Exodus 31

13. Speak you also to the people of Israel, saying, Truly My sabbaths you shall keep; for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you.
14. You shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you; every one who defiles it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work in it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
15. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

God commanded Moses about building the Tabernacle, then told him the commandments about Shabbat.

When Moses tells the people, why does he put Shabbat before the Tabernacle?

Let’s look at our 2 verses in detail.

Exodus 35:2 Explained

2. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death.

Six days work may be done – The English “may be done” is the translation of the Hebrew “tei’aseh” which is a 2nd person, singular, plural form of the nifal verb pattern. The nifal is often a passive verb form.

Rabbi Sorotzkin write that the passive form is used here because the command is not to an individual but to all of the Jewish people. This teaches that the Jewish people as a whole are responsible to ensure that the Sabbath is observed.

work – This is the translation of the Hebrew word “melacha.”

Definition of Melacha

According to Jewish tradition, there are 39 categories of primary activities that the builders engaged in to build the Tabernacle. The prohibited activities called “work” or “melacha” are derived from those 39 categories.

Here is how Rabbi Hirsch explains the concept of melacha in Letter 13 of The Nineteen Letters:

“… you are to refrain on Shabbos from exercising your human dominion over any and all things: you must not use your human abilities to form them into objects for human use. … Consequently, the work forbidden on Shabbos is … productive activity executed consciously, intentionally, by the means and in the measure required to obtain the desired product – in other words, an action executed on an object in a way that gives evidence of human intelligence and human power.”

the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day – Both Shabbat and the Tabernacle have the purpose of sanctifying the Jewish people and bringing them closer to God. The Shabbat was given first and sanctifies time. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, sanctifies a place.

Since that place is accessible at all times, it could have been thought that the Tabernacle supersedes the Shabbat. That is, the sanctification of time is no longer necessary.

These verses are written here before Moses commanded the people to build the Tabernacle to teach us that the sanctification of time (Shabbat) is still in effect. In fact, the sanctification of time is more significant because it exists in both the Land of Israel and outside the Land of Israel. [Sorotzkin]

whoever does work in it – even though it’s a work for God – shall be put to death [Ibn Ezra].

shall be put to death – by the earthly court.

Exodus 35:3 Explained

3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.

Candles lit before Shabbat

You shall kindle no fire – because cooking and baking is permitted on Rosh HaShanah and on festival days (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) it was necessary to explicitly forbid it on Shabbat. [Rashbam]

You shall kindle no fire – The “work” that is not permitted on Shabbat is in the category of a positive, creative act. Kindling fire is written in this verse because burning something doesn’t seem to fit in that category. However, since fire is often needed to perform other creative acts it is treated as a creative act. [Daat Mikra]

throughout your habitations – in every place where you live [Rav Saadia Gaon].

throughout your habitations – but kindling fire as part of the service in the Temple is permitted. [Malbim]

This means that it’s permissible to bring the daily and Shabbat offerings in the proper way even though it will cause fire to be kindled on the limbs that are placed on the Outer Altar. It is also permitted for the priest to light the menorah in the Holy place.

upon the sabbath day – Kindling cannot be done on Shabbat. However, a fire that is lit before Shabbat may be permitted to burn on Shabbat. [Torah Temimah]

upon the sabbath day – “day” in this context includes the night preceding the day time. [Daat Mikra]

The Significance of Shabbat

As I’ve written in another article, the main role of the prophet is to exhort the Jewish people to observe the Torah.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought

8:43 The main message of all the prophets was that we keep the commandments as presented in the Torah. …

8:52 The most usual reason that God sends a prophet is to admonish the people to keep the Torah.

We read that the Prophet Isaiah specifically mentioned Shabbat observance as key aspect of Jewish life.

Isaiah Chapter 56

1. Thus says the Lord, Keep judgment, and do justice; for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed.
2. Happy is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it; who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.

Jeremiah urged his contemporaries to keep Shabbat:

Jeremiah Chapter 17

20. And say to them, Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter in by these gates;
21. Thus says the Lord; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem;
22. Do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, nor do you any work [Hebrew: melacha], but sanctify the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.

Jeremiah urges the people to not do any work on Shabbat.

Then he singles out what seems like a very small thing: carrying an object from one place to another. As minor as it seems to be, it is one of the 39 principle activities that are restricted on Shabbat.

The Death Penalty

A person who desecrates Shabbat is subject to the death penalty of stoning.

This punishment can only be carried out by a proper Jewish court based on the testimony of 2 witnesses. The person accused also needed to be warned that what he was about to do would be a desecration of Shabbat.

Today there is no Jewish court that has the authority to impose and carry out a death penalty.

That does not mean that Jews today are permitted to violate Shabbat without any consequences. The sin of violating Shabbat also carries a penalty of “karet” (spiritual excision) when the death penalty cannot be carried out.

The penalty of karet can take several forms such as suffering, premature death, or a reduced spiritual standing in the World to Come.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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