This week’s parasha starts with a reminder that building the משכן doesn’t override שבת:
And in fact, that is the definition of מלאכת שבת: Don’t do anything that you would do for building the משכן:
The the connection between the actual list of מלאכות and building the משכן seems very tenuous, especially all the food-related items. And חז״ל acknowlege this:
So the specific מלאכות are a הלכה ממשה מסיני. But then why mention the number, twice in the mishna: ארבעים חסר אחת. There are 39 מלאכות. Everyone knows that. I might have thought that there’s no significance to that number; it’s just the number of items on the list. But חז״ל try very hard to find a source for that number specifically:
But that’s wrong:
The Yerushalmi brings a very sketchy gematria:
And the Bavli uses a gematria with a far-fetched דרש:
Rav Bin Nun says the number of מלאכות corresponds to the number of nouns that were built for the משכן , not the number of verbs:
But even that is not right, since בגדי השרד were different from בגדי הקודש לאהרן הכהן ואת בגדי בניו (we’ve discussed that before). So Rav Bin Nun’s count is 2 short.
So it’s clear that 39 is important, even if we don’t know where it comes from in the text:
So I would like to look at the 39 מלאכות from a literary-kabbalistic perspective. The number 39 symbolizes something. There’s only one other example of 39 in the halacha:
The punishment for violating most מצוות לא תעשה is 39 מכות. The פרקי רבי אליעזר counts 39 curses that were imposed on אדם after חטא עץ הדעת, his version of 39 מכות:
And fundamentally his curse was to be doomed to work, to do מלאכה. He loses his state of tranquility in גן עדן, which we get a taste of every week with our שבת:
The מלאכת המשכן represents the positive side of the מלאכה that we have to do in this world. The משכן exists to bring the שכינה into the physical world, so the 39 “מכות” of אדם הראשון merits the תיקון of the 39 מלאכות. I am going to quote a file I found via Google with no author or attribution, from the אוצר החכמה forums. It’s a great essay 37 pages long, on the theology of the ל״ט אבות מלאכות. I just wish I knew who wrote it.
And on שבת we don’t need that תיקון , because it is our מעין עולם הבא. It is a time of קדושה, when we do feel מלא כל הארץ
כבודו. Not doing מלאכה, even the holy work of מלאכת המשכן, is an expression of that feeling.