Shabbat 74 – From Many to One?
The answer Raba and Abaye both give is based on a Talmudic assumption – why are there 39 categories of prohibited work? Because, according to the Rabbis, there were 39 categories of work performed to build the mishkan [Tabernacle – Tent of Meeting during the Exodus and 40 years of wandering]. So Raba and Abaye agree that if these labors were involved separately in that project, then they must be listed here separately.
There is a problem with this line of argument, however – it is immediately observed that “pounding,” a labor performed to build the mishkan, is not listed by the Mishnah as a forbidden action! And while commentators clearly accept pounding as a forbidden action, it is not part of the number 39. This imprecision when it comes to numbers is nothing new in Jewish counting – the “40 years” in the wilderness consist of 1 year of events and “39 years later. . .”, and the Rabbinic agreement that the Torah contains 613 commandments does not extend to what they actually are – thus the number is not really a list, but lists are made to reach the number.
Note the power of definition – the Rabbis can claim all sorts of actions are prohibited if they can show them as derivative from an av melakhot [major category]. Boiling pitch mishum [on account of] “cooking,” plucking a bird mishum “shearing,” and so on. Thirty-nine proves only the beginning of Shabbat prohibitions that today are of mostly academic interest to the majority of the world’s Jews.
Rabbi Adam Chalom