The laws of guarding Shabbat guarantee that the Jewish people will maintain the Shabbat as a day sacred and distinct from the six work days of the week. The prohibited acts are known as m’lachot, which is best translated as acts of “creative labor,” and the 39 specific categories from which all m’lachot are derived are based on the specific acts involved in the creation of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle) in the wilderness.
Within the 39 m’lachot, it is interesting to note that there are four distinct pairs of what could be called opposites: sewing and tearing, writing and erasing, igniting and extinguishing fire, and tying and untying knots. How can the destructive sides of these pairs be seen as creative acts?
A careful assessment of these acts, however, reveals that even in acts of destruction, there can be elements of creation.
Tearing is the most obvious of the ways in which one uses a destructive force to create. This m’lacha includes ripping out a piece of paper from a notebook, thus creating an independent piece of paper. Another example might be tearing a long scarf in two, thus creating two separate and useful scarves. Some tearing is permitted on Shabbat when it is truly destructive, such as opening a bag of food in such a way that the bag cannot be re-used. (For more on tearing, click here.)
Erasing also lends itself to the obvious. Erase markings from a piece of paper and one creates a clean paper on which one can write.
Extinguishing and untying are less obvious acts of destructive creation. In the work done to create the Mishkan, fires were deliberately extinguished in order to produce charcoal (which would then be used for writing). Similarly, the prohibition of untying originated from methods used to harvest the chilazon, a shellfish that was the source of techelet (a special blue dye) used in the Mishkan. The fishermen would often untie their old nets in order to have new material with which to create new nets.
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