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The 39 Melachot

When the Jewish people were wandering in the desert, during those 40 formative years following the Exodus from Egypt, they became a nation. They left Egypt as a tribe, and through the giving of the Torah and the subsequent trials and tribulations of almost half a century wandering through the Sinai, they slowly became the people we are today. These early members of the nation didn’t have synagogues or JCCs or the institutions we view as central to the Jewish people today, but they did form so many of the key aspects of the basis of our Judaism.

Shortly after the giving of the Torah, the Jews are commanded to build the Mishkan, or the tabernacle, a sort of portable structure that will serve as the makeshift Temple until a permanent structure is built in Israel. The building of the Mishkan is very specific. Two architects are selected, Bezalel and Oholiab, and very careful instructions are given regarding every aspect of its construction - from the size to the support beams to the weaving of the fabric coverings and the careful ornamentation of the vessels within.

The Jewish people then get to work, building this sanctuary in the desert. They take the careful instructions, and they sow, plow, reap, gather, bind, thresh, winnow, select, grind, sift, knead, bake, shear, clean, comb, dye, spin, weave, tie, sew, tear, tan, cut and build. As it is written, “Moses saw the entire work, and lo! they had done it - as the Lord had commanded, so had they done.” (Exodus 39:43) וַיַּ֨רְא משֶׁ֜ה אֶת־כָּל־הַמְּלָאכָ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ עָשׂ֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה כֵּ֣ן עָשׂ֑וּ.

When we celebrate Shabbat, we’re actually given two commandments: Remember, and Guard. We remember Shabbat by performing rituals like Kiddush over the wine and HaMotzi over the challah. We guard Shabbat by refraining from performing the 39 Melachot, which are the actions which were used in the building of the Mishkan. When G-d told the Jewish people to build the Mishkan, they were so excited that they wanted to get at it and keep going until it was finished. G-d had to tell them to stop and pause. Once a week they were to take a break, put down their work, put down their business, and enjoy the world around them.

Here on the farm, this is very important. There’s always something to do. Balancing my job and all these new experiences is amazing, but also lots of work! Shabbat is an important time to pause and reflect. But Shabbat on the farm has an added level for me. While most people honour Shabbat by unplugging their phones and putting away their car keys (as I also do), these are modern extensions of the biblical structures. The melachot come from somewhere far more ancient.

The 39 Melachot are divided into three categories: field work, textile work, and construction. These are things which many Jews today never do. But on the farm, I often do all three of these things every day. Sometimes I think that contemporary Jewish life can seem quite cut off from our roots 2,000 years ago, but this has been a very meaningful way for me to reconnect and learn more about the root structures of something which is such a big part of my life.

I wanted to go through the 39 Melachot and share with you all how I’ve encountered these activities on the farm.

A note: This is a compilation of my thoughts and reflections based on internet research and my previous learning, and is meant to explore some of the roots of our tradition. It is not meant to be a halachic source, and does not encompass a wide array of different aspects of the melachot including common contemporary applications. Please don’t take it as guidance, merely as a source of inspiration for interpreting and taking ownership of our traditions and heritage.


Field Work

While the Jewish people were nomadic during much of their time in the desert, they did stay in certain places for a while, a year sometimes. Many of these types of field work are based in the making of challah, or ritual showbreads, of which 12 were baked weekly and kept in the Temple.

Planting / Zore’a זורע

When building the Mishkan, the Jews had to grow all sorts of different plants, including ones that contained dyes for dyeing the fabrics, and wheat to make bread. Liz grows many of her own dye plants in the polytunnel. There are marigolds for yellows, and green indigo leaves which ferment into a rich blue dye. She also grows lots of herbs which can be used for tea and spices, and vegetables we eat like potatoes, snap peas, courgettes and salad greens.

Plowing / Choresh חורש

The soil at the farm is not particularly fertile. This is because the land has been used for many different purposes over the years. There used to be a village up the hill that made ironworks, and their discards made the ground iron rich. As they were constructing the station, over a hundred years ago, there was also lots of run-off and compacting of the ground. In order to make it better for growing, we dig up dirt from one place and move it into better places, incorporating air and often building in cardboard layers for better support, and compost for added nutrients.

Reaping / Kotzer קוצר

Reaping means removing a plant from its source of growth. Harvesting the plants is one of my favourite activities because you get to be up close and personal with all of the freshly grown produce. I often gather the marigolds. The petals can be eaten fresh in a salad, or dried and turned into dyes. I also love picking herbs because each one smells so unique (and I do some sampling as I go). I love a fresh mint tea made with freshly picked garden mint.

Gathering and Binding / Me’amer מעמר

Gathering involves the collection of produce that has already been cut. For example, if a farmer goes through a field chopping down wheat with a machete, someone would then have to go through and pick up the wheat off the ground. Since this is a small farm, most of the harvesting is done by hand, with produce gathered right away. We do sometimes collect lichens though, for use in dyeing. Liz likes to collect lichens which have already fallen from the trees, so as not to disturb their growth, so she collects bits of fallen lichen from the forest floor.

Threshing / Dosh דש

Threshing is the removal of parts of a plant in the place it was grown. In the Mishkan, wheat was threshed to make bread, and plants were threshed to extract dyestuff. When harvesting marigolds, we try to take only the petals. This is important, because the green bits of plant that connect the petals to the stalk take longer to dry, and so we don’t want to include them in the petals. But when we remove only the petals, the seeds in the middle stay on the plant, where they can fall back to the ground and continue to grow more marigolds.

Winnowing / Zoreh זורה

Winnowing is using the wind to separate a mixture, as opposed to a utensil or your hands. Winnowing was used to seperate wheat from the chaff when making bread in the Mishkan. When wool comes off a sheep, it’s full of tiny bits of dirt and brambles. After a thorough washing (or two), the wool needs to be picked apart by hand, with each curl pulled out so that the air can pass through and pull away the bits of dirt that get caught between the fibres.

Sorting / Borer בורר

This type of sorting involves using your hands to select one object out of a larger object. In the Mishkan, after they threshed and winnowed the wheat, there would be some bits of dirt which were too heavy to blow away. These would be removed by hand. On the farm, we collect rocks to be used to fill in the drainage ditch. Many of the rocks were sifted out of larger piles of dirt, but we also hand-picked many rocks that were scattered throughout the fields, and put them in the ditch.

Grinding / Tochen טוחן

In the Mishkan, wheat had to be ground for bread, and plants for dyes. Recently we’ve been gathering dockweed, an invasive plant. The primary purpose is to clear it out of the garden, but the leaves, flowers and stalks can be boiled into a dye which produces yellow and orange colours. In order to prepare the plants for boiling, we cut them into smaller pieces, which is a form of tochen.

Sifting / Meraked מרקד

Sifting involves using a sieve to remove undesirable objects. When making dyes to dye wool, we usually boil whole flowers and plants in water to extract the dyes. The dye liquid is then passed through a filter to remove all the bits before immersing the wool, to save us from picking out tiny bits of dirt later. This also makes sure that the dye applies evenly to the wool.

Kneading / Lash לש

Some breads, like sourdough, don’t need lots of kneading, but challah does. Traditionally, time spent kneading challah is said to be a propitious time to reflect and pray, and people often recite the names of people in need of blessings. Liz says that when we cook with our hands, we infuse our food with our intention, and that our food tastes of the intentions we put into it.

Baking / Ofeh אופה and Cooking / Bishul בישול

We do a lot of bread baking here. There’s nothing like sitting on the platform with a slice of warm bread and a cup of coffee watching the morning trains go by. I’ve taught Liz about making challah, which we make every Friday, and I’ve even brought up my sourdough starter, which was left to me by a friend. Liz makes amazing brown seed bread in the machine, which is so delicious!

Textile Work

These actions relate to the creation of textiles which were used to outfit the tabernacle, including the walls and ritual items inside.

Shearing Wool / Gozez גוזז

While I did not do any of the actual shearing, I watched the whole thing, and passed Farmer Graham the different tools he needed. Sheep can be strong, and the cuts need to be made just right. If you end up having to trim a second time, the ‘second cut’ fibres are too short to be used in spinning wool or felting.

Cleaning / Melabain מלבן

Sheep can be dirty! After running around all year in a rainy field, the wool that’s sheared off is full of bits of brambles and chunks of soil, and needs to be carefully picked through to remove everything before spinning. The ends of the fleece come together in tiny curls, which need to be picked apart to loosen for carding. The wool also needs to be washed with soap to remove the lanolin, or perspirated sheep fat, but that can be done at this stage, or after the spinning and before the dyeing.

Combing / Menapaitz מנפץ

Also called carding, combing is an important step in processing the fibres. When you shear the wool of the sheep, it’s not like a fur that is attached to the skin. Each fibre of the fleece is an individual piece. They cling to each other by latching on to the other bits of fibre. In order to spin even wool, the fibres need to be pulled out and evenly dispersed, so that they fall in even patterns. This can be done with a carding machine, or by hand using carding brushes.

Dyeing / Tzove’a צובע

Liz uses natural dyeing methods to colour the fibres. Dyes can be created from all sorts of amazing plants, from lichens which are stewed and fermented to create colour, to flower petals which are dried and boiled. Liz has showed me how to harvest and prepare a number of dyes, as well as how to properly prepare the wool with a mordant to help the colour stick to it.

Spinning / Toveh טווה

After the raw wool is prepared, it can be spun into thread. This can be done by hand using a drop spindle, or with a spinning wheel. Spinning twists the fibres together, so that they stick and lengthen into spun wool, ready for knitting, or in the Mishkan, weaving into fabric.

Threading the Warp / Maisach מיסך

Weaving was done in the construction of the Mishkan to make beautiful walls, tapestries and covers made of all turquoise, red and purple threads. Threading the warp is when you lay out all of the vertical strings which support the weft, which is the bit that you actually weave with. During my week in Newburgh, I met Jimmy the Weaver, who is originally from South Uist. Now he weaves beautiful fabrics from his studio in Fife. He showed us all the different looms and parts of the weaving, including how he threaded the warp and set up the weaving.