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.
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!
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.
Setting the Heddles / Oseh Shtei Batei Nirin עושה שתי בתי נירין
Wool is spun into single-ply threads. This means that the wool is twisted into one thread. This gives a certain look, but is not as strong, and so most wool is plied together, with two spun strands (spun clockwise), twisted together in a counter-clockwise direction. This gives it thickness and strength, as well as an opportunity to blend colours. When plying threads together, you need to separate them with your hand to avoid getting them twisted too soon. This is similar to the heddles, which separate the different threads on a loom, allowing the weaving pattern to form.
Weaving Threads / Oreg אורג
While the fabrics the Jews made in the Mishkan would have been woven on a loom, my preferred method of weaving wool together is knitting. I’ve been working on a few different projects while I’ve been here, and also learning about traditional Scottish knitting styles, like Arran, ganseys, Fair Isle, and Shetland lace. There’s nothing like knitting with wool that you’ve made yourself, from shearing to washing to spinning and dyeing, it’s truly amazing!
Finishing the Weaving / Potze’a פוצע
After a fabric is woven, the ends need to be cut and the resultant fabric secured so it doesn’t unravel. I’ve been doing a lot of sewing, making myself dresses and learning about pattern making. While two pieces of fabric need to be sewn together with stitches in a straight line, we also do something called overlocking, which uses a special machine with two needles and multiple spools of thread which binds the edges of the fabrics so that they don’t fray. This keeps the fabric together, just like finishing the ends of a weaving. After overlocking, you have to check the entire garment and snip off all the loose threads, which is also a form of potze'a.
Tying / Koshair קושר
Tying knots is a part of all types of textile creation. Knots would have been tied in the weaving of fabrics, when finishing or attaching a new thread, and also in the creation of nets used to catch the shellfish used in dyeing the fabrics. The issue with koshair is tying knots that are meant to be permanent, or at least lasting for more than a day, as well as specialized knots. I’ve been doing a lot of binding wools for storage. Wool comes in big long threads, sometimes up to 500 yards or larger. All that wool can end up in a messy pile unless it’s properly bound, using tools such a wool winder or a niddy noddy to organize it into even skeins or balls, which are then tied together using threads.
Untying / Matir מתיר
Today, we think of string as disposable, like when we throw out old clothes, we throw the whole thing out. But back in the day, all string had to be hand spun and so was quite valuable. When things were thrown away (which was a lot less often), threads were unpicked and re-used. Sometimes there are big piles of knotted yarn which are being thrown away, but I like to untangle them and wind them into nice new balls to use. The melacha of untying applies specifically to untying that is for a purpose, for you to use the untied thread. These are some legwarmers I made by untying old scraps and using them for something new.
Sewing / Tofer תופר
After the fabrics were woven, they had to be sewn into the desired items. I’ve been learning about dressmaking and the different ways to alter a basic dress design to make different styles. Using darts, gathers, seams and buttons, you can make a totally different dress. I’ve also been learning about different methods of finishing, including how to attach pockets so they don’t fall off with use.
Tearing / Kore’a קורע
Kore'a specifically refers to tearing for the purpose of repairing, or creating something new. The curtains in the Mishkan were torn into strips, and sewn back together. Netti, one of the artists visiting the farm, made beautiful patchwork fabrics, made by piecing together larger fabric scraps which were torn into pieces and reassembled into beautiful tapestries.
Trapping / Tzod צד
Some of the curtains in the Mishkan were made of leather which is made from animals which had to be trapped. While we use fences to create different enclosures to keep the sheep in certain areas, tzod refers to trapping wild animals. On the farm there are small animals, like mice and voles, which get into the plants and eat them. Mice are attracted to fresh growth, and they ate through all the onion stalks before they got a chance to grow. Liz sets traps to stop them getting at the garden.
Slaughtering / Shochet שוחט
After trapping the animals, they had to be slaughtered. While we don’t do it here, the sheep on the farm will eventually go to a slaughterhouse to be returned as meat. But the melacha of shochet applies to killing insects as well. One of the blights of the Scottish Highlands is the Highland midge, a tiny insect that swarms around and stings you. As unpleasant as midges are, killing them on Shabbat is not allowed, although I do try and kill them during the week!
Skinning / Mafshit מפשט
After the animals are slaughtered, the parts are divided up, some for meat and other purposes, and the skins are separated to turn into leather. Separating the skin from the meat and muscle can be quite difficult, and requires scraping the skin clean. We received some fresh fish from a neighbour, and Liz wanted to make some fish leather. She spent hours carefully removing the skins and scraping them clean, taking care not to tear them.
Tanning / Ma’abeid מעבד
Once the skin is separated, it needs to be tanned, using chemicals to process the skin, toughen it up, and preserve it into leather. Liz spent several days soaking the fish skins in tannin, stretching and rubbing them to keep them firm yet supple, and hanging them to dry on the line.
Smoothing / Memachek ממחק
Memachek is the act of scraping a leather to remove any hairs. With the fish leather, we did this before the tanning. Liz scraped off the extra meat, while I collected the scales to be dried and used as sequins. There is a sub-melacha of memachek, which is memare’ach, or smearing. This is where the modern prohibitions of using lotions on Shabbat come from.
Scoring / Mesartet משרטט
The animal hides came in all sorts of shapes and had to be cut into even rectangles to be turned into curtains. When we sew something, like a dress, the pattern pieces need to be carefully traced, usually from a paper pattern. We trace them on with a special type of wax marker, which can be washed off the final dress. This shows us where to cut.
Cutting to Size / Mechatech מחתך
Mechatech specifically refers to cutting that’s done to a pre-determined size. After the leather was scored, it was cut down. When making dresses, we cut out the pieces based on the pattern pieces we’ve traced onto the fabric. After the initial sewing, we try it on, and see where it needs adjusting. We then mark that in thread, and can cut away extra fabric where it’s not needed, like at the armholes.
These melachot refer to actions which involve physical construction, often using wood. Since the Mishkan was a portable building, brought with the Jews throughout their journey, the also apply to taking it down, moving it, and reconstructing it somewhere new.
Writing / Kotev כותב
The Mishkan was constructed out of 48 pieces of wood, which had to be disassembled and reassembled in the proper order. To facilitate this, each piece was marked with where it belongs. We do all sorts of writing here, but one of my favourite is the creative and reflective writing. I write in my journal often, and have made a special scrapbook with recipes of foods we’ve made and special excerpts from books I’ve read here. I also have loved writing these posts to share my experience here with everyone!
Erasing / Mochek מוחק
If mistakes were made in labelling the beams, they had to be erased and redone. We do a lot of labelling - different types of wool need to be labelled to keep them straight, dye pots and materials need to be labelled so we know what’s in them, dyed samples need to be labelled so we know what they were dyed with - and when mistakes are made, or when we make a change, we need to erase the old label and redo it.
Building / Boneh בונה
The Mishkan had to be built up every time it was assembled and all of the parts put together. There’s always something needing done on the farm. One of the most exciting things is that Farmer Graham usually does it himself! Whether it’s plumbing or construction, there’s (almost) nothing that can’t be done with some fiddling and a power drill. Here in the Highlands there’s a lot of rain, which can damage things outside. Farmer Graham assembles special covers for things like the greenhouse and the toolshed using whatever wood he can find.
Breaking Down / Soter סותר
When the Mishkan was taken down to move elsewhere, all the parts were disassembled. An important part of this melacha is that it was disassembled to be used again. When a fleece comes off a sheep, sometimes it can be felted as is, like for a sheepskin rug. However, if you want to spin it into wool, the fleece needs to be broken down from a mass into individual fibres which can be evenly worked with, like these carded rolls of wool.
Kindling a Fire / Mavir מבעיר
Fire was used for all sorts of things in the Mishkan, from heating the dye pots to melting metals to form new items. While we do both of those things on the farm, one of my favourites is a good Highland barbecue, where we burn off scrap wood and cook delicious potatoes from the garden, or even cinnamon-baked apples, all with a majestic Highland backdrop.
Extinguishing a Fire / Mechabeh מכבה
This melacha refers to putting out a fire with the intention of use, such as to make charcoal to use during the sacrifices. Ash from a fire can be a useful source of nutrients to put in a compost pile, so ashes from the barbecue are often added to the compost. In many places, controlled burns of forested areas help create nutrient-rich soil to encourage new growth.
Completing / Makeh B’Patish מכה בפטיש
In the Mishkan, everything was perfectly finished. After the assembly, everything was finished up, final nails hammered in and textiles nicely hung. Everything has that perfect final touch, whether it’s sewing in the final ends on a knit sock, or evening out a final coat of paint on a new shelf. Adding the finishing touches to perfect something is forbidden on Shabbat.
Transporting / Hotza’ah הוצאה
When the Mishkan was brought from place to place, it had to be picked up and moved. One consideration is about going from a private space (the wagons they used to transport the Mishkan) to a public space (the space they were going through). Living on a private farm which is directly in a public train station brings up a lot of situations regarding public and private space, like when you’re in your pyjamas fetching your morning coffee from the kitchen (or lying in bed with a window overlooking the track) and tourists are snapping photos of you from their train stopped outside.
But the larger questions is, why does this matter? It’s great to know the intricacies of how a bunch of Israelites constructed a building two thousand years ago, but why does that matter? Why go through the length of all of this understanding? Why bother not doing these actions on Shabbat? And why bother finding examples of all of these activities?
When we look only at the practical applications, like ‘don’t rip toilet paper along the perforated edge’, I find I often get caught up and frustrated with intricacies of rules that at times can seem meaningless and archaic. But when we look at the core of these ideas and the intentions behind them, we can see the larger picture of what we’re trying to achieve, and why Shabbat is such a gift for us.
For me, working with my hands and exploring these ancient rituals of our tradition has helped me understand why we do them. By rooting myself to the natural and physical worlds, I’ve understood the necessity we have for rooting ourselves to the cultural legacy we’ve inherited. So much of my Judaism is lived here and now - I spend my days finding ways to help other Jewish people connect to their heritage, to make it new and exciting. This often takes on modern forms like watching Israeli music videos in Hebrew and playing Kahoot quizzes about different Jewish foods. These are relevant, important and meaningful expressions of Jewish identity.
But it's also relevant and important and meaningful to go back to our roots, to explore how we were a people whose earliest days of nationhood were born out of building a tabernacle together, working with their hands to dye wool and weave curtains and harvest wheat to make their own bread. We're Jewish when we watch Israeli music videos, and we're also Jewish when we replicate those earliest actions of our ancestors as they became the Jewish people in the desert all those years ago. When I plow the ground and reap the harvest, when I comb my wool and when I spin it, I'm learning so much more about the experiences of my ancestors, and the basis of my religion.