(De-) Constructing Space
In Shabbat 49b, we studied the opinion that the thirty-nine avot melakhot (categories of work on Shabbat) are derived from the Israelites' work in constructing the Tabernacle. Those forms of labor which they used are prohibited on Shabbat.
I was thinking the other day that this derivation could be greater understood using Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's understanding of the Sabbath as a palace in time. In his book, "The Sabbath," R. Heschel writes that our weeks are filled trying to conquer space, by which he means the tangible world. We constantly attempt to acquire space, conquer it, or transform it. However, Shabbat teaches us to hold back from becoming overly focused on space and to pay attention to the sanctity of time.
This focus on time as opposed to space help us understand why the the 39 melakhot should be derived specifically from the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the Torah's paradigmatic example of constructing space, albeit sacred space. Therefore, the activities involved in the construction of the Tabernacle are those that we refrain from on Shabbat. To quote a baraita on 49b, "they planted, thus you may not plant, they reaped, thus you may not reap." By refraining from these melakhot, we relax our grip and obsession with the realm of space and are able to focus on eternity within time.
This divestment from space is also expressed in the structure of each of the melakhot. All of the melakhot involve some form of transforming tangible objects, which R. Heschel refresh to as space. For example, cooking transforms food by cooking it, and plowing transforms a field into an area capable of planting. The one melakhah in which an object is not transformed is that of hotzaÃ¡h, carrying. (In fact, Tosafot on Shabbat 2a mentions that hotzaÃ¡h isinferioror melakhah" because it is the one melakhah in which an object is not transformed.) Yet, upon further inspection, carrying is also very much concerned with space, as it involves a significant transfer of an objecacrossss space.
These ideas can also help us understand why actions so minute as ripping toilet paper or writing should be considered "work" even though they do not seem so strenuous.
By refraining from our obsession about space, we are able to discover Shabbat's palace in time.