This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, which begins at Exodus chapter 25, introduces a theme that dominates the remaining portions of the Book of Exodus: the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, by the ex-slaves, who took flight from Egypt. At verse 8, we learn the reason for the construction of the mishkan, literally, ‘dwelling’ – also referred to as the mikdash, ‘sanctuary’:

‘V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

This verse takes on a particular resonance in the context of the closing verses of the preceding parashah, Mishpatim, which concludes with an image of the Eternal One ‘dwelling’ on the top of Mount Sinai.[1] By building the mishkan, the people brought God down from the mountain to ‘dwell among them’.

Jewish teaching tends to focus on the practical rather than on the mystical. Some Jews may go in search of the sacred in remote far-off places, but on the whole, Jewish teaching encourages us to encounter the Divine within community, and in our relationships with one another. In particular, Jewish teaching is preoccupied with what we do rather than with what we think or believe. And so, like the laws and statutes that comprise the greater part of last week’s portion, Mishpatim, the account of the building of the mishkan demonstrates the centrality of doing in Jewish life.

Most Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated, regardless of denomination or disposition – cultural, secular or religious – would agree about the importance of action. However, we tend to disagree about what we should be doing – and not doing. And so, for example, while in Shabbat services, Jews of all denominations sing V’sham’ru v’ney Yisraeil et-ha-Shabbat, la’asot et ha-Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam – ‘the Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath as an eternal covenant throughout their generations’[2] – we disagree about how to ‘keep’ and ‘observe’ Shabbat.

The issue of Shabbat observance connects with the theme of the mishkan. Since aside from the examples of lighting fire, collecting manna, and gathering firewood,[3] the Torah does not detail what constitutes work, the rabbinic sages looked to the tasks described in the building of the mishkan[4] to identify a list of 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat.[5] For orthodox Jews this list determines their Shabbat observance.

By contrast, Liberal Jews exploring how to keep Shabbat may not feel inclined to investigate the 39 categories of work for guidance.[6] However, as we reflect on the meaning of work and rest for our own lives, there is something going on at a deeper level in the Torah’s treatment of the building of the mishkan that might interest us: its connection with the first account of creation at the beginning of B’reishit, Genesis.

So, what is the connection? Martin Buber demonstrates in his commentary that the description of the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan with its repeated use of the Hebrew root Ayin Sin Hei, to ‘do’ or ‘make’, mirrors the description of God’s creation of the world.[7] As the first account of creation reaches its climax, we learn why the two accounts are connected: human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’[8] and so, like the Divine Creator, are born to create; that is, to work. We also learn from the comparison between the two narratives that work is not endless. Buber notes that just as the first account of creation concludes with the words, ‘And on the seventh day God completed (va-y’chal) His work (m’lachto), which he had made (asah),’[9] the account of the building of the mishkan concludes with the words, ‘So, Moses completed (va-y’chal) all the work’ (kol-ha-m’lachah).[10]

While, the Exodus story reminds us that a perpetual worker is a slave, reading the account of the building of the mishkan alongside the first creation narrative teaches us that the institution of a day for ceasing – the root meaning of Shabbat – elevated work from servitude to the realm of creativity, and also set a limit to endless activity. The V’sham’ru text quoted above ends with the words: ‘… for in six days the Eternal One made (asah) heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased (shavat) and was re-beinged (va-yinafash).[11] By ‘keeping’ Shabbat, in whatever ways we find to do this as Liberal Jews, we acknowledge – to borrow from the phrasing found in Ecclesiastes[12] – that there is a time to work and a time to rest; a time to do; and a time to be.

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  1. Exodus 24:15-18.
  2. Exodus 31:16.
  3. See: Exodus 35:3 concerning the prohibition on lighting fire; Exodus 16:26, for the prohibition on collecting manna; and Numbers 15:32, for an account of the punishment of a man who gathered firewood.For other examples of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, see: Exodus 16:29; 34:21; also passages in the prophetic books: Isaiah 58:13, Jeremiah 17:22 and Amos 8:5 (doing business and carrying) and Nehemiah 13:15-18 (treading in a winepress and loading animals).
  4. Exodus chapters 25 through 40 are taken up with the account of the building of the tabernacle. In Exodus chapter 31, a passage concerning the artisans responsible for building of the tabernacle (31:1-11) is juxtaposed with a passage prohibiting work on Shabbat, in which the Israelites are exhorted to keep Shabbat as ‘a sign of the covenant’ with the Eternal One (31:12-17).
  5. For a list of the 39 categories of prohibited work, see the Mishnah, Shabbat 7:2 (in Seder Mo’eid).
  6. For an attempt to set out a Liberal Jewish approach to ‘keeping’ Shabbat, see my article in Responding to the Call: A Life of Liberal Jewish Commitment. A Festschrift in honour of Rabbi Harry Jacobi MBE edited by Danny Rich (Liberal Judaism, 2015)
  7. Buber identified seven correspondences between the building of the Tabernacle and the creation of the world. For a presentation of Buber’s approach, see Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Part II (WZO, Jerusalem, 1981, pp.479-481).
  8. Genesis 1:27.
  9. Genesis 2:2a.
  10. Exodus 40:33.
  11. Exodus 31:17b.
  12. See Ecclesiastes chapter 3.