Shamor – the “do nots” of shabbat

In this block we will consider the classic Biblical and Talmudic sources for the prohibitions involved in shabbat observance.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Shemot 20:8

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.

Devarim 5:12

Observe the sabbath day [to] keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.

שָׁמוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ ה’ אֱ-להֶֹיךָ

Ramban, Shemot 20:7
(1194–1270) (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman also known as Nachmanides) Bible commentator and legal scholar in Spain.

God said [here], “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy” while in Deuteronomy it is written, “Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy.” Now, our Rabbis said about this (Shevuot 20b), “‘Remember’ and ‘observe’ were uttered simultaneously,” without paying mind to any of the other discrepancies between the texts. They intended to communicate thereby [an important point – that ] “remember” manifests a positive commandment: God commanded that we remember Shabbat to keep it holy and not forget it, and “observe” manifested for them a negative commandment. This is because wherever it states [in the biblical text], “beware to observe,” “lest” or “do not,” a negative commandment is being signaled by the verse (see Eruvin 96a). [Here,] the verse calls us to observe the Shabbat to keep it holy that we not profane it.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can my actions make time sacred?
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
  • How do Jewish cycles shape our lives?
  • What makes time holy?
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What can I learn from the biblical commandment to observe shabbat?
  • Why does the Torah present shabbat as a day where there are many things we cannot do?
  • How can I find meaning in the prohibitions involved in shabbat observance?
  • Do the 39 categories of work prohibited on shabbat resonate with me today?
  • What is the thematic connection between the Tabernacle and shabbat and what can it teach me for my life today?
  • Why are creative acts forbidden on shabbat?

Background for Teacher

Shemot 20:8–11 and Devarim 5:12 The first three sources of this block, which contrast the positive and negative aspects of shabbat observance, are also found in the blockZachor – the “dos” of shabbat.  If you have previously taught that block you may wish to...

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Shemot 20:8–11 and Devarim 5:12

The first three sources of this block, which contrast the positive and negative aspects of shabbat observance, are also found in the blockZachor – the “dos” of shabbat.  If you have previously taught that block you may wish to reference these texts only, or review them, rather than learn/teach them again.

Shabbat in the two versions of the Ten Commandments: The Shemot text records the Revelation at Sinai along with the Ten Commandments uttered by God upon that occasion as it was happening, so to speak. The Devarim text has Moshe recounting to the new generation of Israelites, the generation about to enter the Promised Land, that which had occurred some 40 years earlier at Sinai in the biblical chronology. Included in his narrative is a reiteration of the Ten Commandments. While there is no difference in content between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, there are variations in the formulation of those commandments.

Differences in the language of the two versions: When it comes to the fourth commandment, the one speaking of Shabbat, the Shemot passage notes that the Israelites are to remember ( זכָוֹר , zakhor) the Shabbat, while the Devarim text commands them to observe ( שׁמָוֹר , shamor) the Shabbat. Two primary points need clarification here:

  1. Why is the wording different between these two verses? 
  2. What is meant by these two commands/verbs, to “remember” and to “observe”? 

Indeed, both these questions are extensively discussed by the commentaries and the biblical scholars. We will look at one classic interpretation (from the Ramban) that relates to the distinction between the positive mitzvot ( מִצוְותֹ עשֲהֵׂ ) and negative mitzvot (מִצְווֹת לאֹ תַּעֲשֶׂה).

Ramban, Shemot 20:7

Why two versions?: Ramban deals with a basic problem of the biblical text. If the Ten Commandments were uttered by God, how could there be two versions? To argue that the two versions, one or both, are not faithful reproductions of God’s word at Sinai is unthinkable for the talmudic and rabbinic writers. To argue that Shemot is God’s word while Devarim is Moshe’s recollection of the event makes no sense – since Moshe would have had Shemot in front of him already, he could have just cut and paste the text as is into Devarim, so why are there discrepancies? Is Devarim perhaps Moshe’s commentary on Shemot? If it is, how does “observe” expand anyone’s understanding of “remember”? The solution offered by the talmudic scholars offers a new angle.

Two different aspects of shabbat observance: For the Rabbis cited by Ramban, God uttered both zakhor and shamor simultaneously. Why would God have to do that? Why would God not have been able to utter them consecutively? For the Rabbis of the Talmud (Shevuot 20b), it is to create a parallel between what these two words convey. Now what are the ideas communicated via the varied terms of the two versions of the Ten Commandments? Ramban, based on the two talmudic references, explains that shamor (beware to observe) is one of those terms taken by the Rabbis to signal a negative commandment ( מִצְוַת לאֹ תַעֲשֶׂה ). Telling a person to “beware” usually means that the person ought not to do something. The biblical texts are full of verses telling people not to do things on Shabbat . On the other hand, asking a person to zakhor, recall and “remember” something means that there is something they likely need to do – the positive commandments ( מִצוְותֹ עשֲהֵׂ). Seeing this verse as instructing the people to engage in specific activity on Shabbat is a novel way of understanding the verse, one that may very well reflect how the people were actually marking the Shabbat for many generations before the Rabbis came along.

Positive and negative commandments: In this text, Ramban clarifies why the Rabbis associated Shabbat observance with both positive and negative commandments – things one should do on Shabbat and things that should not be done.

Going back to the idea that zakhor and shamor were uttered by God simultaneously – the Talmud (Shevuot 20b) establishes the significance of the simultaneity of the utterance of these two words is to inform that the responsibility of observing the positive and negative aspects of Shabbat devolves upon all Jews—men and women equally.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 49b and Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat 7:2

The thirty-nine categories of work that are prohibited on shabbat: According to the Rabbis, there are thirty nine categories of מְלאָכהָ (melakhah, work), prohibited on the Shabbat. While the Torah insists that one not perform melakhah on Shabbat, the Torah does not provide any working definition for this term in the context of Shabbat. 

The source of the definition of “work” that is prohibited on shabbat is the construction of the Tabernacle:  Using a midrashic technique to analyze the significance of having two sections of the Torah juxtaposed to each other, the Rabbis began to develop a working definition for the term melakhah. Just prior to the second account of the construction of the Tabernacle to appear in Shemot (35–40), the Torah presents a reminder for the need to observe the Shabbat. Even earlier in Shemot (31), following the appointment of Betzalel and Aholiav to the task of constructing the Tabernacle is yet another reminder for the need to observe the Shabbat. This gave the Rabbis the idea that those activities needed in the construction of the Tabernacle are those activities that  would be prohibited on Shabbat.

For example, elaborate coverings made of animal skins and hair covered the Tabernacle. Because these materials were sewn together, sewing is an activity forbidden on Shabbat (number 23 on the list of the 39 categories provided in Text 9).

Possible philosophical links between shabbat and the Tabernacle: What is the philosophical basis for linking the work in the Tabernacle with the prohibited work on Shabbat? A number of suggestions:

  1. If the Tabernacle can be seen as a microcosm of the entire universe, as suggested by some, then the activities needed to build it represent the activities that went into creating the universe. If then Shabbat is a celebration of the completion of God’s creation of the universe, to refrain from those labors as God did is a straightforward form of imitatio dei—emulating God.
  2. Given that the Tabernacle was taken to be the holiest space in the Israelite world, keeping from building that holy space (as the Midrash informs no construction of the Tabernacle occurred on Shabbat), keeping from engaging in the activities needed to build any holy space, allows for people to focus on holy time. 

This definition of work renders irrelevant the suggestion that work is a function of the expense of human energy. What matters is the constructive change that is produced, not the amount of energy exerted in a particular activity.

Note on the text:

In the world of halakhah, the categories of labor listed in the Mishnah are just that, categories. Each category may thus have subcategories that may be equally prohibited on Shabbat, even if they are not openly listed by the Mishnah. When dealing with new activities that did not exist in the past, rabbis of the halakhah will make the effort to determine if the new activity can clearly be listed under one of primary categories of labor resulting in the new activity being prohibited on Shabbat, or if the new activity is completely apart from those listed by the Mishnah, in which case it may very well be permitted (however, such latter types of activity may be prohibited by the rabbis and the halakhah for other reasons).

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Dream and How to Live It: Shabbat

Even effortless acts can signify mastery: As discussed in the previous text, melakhah is not related to the amount of effort one has to exert. Therefore, what is forbidden may sometimes be actions that require very little effort, as for example turning a light switch or calling up an elevator. For those who observe Shabbat in this way, giving up melakhah is not just a means to an end but is in and of itself a spiritual act, aimed at making a very public theological statement: God is the Creator and Master of the world. By dedicating one day every week to refraining from every activity that signifies human power and mastery of nature, the Jew proclaims God as the source of all power and ingenuity. Any act, however insignificant, that demonstrates human mastery of the world is a melakhah. Another theological way to look at it is that humankind, being chosen to be partners with God in Creation, also partners with God in the resting that God created on the seventh day.

Shabbat prohibitions preserve the spirit of the law: While the benefits of Shabbat observance for the individual, family, and community may be plentiful, according to Greenberg, this is neither the focus nor the central purpose of Shabbat observance. The many prohibitions established by the Rabbis preserve the spirit of the law, not only the letter of the law.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • Ask your students to imagine they are the coach of an olympic athlete the week before the Olympic games. 
    • What rules would they draw up for the athlete for the week before their competition? Ask them to think about diet, sleep, activities, etc. Ask them to write a list of these rules.
    • Ask for some volunteers to share their list?
    • Discuss If most of the rules “dos” or “do nots”?
    • Are the rules in our lives mostly “dos” or “do nots”?
    • Why do we need “do not” rules? Are these rules a positive or negative element of our lives?
    • Draw a comparison to shabbat, which has a lot of “do not” rules, which are designed to have a positive impact in our lives (namely to help us understand the ideas and values behind shabbat). Explain that we will explore this in this unit.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

The first two biblical sources, together with Ramban’s commentary, introduce us to the positive and negative mitzvot of shabbat. You will want your students to understand the difference between a positive and negative mitzvah, with practical examples of each for shabbat. The following questions could help with this:

  • How do we “remember” shabbat each week?
  • Ramban says this refers to the positive mitzvot of shabbat. Can you give some examples of this?
  • How do we “observe” (or “keep”) shabbat each week?
  • Ramban says this refers to the negative mitzvot of shabbat. Can you give some examples of this?
  • Why do you think we need both positive and negative mitzvot of shabbat?

The next two rabbinic sources explain what the 39 categories of work are that form the core actions that are forbidden on shabbat and where they come from. The following questions will help your students understand their connection to the Tabernacle:

  • What was the Tabernacle?
  • How does this list of 39 categories of work come from the Tabernacle? Take 5 random examples and see if you can think how these acts were involved in the building or service in the tabernacle.
  • Why should the Tabernacle be the source of these prohibitions on shabbat?

Finally, Rabbi Greenberg helps us understand the thematic link between the building of the Tabernacle and the messages behind shabbat. Use these questions to help explore the ideas in this source:

  • If God wants us to rest, why not command that rather than 39 categories of work?
  • What distinction does Greenberg make between work that involves effort and acts that involve creation? How does this distinction help understand the don’ts of shabbat and their purpose?
  • Why do you think it is the Tabernacle that teaches us what “work” is?
  • Why is it important not to “work” or “create” on shabbat?