The Shuvah Project #24 — Creative Labor & The Sabbath

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary. 

Moses assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them…

-Exodus 35:1

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha (Exodus 35:1-38:20) contained: a Sabbath command, provision of raw materials for the Tabernacle, appointment of the two lead Tabernacle designers, making of the Tabernacle, making the Ark of the Testimony, making the Showbread table, making the Menorah, making the Altar of Incense, making the Altar of Burnt Offering, making the bronze basin, and making the courtyard.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we asked a big question — Why would the Sabbath and the Tabernacle be connected?

So, let’s get after answering it.

In Moses’ speech to the entire assembly (i.e. men, women, and children) he first refers to the commandment of Sabbath, secondly to the work of building the Tabernacle. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbis cite this juxtaposition between the command to not work on the Sabbath and the command to do creative labor for building the Tabernacle when defining the thirty-nine different categories of prohibitive work on the Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 49b).

But why?

What do the two have to do with each other, other than being next to each other in the Text?

Well, we’ve talked about the Tabernacle and The Holy Priesthood serving in the Tabernacle. So, we have a good idea about the purpose of the Tabernacle: it’s a mobile space for God to dwell among His people. But, the Tabernacle wasn’t just any space, it was space mankind intentionally created for God. The Tabernacle mirrored what God did for us during Creation — God was intentional about carving out space for us. This was the common theme among the Rabbinic commentators we discussed.

What about the Sabbath?

Is Sabbath also about bringing God into our world? Yes. But, there’s a difference…

What the Tabernacle is to space, the Sabbath is to time.

– Rabbi David Fohrman, God in Space, God in Time

The Tabernacle created a place for God in space, the Sabbath creates a place for God in time.

Throughout our Torah portion, we hear about the work or creative labor for constructing the Tabernacle. The Hebrew word is melacha; it shows up 19 times across chapters 35 and 36. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s first used in Torah at the end of the Creation story.

By the seventh day God completed His melacha that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His melacha that He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His melacha of creation.

-Genesis 2:2-3, emphasis added

Isn’t that also the origin for the Sabbath? It is! What’s more, Melacha is used in the Sabbath commandment throughout Exodus (e.g. 12:16; 20:9-10; 31:14-15; and 35:2).

It’s as if the Tabernacle and the Sabbath aren’t just connected due to proximity in the Text, but are bound up in this notion of creative and prohibitive labor.

Why is it so important not to labor on the Sabbath?

Disengaging is the way we make Sabbath. Sabbath isn’t a static thing in time. It’s not just a day on the calendar. It must be done/made/created by actively not doing creative labor. And, that’s how Exodus 31:16 described the Sabbath commandment last week.

-Rabbi David Fohrman, God in Space, God in Time, paraphrased

Actively disengaging seems like an oxymoron… until we’re introduced to the Kabbalist interpretation of God’s actions during Creation. They say, God had to contract part of Himself to make room for humanity to be birthed and grow; much like a mother’s womb (see footnote #1).

To make the Sabbath, we too need to contract ourselves and refrain from melacha.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

While Moses is on Mt. Sinai, God appoints Bezalel by name to be lead designer of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2). In our Torah portion, among other repetition, Moses reminds the Israelites that God appointed Bezalel by name (Exodus 35:30). What’s interesting, in the Luke Text (6:12-19), while Jesus is atop a mountain engaging God, He too appoints by name. He appoints the 12 apostles.

Coincidence? Or, it is possible the task Jesus appoints the 12 apostles for is related to Bezalel’s task?

Bezalel was tasked with leading the construction of a space for God’s Divine Presence to be carried everywhere, for garments that would help put God on display. And, we’re told God filled Bezalel with His Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and ability; including the ability to teach others (Exodus 35:31,34).

Bezalel was the lead architect for bringing God’s Divine Presence into the world and teaching others to construct likewise.

What were the apostles tasked with?

We find out a few chapters later that Jesus sends them to “proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to heal the sick (Luke 9:2).” And, aren’t the apostles supposed to look like Jesus?

Then, by comparison, Bezalel, should look like God in some shape or form.

Well… here’s his name: Bĕtsal’el (transliterated).

El is shorthand for God. And, as Rabbis like Rashi and David Fohrman unpack, Betsal is really Btselem; the root for image.

Bezalel… “in the image of God.”

Section Three (missing the mark):

Recently, Rivky Stern, the Executive Producer at Aleph Beta shared some good food for thought in What Makes Sabbath Meaningful? 

She focuses on Exodus 35:1 — where Moses gathered the entire Israelite community.

She asks: 

Is spending time with other people really what God wants from me, on [Sabbath], this Godly day? Moses gather(ed) the people, [so] that means that on [Sabbath], we should focus on gathering, in community?

-Rivky Stern, Aleph Beta

She concludes:

During the week, we live our own disparate lives, working, often disconnected from others around us. But [Sabbath] forces us to leave our creations, let them be, and just be: be a congregation, together with our friends, loved ones, and communities.

-Rivky Stern, Aleph Beta

Pastors, what would it look like to create this day, this Sabbath — the Lord’s day? No rushing. No agenda. Just gathering.

Section Four (real-world applications):

Intuitively we know we can’t proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal the sick when we ourselves are sick from exhaustion.

What’s hard to believe is that our creative work is what can make us sick.  But, that’s exactly how Rabbi David Fohrman describes creativity gone awry — like cancer. Cancer cells’ programmed cell death don’t function normally, they don’t know when to stop creating. They create and create and create and… in the wake of that creation leave destruction.

If we don’t disengage or refrain from our melacha we become like cancer.

Carve out time. Make the Sabbath.

Next Week’s Readings: Exodus 38:21-40:38; Luke 


  1. This idea is called Tzimtzum. One Jewish reference: here. Kristen and Rob Bell also wrote a short, easy read that is founded on this notion of Tzimtzum. Their book: The Zimzim of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage. It’s a great resource for understanding Tzimtzum, it’s an even better marriage resource.

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