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The Music of Halacha-Shabbat-Cooking with the Miraculous

Watching my wife develop her business, Las Delicias Patisserie, has me thinking of Bishul-Ofeh: The eleventh of the Thirty-Nine categories of Creative Work prohibited on Shabbat is usually listed as Bishul, cooking. However, since it is the final category in the Order of Bread, some authorities (Rav Hai Gaon; Sefer HaYerei’im) list it as Ofeh, or baking. They cite the fact that the baking process was part of the preparation of the Showbread for the Mishkan.


However, most other authorities dispute this view. They argue that only an activity that was performed as part of the construction, not the regular functioning, of the Mishkan should be classified as an Av-Melachah (Rashi, Shabbat 73a s.v. ‘HaOfeh’). These Rishonim point out that it was necessary to cook ingredients to produce the dyes used to color the curtains and tapestries of the Mishkan.

Where did the people get dyes in middle of the desert? The soil became miraculously fertile and productive through Divine Intervention so that all the herbs they need grew right there quicker than Jack’s beanstalk (Shabbat 49b; Tosafot, Chullin 88b s.v. ‘Elah’).  The herbs were ground into powder, mixed with water to produce a thick paste, which was then cooked to produce the dye.

Why does it matter whether the Thirty-Nine categories are derived from the construction or the functioning of the Mishkan? The difference seems to be purely academic.

There is a difference in Debbie’s approach to developing a new recipe and in her perfecting the recipe for regular production in large quantities. She regularly works all night; usually she bakes at night to have fresh products for the next morning, but, she often is so caught up in creating a new product that she will keep on working, without pausing, for close to 48 hours. Debbie is exhausted after baking all night, but energized when she concludes one of her two-day marathons of creativity.

She functions in multiple roles as the owner of a start-up business: baker, saleswoman, accountant, executive, accountant, and, dreamer. Different parts of her personality are expressed in each role, and the difference between the creative artist and business manager are the most striking. (She usually wears her more serious glasses in the latter role!) Debbie insists that the regular functioning of her business is far more work than the creative aspect, even if the latter demands more time and effort. For her, creativity is less ‘work’ than the regular functioning.

Debbie does not only bake her products; she cooks as well. Many of her products, such as her tarts, have vegetable fillings. She searches area farms for the freshest, best tasting, and most beautiful, vegetables. She can hold a freshly picked broccoli in her hand with such joy and admiration that she almost feels compelled to recite a blessing over the spectacular creation, even without eating!

I’ve watched with awe as Debbie will stop everything at candle-lighting for Shabbat, even if it means that she will risk losing a major account – the functioning of her business will suffer. She stops, no matter the consequences, not because she ‘must,’ but out of love for Shabbat.

When Debbie has been perfecting a recipe, baking, testing, and then adjusting, and just when she is ready to place her perfected new pastry in the oven, she realizes that it won’t finish baking in time for Shabbat, she stops; but, it’s a different sort of stopping. It’s not just love of Shabbat, but actual excitement that Shabbat offers more creativity than her greatest creations (for me; her Cannele!).

How would Debbie choose to define the Thirty-Nine categories? Would she focus on the construction of the Mishkan – the burst of creativity, or the functioning of the Mishkan – the hard and regular work?

When Rav Hai Gaon and the Sefer HaYerei’im focus on the regular functioning of the Mishkan, they are addressing the challenge of maintaining the joy and excitement of the regular work in the Mishkan; a challenge greater than its construction. By implication, they are using the laws of Shabbat to address the issue of maintaining our joy and excitement in Shabbat despite its regularity.

The Rishonim who insist that the Thirty-Nine categories are derived from the Mishkan’s construction, want us to connect with the creative potential of Shabbat; to experience the same joy in each Shabbat as if it were the first.

They note the miraculous Divine Intervention necessary to cook the dyes for the curtains and tapestries. The Talmud could have posited that the Children of Israel bought the herbs for dyes from Bedouins traveling through the desert. Why do they insist on this miraculous tale of the desert soil becoming magically fertile?

For the same reason that Debbie has such a powerful response when finding the perfect vegetables for her tarts: We have so much that we lose the sense of the miraculous when finding the perfect broccoli or asparagus. We don’t have to find ways to celebrate the creativity all around us every moment; it’s right there before our eyes, just as it is in each and every Shabbat. Every time we cook; we cook with the miraculous. Every Shabbat takes us back to Creation and infuses us with a spirit of passionate creativity.

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