All rights reserved. No part of this
publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, including photocopying, without
permission in writing from the publisher
Thirty-Nine Categories of Sabbath Work
In order to present some idea of Sabbath rest, we
will here outline the thirty-nine categories of ritual work. This is only the barest of outlines, and is meant to present the spirit,
rather than the details of the law. For the latter, the appropriate codes should be
These are the thirty-nine categories:
This category involves carrying in a public place.
This is one of the few categories of work that is actually mentioned in the Torah. It is
also the very first type of work that was prohibited.
As we discussed earlier, the initial commandment of the Sabbath was given in connection
with the Manna. But what possible type of work was involved in gathering a portion of
Manna for one's family? Obviously, this is carrying. Thus, when Moses told the people (Ex.
16:29), "Let no man leave his place on the seventh day," he was telling them
that the could not carry the Manna.1
The Torah also gives an account of a man who was put to death for gathering wood on the
Sabbath. Here again, according to some commentators his violation of the Sabbath involved
In a third place, the Prophet Jeremiah specifically warns his people not to carry on the
Sabbath. He says (Jer. 17:21-22), "Take heed and carry no burdens on the Sabbath ...
Also do not carry any burden out of your houses on the Sabbath."3
Carrying is really the prototype of all other types of Sabbath work.4
As mentioned earlier, the definition of such work is any act where man demonstrates his
mastery over nature. But the first act by which man demonstrates such mastery is by taking
things from nature and carrying them where he needs them. This was the deed of the man
gathering wood. Therefore, if we are to relinquish our mastery over nature, the first
requirement is that we not carry anything away.
In a sense, by not carrying, we also relinquish our ownership of everything in the world.
A main sign of ownership is that one may take something wherever he pleases. On the
Sabbath, we give up something of this ownership. Nothing may be removed from the house.
When a man leaves his house, he may carry nothing but the clothing on his back. It is G-d,
not man, who owns all things.
This category absolutely forbids all carrying in the street. Even such trivial things as a
key or a handkerchief must be left at home. Certainly pocketbooks, purses, wallets and
keychains may not be carried. The only thing one may carry outdoors are things that are
We can get some idea how serious carrying on the Sabbath is from the following law. When
Rosh HaShanah falls on the Sabbath, the Shofar is not sounded. This was legislated by the
Sanhedrin for a most interesting reason. Suppose that a synagogue has only one Shofar, and
it became lost or damaged. Imagine the embarrassment and breach of ceremony involved in
not being able to sound the Shofar on this most solemn day of Rosh HaShanah. How great the
temptation to carry a replacement Shofar from another synagogue or from someone's home!
But this would involve a gross violation of the Sabbath. To avoid this problem the
Sanhedrin decreed that the Shofar never be sounded on the Sabbath at all.5
Carrying in a private home is permitted on the Sabbath. It is only in a public domain that
it is forbidden. When a semipublic domain is involved the Rabbis prohibited carrying to it
from a public domain and vice-versa without an Eruv.
The spirit of the law, however, forbids the carrying or handling of unnecessary objects,
even indoors. The Sanhedrin therefore legislated the categories of Muktza, things
which may not be handled on the Sabbath. These include such useless things as pebbles and
stones. They also include things which may not be used on the Sabbath, such as pencils,
candles and money.6
The spirit of the law also forbids the transfer of ownership, even inside a building. The
Sanhedrin legislated a prohibition against all forms of buying, selling, trading and other
commerce for a variety of reasons. The Sabbath must be a day when all business stops.7
It is interesting to note that the prohibition against commerce is one of the few types of
legislation actually recorded in the Bible. Thus, we find (Nechemiah 10:32), "If the
(non-Jewish) natives of the land bring any goods or food to sell on the Sabbath day, we
will buy nothing from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day."8
This involves making a fire or causing anything to bum.
Even throwing a toothpick into a fire is considered a violation of the Sabbath under this
This is another category of work mentioned specifically in the Torah, as we find (Ex.
35:3), "You shall not light a fire at home on the Sabbath day."9
The use of fire is one of the prime ways in which man demonstrates his mastery over
nature. Indeed, the use of fire is one of the cornerstones of human civilization. It is
fire that allows man to extract energy, his most basic requirement, from nature. Thus, in
a sense, it is also a prototype of Sabbath work.10
Obviously, this category forbids such acts as striking a match or turning on a stove.
It also prohibits smoking on the Sabbath.
An automobile engine works by burning gasoline. Turning on the ignition and stepping on
the accelerator causes it to burn. It is therefore forbidden to drive a car on the
Heating a piece of metal so that it glows is also in the category of burning.11
When an electric light is turned on, its filament is heated white hot, producing light.
This is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.
In general, any use of electricity violates the spirit of the Sabbath, since it involves
extracting energy from nature. According to many authorities, electricity has the same
status as fire with regard to the Sabbath. In any case, the practice of all observant Jews
is to avoid turning any electrical appliance on or off. Since a telephone also works by
electricity, it also should not be used.12
This includes extinguishing or lowering a flame in any way.
As such, it is the opposite of burning.
Thus, for example, one may not turn down the gas on Shabbos. Similarly, it is forbidden to
turn off the lights or any other electrical appliance.
The Sabbath, however, may be violated wherever there is any possible danger to human life.
Therefore, in case of fire, anything necessary must be done where life may be endangered. 13
This includes completing any useful article, even where no other category of work is
It includes all forms of repairs and adjustments.
For example, putting together a machine is in this category, even when no other type of
work is done.
It is similarly forbidden to put together any other article, unless it is made to come
Smoothing a stone and planing wood is also in this category. It therefore precludes all
forms of sculpture and shopwork. Sharpening a knife is also in this category.
This heading also forbids us to cut or tear paper in any way. To take a very mundane
example, one may not tear toilet paper on the Sabbath. Religious Jews therefore only use
Putting the finishing touch on any article is also in this category. Thus, for example,
one may not put new laces into shoes.
Any form of adjustment comes under this heading. Thus, one may not wind a clock or set a
It is similarly forbidden to tune any kind of musical instrument.. The Rabbis forbade the
use of all musical instruments on the Sabbath.17
Blowing up a balloon or water wings also comes under this category.
The same is true of setting the sails on a boat. For this reason, the Sanhedrin forbade
the riding of small boats on the Sabbath. (One may, however, ride a large ship piloted by
non-Jews, as long as he does not embark or disembark on the Sabbath.) There is a special
rabbinic enactment that swimming is not permitted on the Sabbath. 18
5. Writing 19
This includes all forms of writing and drawing.
Typing, printing, and using a rubber stamp all come under this heading.
The main objective of writing is the keeping of records, and therefore, the spirit of the
law forbids any activity normally requiring a written record. Thus, the Sanhedrin forbade
all sorts of business activity, as well as marriage and divorce on the Sabbath.20
Calculations and measurements are also included, since they also normally involve writing.
Gambling and playing games of chance also are included in this category.
6. Erasing 2l
This includes erasing or destroying any form of writing.
Breaking apart or tearing through words or letters also is included in the spirit of this
Although it is permitted to tear a package to get the food inside, this should be avoided
when it involves tearing through the writing on the package.
Likewise, when words are stamped on the edge of a book (as is the case with most library
books), these letters are separated when the book is opened, and this should not be done
unless the book is urgently needed.22
7. Cooking 23
This includes all forms of cooking and baking.
Even boiling water falls under this category.
It also includes any form of heat treatment of non-foods.
Thus, melting metal or wax and firing ceramics are all included.
The prohibition against cooking does not prevent us from eating hot food on the Sabbath.
Indeed, part of our Sabbath joy (Oneg Shabbos) consists of eating hot food.
However, this must be prepared in such a manner that no act of cooking actually takes
place on the Sabbath.
In order to prevent one from forgetting and adjusting the flame, the stove must be covered
with a tin or blech. This must also cover the controls, making it impossible to
adjust the flame. Hot cooked food may then be kept on this tin.
Under some conditions, it is also permitted to rewarm food that is already cooked.24
These laws appear very complex when put in writing, while being very
simple in actual practice. The best thing is to see how a true Sabbath observer prepares
hot food for Shabbos.
8. Washing 25
This includes washing or bleaching a garment in any manner.
It also includes removing any spot or stain from clothing.
Wringing out a wet garment also falls under this heading.
9. Sewing 26
This includes all forms of sewing and needlework.
Pasting, taping and stapling paper are also included. Thus, one may not seal an envelope
nor attach a postage stamp on the Sabbath.
Fastening something with a safety pin, however, is permitted, since this is only a
10. Tearing 27
This includes undoing any form of sewing.
It also includes tearing a garment.
Separating glued papers falls under this heading.
11. Knotting 28
This includes tying any permanent knot.
Tying a bow, however, is permitted. Therefore, for example, one may tie shoes on the
12. Untying 29
This includes untying any permanent knot.
If a knot is not made to be permanent, however, it may be untied. This is true even if it
is a permanent type knot. Thus, for example, if one's shoes accidentally become knotted,
they may be untied.
13. Shaping 30
This includes cutting any object to a desired shape.
Cutting material for a dress would fall under this category. So would cutting out pictures
or newspaper articles.
Working wood or metal on a lathe or mill also falls under this heading.
Foods are not included in this category, and may be cut to be served.
14. Plowing 31
This includes any work that improves the ground.
Digging up a garden and fertilizing it fall under this heading. Also included is raking a
15. Planting 32
This includes all forms of planting and gardening.
Also included is anything that encourages plants to grow. Thus, one may not water plants
on the Sabbath.
It is likewise forbidden to place cut flowers in water, or even to change their water.
16. Reaping 33
This includes cutting or plucking any growing thing.
Agriculture is again one of the main ways in which man shows his dominance over nature.
This category is therefore also one of those mentioned in the Torah, as we find (Ex.
34:21), "Six days shall you work, but you shall rest on the seventh; in plowing and
in harvesting, you shall rest."
Such activities as plucking a flower and plucking a fruit from a tree come under this
heading. The same is true of mowing a lawn.
It was also legislated that we do not handle any growing flowers or plants. It is also
forbidden to climb a tree or smell a growing flower.
Fruit which falls from a tree on the Sabbath may not be used on the same day.
The use of animals as well as plants is forbidden since there is the concern that one
might forget and inadvertently pluck a branch for use as a switch.
17. Harvesting 34
This includes all harvesting operations such as
binding grain into sheaves or bales.
Gathering fallen fruit into piles, or placing them into baskets also falls under this
heading. This is even true in a private enclosed yard where carrying is permitted.
18. Threshing 35
This includes all operations where food is separated
from its natural container.
Both solid and liquid foods are included.
The prime example is threshing grain to remove it from its husk.
Squeezing a fruit for its juice is also included. The same is true of milking a cow.
19. Winnowing 36
This includes all activities where food is separated from its inedible portions by means
of the wind.
The prime example is winnowing grain, where it is thrown up in the air, allowing the chaff
to blow away.
20. Selecting 37
This includes separating unwanted portions of food by hand.
Thus, for example, if one is eating berries, he may not pick out the bad ones before
eating the good ones.
One may, however, eat the good ones and leave the bad., It is likewise permitted to peel
fruits and vegetables for immediate consumption.
This category also forbids one to pick the bones out of fish. This is one reason for the
custom of eating Gefilte Fish on Shabbos, since its bones are already removed.
If one must remove something inedible, a small amount of food should be removed along with
The spirit of this category also forbids all sorts of sorting and filing activities.
21. Sifting 38
This includes separating the unwanted portions from food by means of a sieve.
It includes the sifting of flour and the straining of liquids.
22. Grinding 39
This includes all grinding and milling operations. The prime example is milling grain.
Grinding coffee or pepper, filing metals, and crushing substances in a mortar, all fall
under this heading.
Its spirit also forbids the grating of cheeses and vegetables and the grinding of fish and
meat, as well as herbs used for medicine.
The Sanhedrin therefore legislated to forbid the use of all nonvital medicines and
treatments except for a sick person.
An initial exception, however, was made in cases of acute pain and actual illness, where
necessary medical treatments may be used.
Where life is actually in danger, the Sabbath may be violated in any necessary manner. Our
sages teach us that it is better to violate one Sabbath in order that another may live to
23. Kneading 40
This includes combining a powder with a liquid to form a dough or paste.
The primary example is making a dough or batter for bread or cake.
Also included would be making instant puddings, even where no cooking is required.
24. Combing 41
This includes combing wool or cotton in preparation for making it into thread.
25. Spinning 42
This includes all threadmaking and rope-making activities.
Making felt is also included.
26. Dyeing 43
This includes changing the color of any object or substance.
Dyeing clothing, painting, and mixing paints and dyes all come under the heading.
The spirit of this law also prohibits the use of lipstick and eyeshadow. However, there
are permanent cosmetics that can be put on before the Sabbath and last the entire day.
27. Chainstitching 44
This includes all crocheting, knitting, and braiding activities.
Also included are basketweaving and net making.
The prime example involved setting up a loom for weaving. A chain of threads was looped
across the loom to hold the warp. 45
28. Warping 46
This includes setting up the warp on a loom, even when no actual weaving is done.
29. Weaving 47
This includes all weaving operations.
Also included are all sorts of needlework, such as embroidery, needlepoint, and rug
30. Unraveling 48
This includes unraveling any woven or knitted material.
31. Building 49
This includes all building and assembling activities.
All building repairs come under this heading, even driving a nail into a wall.
Also included is pitching any kind of tent.
The spirit of the law even forbids the opening of an umbrella (even when it will not be
carried outside), since it affords the same protection from the elements as a tent.
32. Demolishing 50
This includes undoing any building operation.
Thus, for example, even a temporary tent may not be taken down on the Sabbath.
Taking apart any kind of machinery is also included.
33. Trapping 51
This includes capturing or restricting the freedom of any living creature.
The prime example is trapping an animal. However even catching an insect in one's hand
comes under this heading.
34. Shearing 52
This includes removing hair, wool or feathers from any living creature.
Also included are such things as haircutting, shaving and cutting one's fingernails.
Eyebrow plucking is also forbidden.
The spirit of the law also forbids the combing of hair on the Sabbath, since this normally
also pulls out hairs. Using a soft brush, however, is permitted.
35. Slaughtering 53
This includes the killing of any living creature.
Swatting a fly or mosquito is also included, as is wounding or bruising an animal or human
Deadly snakes and wasps, which pose a danger to human life, may be killed on the Sabbath.
This is another case where human life overrides all other considerations.
36. Skinning 54
This includes skinning any animal to obtain its hide
37. Tanning 55
This includes all tanning and softening processes used to make hides into leather.
Also included is any process that softens or improves leather. Rubbing oil or saddle soap
into leather thus comes under this heading.
38. Smoothing 56
This includes all smoothing and polishing operations.
The prime example is the preparation of leather, where the hair is removed and the surface
Shining shoes is also included under this heading. 57
The same is true of polishing silver or any other metal.
39. Marking 58
This includes marking or scoring lines on a surface in preparation for cutting or writing.
It applies even when such marking does not come under the category of writing.
A Concluding Word
After reading through the thirty-nine categories of work, you might have come to feel that
keeping the Sabbath is an impossibly complex task.
We warned you of this earlier. The Sabbath is more than a mere set of rules. It is another
way of life completely, totally divorced from weekday life. When put in handbook form, a
different life style may seem very difficult and complex. When lived, however, it is
really very easy.
A good example is going off to college. Every university prints a catalog, telling of all
its rules and regulations and including a list of courses. If your sole impression of
campus life were to be based on this catalog, it would seem impossibly complicated. After
all, it takes a 200 page book just to describe it! But once you get there, you learn to
The same is true of Shabbos. You learn to keep the Sabbath by reading books, but that
makes it seem impossibly difficult. It is almost like learning about love from a marriage
manual. You have to live to see its true dimensions of beauty.
Chapter 1. Why The
Chapter 2. Sabbath
Chapter 3. Sabbath Work
Chapter 4. The Thirty Nine Categories
Chapter 5. A Taste of Light
Cf. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, ad loc., Eruvin 17b, Tosefos,
Shabbos 2a "Yetzias."
15:32, Shabbos, 96b.
Betza 12a, Yerushalmi, Shabbos 1:1 (1b).
|4 Cf. Tikuney
Zohar 24 (69b), 30 (73a); Etz Chaim,
Shaar HaMelachim 7; Maleches Shlemah on
Shabbos 1:1; Alshich on Gen. 2:1, commenting on
Berashis Rabbah 11:6.
HaShanah 4:1 (29b), Yad, Shofar 2:6.
on Yad, Shabbos 25:12. Cf. Shabbos 124b.
|7 See Rashi,
Betza 37a "MiShum," Tosefos, Shabbos 113b "Shelo."
Others, however, hold that it is forbidden because one might keep a written record, cf.
Yad, Shabbos 23:12, 13, Rambam on Betza 5:2, Ralbag on
Neh. 10:31. Also see Pri Megadim, Eshel Araham 307:14.
Neh. 13:15-18. See Rashi, Betza 27b "Ain";
Tiferes Yisroel, Betza 3:27, 5:21.
|9 See Yebamos
6b, Sanhedrin 35b.
|10 See Derech
Mitzvosecha (Chabad) 89a.
U'Tshuvos Maharsham 2:247; Levushey
Mordecai, Orech Chaim 47; Pri Sadeh 1:81.
Orech Chaim 334.
Shabbos 10:16-18, 23:4-9; Chayay Adam 44.
|17 Orech Chaim 338.
|18 Ibid. 339:2.
|19 Yad, 11:9-17,
23:12-19; Ch.A. 36.
|20 Shabbos 148a. See
|21 Yad, 11:17; Ch.A.
|22 Magen Avraham 340:6,
Mishneh Berurah 340:17.
|23 Yad, 10:1-6,
22:1-10, Ch.A. 20.
|24 Orech Chaim 253,
|25 Yad, 0:10-11,
22:15-20, Ch.A. 22.
|26 Yad, 10:9, 11, Ch.A.
|27 Yad, 10:10, Ch.A.
|28 Yad, 10:1-6, Ch.A.
|29 Yad, 10:7-8, Ch.A.
|30 Yad, 11:7, Ch.A.
|31 Yad, 7:3, 8:1,
21:2-4, Ch.A. 10.
|32 Yad, 8:2, 21:5, Ch.A.
|33 Yad, 8:3-5, 21:6-10,
|34 Yad, 8:6, 21:11, Ch.A.
|35 Yad, 8:7-10,
21:12-16, Ch.A. 14.
|36 Orech Chaim 319:7, Ch.A.
|37 Yad, 8:11-13, 21:17,
|38 Yad, 8:14, 21:32,
|39 Yad, 8:15, 21:18-31,
|40 Yad, 8:16, 21:33-36,
|41 Yad, 9:12, Ch.A.
|42 Yad, 9:15, Ch.A.
|43 Yad, 9:13-14, 22:23,
|44 Shabbos 13:1 (105a),
Tosfos Yom Tov ad loc.; Yad, 9:16, Chayay Adam 25:3.
|45 This category specifies
making two loops (nirin). This is because a single loop or slip knot is
permitted on the Sabbath. It is only when these are made into a chain of loops, such as in
a chainstich, that this constitutes a violation. See Minchas Chinuch 32:17.
Also see Tiferes Yisroel, Shabbos 18
|46 Yad, 9:17-18, Ch.A.
|47 Yad, 9:18-19, Ch.A.
|48 Yad, 9:20, Ch.A.
|49 Yad, 10:12-14,
22:25-33, Ch.A. 39.
|50 Yad, 10:15, Ch.A.
|51 Yad, 10:19-25, Ch.A.
|52 Yad, 9:7-9,
22:13-14, Ch.A. 21.
|53 Yad, 11:1-4, Ch.A.
|54 Yad, 11:5-6,Ch.A.
|56 Ibid., Chayay Adam
|57 Tiferes Yisroel loc. cit. 30,
Mishneh Berurah 327:15.
|58 Yad, 11:17, Chayay
Adam 34:1, Minchas Chinuch