The Torah, of course, forbids “work” on Shabbat but does not define the term. The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) lists 39 categories (“forty less one” is the classic designation) which are considered “work.”
Our page asks the question – where did this number come from?
Two theories are advanced:
The first is that these 39 represent actions required to build the Tabernacle. This connection comes from the juxtaposition of two commands in the Torah: Exodus 35: 1-3 has Moses give the law of Shabbat. This is immediately followed by the commandments to build the tabernacle (verse 4 and further) in some detail. The idea is that it begins with the restriction of Shabbat so you should know what not to do, then the work of the Tabernacle which has the added function of defining “work” ! Clever.The second theory as to why specifically 39 categories, is that the word “work” in various forms occurs 39 times in the Torah. But is than an accurate count?
“They did not stir thence until they brought a Scroll of the Torah and counted them.”An argument then ensues about whether specific examples count or not.
The Tabernacle argument wins and is the traditional explanation. But I like having a contentious second option – one that involves looking and counting words, long before there was a concordance or a search engine. Score one for research!