Introduction to the 39 Melachot on Shabbat

The Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) is a day of rest on the seventh day of the week. It is a day of abstinence from work and of religious observance. On Shabbat, the Jewish people commemorate the day that God rested after the creating the world in six days. Shabbat literally means “he rested.” According to Exodus 34:21: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.”

The Shabbat is considred a day for peace and holiness. It is a day that, first and foremost, should be observed as a holy day and a rest from work.

The rabbis define the 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. They are called 39 Melachot, which literally means “39 forms of work” in Hebrew. Melacha is the singular form of melachot. While observant Jews follow these laws strictly, others celebrate Shabbat in their own way, maybe refraining from doing everyday activities such as watching TV or using the computer, and choose instead to spend the day with their families.

Anyway, many of these 39 categories of work are also forbidden on other Jewish holidays according to the Torah, but there are noticeable exceptions that allow carrying or preparing food under specific circumstances during the holidays.

Here are the 39 categories of work or 39 Melachot:

The order of making bread

  • Sowing (zorea)– Planting, sowing or watering seeds to encourage growth.
  • Plowing (horesh) –  Included in this category is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. Dragging a heavy lawn chair is considered plowing, if it makes holes in the ground. Pouring water on arable land that has not been previously saturated is also considered plowing.
  • Reaping (koser) – This melacha depicts removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth. Climbing a tree is also considered reaping, for this may cause the tearing off of a branch.
  • Gathering (me’amer) – This is the act of collecting natural products into a bundle. This category applies only to gathering of naturally grown produce (gathering of manufactured goods is permitted). Also included in this category are piling scattered fruit, putting together a bouquet of flowers or stringing figs.
  • Threshing (dosh) – Any act of threshing, such as separating the kernels from their husks. Juicing fruits and vegetables (and thus leaving the undesirable pulp and/or rind behind) is also included in this category, as well as ringing desirable fluids out of cloths.
  • Winnowing (zoreh) – It’s the act of sorting the undesirable from the desirable through the force of air, such as removing wastes from the grains through winnowing.
  • Selecting (borer) – In the Talmudic sense, “selecting” particularly refers to the removal of debris or any inedible matter from grain by hand. This category also includes removing spoiled cherries from a bowl of cherries, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable, and removing small bones from fish (the solution is eating gellite fish, a dish made of poached mixture of ground deboned fish).
  • Grinding (tohen) – Crushing, chopping, or grinding by hand or with a tool, or any act that breaks down an entity into smaller parts falls under this category.
  • Sifting (merakaid) – This is essentially the same as sorting, but done with a utensil specifically designed for this process, such as a strainer, sieve, or any similar tool.
  • Kneading (losh) – Any act of combining particles to form a semi-solid or solid mass through the use of liquid, such as making dough for bread.
  • Baking/cooking (ofeh/bishu) – The act of changing properties of food or substance through heat. This category also includes the act of heating liquid.

The order of making garments

  • Shearing (gozez) – Severing or uprooting any body part of a creature.
  • Scouring/laundering (melaben) – Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed or ingrained impurities.
  • Combing (menapeits) – Disentangling or combing raw materials.
  • Dyeing (sovea) – Coloring or enhancing the color of any material or substance.
  • Spinning (toveh) – Twisting the fibers together to create long threads.
  • Warping (maysah) – Stretching the threads into loom.
  • Making two loops/threading (oseh sh’tei batei nirin) – Forming the loops for weaving purposes.
  • Weaving threads (oreg) – Forming fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
  • Separating two threads (potze’ah) – Cutting or removing fibers from their loom or frame.
  • Tying a knot (koysher) – Binding two pliant objects in a skillful or permanent manner through twisting.
  • Untying a knot (matir) – Undoing something that’s tied.
  • Sewing (tofer) – Combining two separate pieces of fabric together through sewing, stitching, gluing, stapling, dry mounting and welding, and a lot more.
  • Tearing (kore’a) – Separating or ripping apart an object or undoing anything that’s sewn.

The order of making hides

  • Trapping (sod) – Confining a creature forcibly (providing that the creature is normally hunted or trapped).
  • Slaughtering (shohet) – Killing a creature to take out the skin, whether through slaughtering, stabbing, battering or by any other means.
  • Skinning (maphshit) – Removing the skin or hide from a dead creature.
  • Tanning (me’baid) – The process of preserving animal skin or hide through curing.
  • Smoothing (memahek) – The process of sanding or scraping a surface to smoothen animal hide.
  • Ruling lines (mesartet) –  The drawing, scoring or tracing animal hide to create a cutting guideline.
  • Cutting (mehateh) – Cutting of animal hide to specific size.

The order of construction

  • Writing (kotev) – Writing, inscribing, or forming a meaningful character or design. In rabbinic terms, even writing with your weaker hand also falls under this category. Any commercial activities that require writing are also included.
  • Erasing (mohek) – Cleaning or preparing a surface to make it ideal for writing.
  • Building (boneh) – This is an act of constructing something attached to the ground, adding something that’s already attached to the ground, and even doing smaller but related acts – such as fixing something on a building.
  • Demolishing (soter) – The reverse of “building” (boneh) – the act of demolishing for any constructive purpose.
  • Extinguishing a flame (mehabeh) – Extinguishing a fire or flame, or lessening its intensity. But in the event of a life-threatening fire, it must be extinguished through the principle of pikuah nefesh in Jewish law. This principle states that when a human life is in danger, any religious rule shall be disregarded.
  • Kindling a fire (mav’ir) – This process of creating fire or flame includes the making, transferring, or adding fuel to a fire. Judaism requires the lighting of candles before Shabbat, but forbids the same activity on Shabbat day. This category is one of the Shabbat laws that has been cited to forbid using electricity on Shabbat (for example, turning the lights on is not allowed).
  • Finishing an object/final completion/fine-tuning/perfection (makeh b’patish) – The Hebrew phrase for this category is makeh b’patish, which literally means “striking with a hammer.” This category applies to any initial act of completion. It refers to any activities that complete an object or bringing it to its useful form. For example, putting laces to a shoe for the first time is considered an initial act of completion.
  • Transferring between domains (hotza’ah) – The act of moving, transferring or transporting from one domain to another domain. Transferring a private object to a public thoroughfare (or vice versa) is one example, which is forbidden.