Miracles and Making Lists - Shabbat 49
The second is a great example of one of the basic tasks of the Talmud – to explain the thinking behind the Mishnah. The Mishnah said that there are 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat; the Talmud here asks the very reasonable question: “why 39? To what does the number 39 correspond?” One rabbi speculates that it is related to the kinds of work performed to build the Tabernacle during the Exodus, since the rules of Shabbat appear right next to the Tabernacle construction in Exodus 35. Another claims that it is the number certain variations of the word melakha [work] appear in the Torah, and when challenged he suggests they pull out a Torah scroll and count them! The challenge comes that the word melakha can sometimes be professional work, but it can also be used euphemistically for other activities, so the challenger asks if a particular example of the word counts towards the 39. The end of this debate is teku – undecided, and waiting for Elijah to return from heaven to settle the issue! (see Blog entry on Shabbat 5 for more on this concept). Besides, using my CD ROM of the Hebrew Torah to count the occurrences of those words, I came up with 47. . .
All of this is very different from our approach to lists. Do we want to have a number fixed, and then try to fill it, or come up with sensible categories and then find out how many we have? While it is a good idea when giving a speech not to have too many points (audience memories are notoriously spotty), not necessarily when making laws. Why not? Because one invents things to fill the number rather than giving an honest list of the genuine possibilities.
Rabbi Adam Chalom