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The Music of Halacha: The Meaning of the Thirty-Nine Part Two

All the physical labor we do during the week is because of Adam’s sin. The Thirty-Nine categories of forbidden work are intended to help us repair the sin and its damage, and to remove the curses.


“Forty shall he strike him, he shall not add; lest he strike him an additional blow beyond these, and your brother will be degraded in your eyes (Devarim 25:3).” The Maharal explains that when the Sages ruled that we administer 39 lashes, it was because they had received that the Forty mentioned in the Torah corresponded to the formation of a person, which we know is always associated by Torah with the number 40. It is only on the fortieth and final day that his formation is complete. (For a detailed explanation of 40 as the number of completion, see Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 19, and Chiddushei Aggadot, Arachin 16b)

The 39 days are for the physical formation of the child, and sin derives from the physical. The fortieth day represents the complete person, ready to receive the soul; and the lashes are to deal with only the physical. (Be’eir haGolah 21)

Once again we see that 39 represents the physical world. (The Shelah haKodesh elaborates on how the name Y-H-V, used for the creation of the physical world, spelled out in complete form; Yvd – Ha – Vav = 39 – potentially 39 Orot, Sources of Illumination, but corrupted by sin led to the 39 curses mentioned in Part One.)

It is clear that the 39 categories of prohibited creative work are a withdrawal from the damaged physical world. The construction of the Mishkan was an active repair of Adam’s sin by using 39 categories of work to build a spiritual place. Somehow, withdrawing from that active repair is a higher fixing of the 39 curses that replaced the 39 Sources of Illumination.

We are not refraining from work as much as stepping back into Eden, where all our needs were provided without any effort on our part. Our primary obligation was to enjoy the fruits of the Garden and refrain from a single tree. We refrain from work as our refraining from the Tree of Knowledge, and enjoy the pleasures of Shabbat in the perfect place.

This is why we are commanded to not step out of our place on Shabbat; we must be happy where we are, in our Eden.

“For your dew – Tal (numerical value = 39) – is like the dew of Illuminations (Isaiah 26:19).” The dew of the World to Come that God will use to resurrect the dead and restore the immortality we lost in Eden. Shabbat is a Taste of the World to Come; the eternal life of Adam before the sin, without the limitations of the physical world. It is our Place in Eden, our place in Time.

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