There are 39 categories of “work” that are not allowed on Shabbat. These are called “Melachah”. The aspect of “positive purpose” is derived from the context where the term “Melechet Machashevet” appears in the Bible, namely that of the construction of the Mishkan, the temporary structure which served the function of national religious and spiritual center of the Jewish People in Pre-Temple times. It turns out that the list of melachot (plural for Melachah) corresponds exactly with the operations, which were performed during the construction of the Mishkan.
This category involves carrying in a public place. Carrying in a private home is permitted on the Sabbath. It is only in a public domain that it is forbidden.
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.
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 they could not carry the Manna.
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 carrying.
In a third place, the Prophet Jeremiah specifically warns his people not to carry on the Sabbath. He says (Jeremiah 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.”
Carrying is really the foundation of all other types of Sabbath work. 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 HaShem, not man, who owns all things.
This involves making a fire or causing anything to burn.
Even throwing a toothpick into a fire is considered a violation of the Sabbath under this category.
This is another category of work mentioned specifically in the Torah, (Ex. 35:3), “You shall not light a fire at home on the Sabbath day.”
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.
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 Sabbath.
Heating a piece of metal so that it glows is also in the category of burning. 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.
This includes extinguishing or lowering a flame in any way.
As such, it is the opposite of burning.
For example, one may not turn down the gas on a stove or heater on Shabbat. 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. So, in case of fire, anything necessary must be done where life may be endangered.
This includes completing any useful article, even where no other category of work is involved.
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 apart.
Smoothing a stone and smoothing wood is also in this category. It therefore precludes all forms of sculpture and shop work. 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 pre-cut paper.
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 watch.
It is similarly forbidden to tune any kind of musical instrument.. The Rabbis forbade the use of all musical instruments on the Sabbath.
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.
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. All sorts of business activity, as well as marriage and divorce on the Sabbath.
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 category.
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.
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. Melting metal or wax and firing ceramics are all included.
The prohibition against cooking does not prevent us from eating hot food on the Shabbat. Part the Sabbath joy (Oneg Shabbat) 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.
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.
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 temporary fastening.
This includes undoing any form of sewing or tearing a garment.
This includes tying any permanent knot. Tying a temporary knot such as a bow in your shoes is permitted.
This includes untying any permanent knot.
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.
This includes any work that improves the ground. Digging up a garden, fertilizing, weeding and even raking the yard fall under this category.
This includes any planting or gardening. Anything to do with encouraging plants to grow is not permitted. Such as watering plants or to place cut flowers in water.
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.
This includes all harvesting operations such as binding grain into sheaves or bales.
Gathering fallen fruit into piles, or placing them into baskets is considered harvesting. This is even true in a private enclosed yard where carrying is permitted.
This includes all methods of removing food from its natural container. Both solid and liquid foods are included.
Some examples of this are: threshing grain to remove it from its husk, opening nuts, squeezing an orange for its juice, and milking a cow.
This includes separating food and non-edible parts by the use of wind. A good example of this is winnowing grain, where it is thrown up in the air, allowing the chaff (the part we don’t eat) to blow away.
This includes separating unwanted portions of food by hand. An example is: 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 Shabbat, since its bones are already removed.
If one must remove something inedible, a small amount of food should be removed along with it.
The spirit of this category also forbids all sorts of sorting and filing activities.
This includes separating the unwanted portions from food by means of a sieve. It includes the sifting of flour and the straining of liquids.
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.
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.
This includes combing wool or cotton in preparation for making thread.
This includes all types of thread and rope making, as well as making felt.
This includes changing the color of any object or substance. Dyeing clothing, painting, and mixing paints, pigments and dyes all come under the heading.
The spirit of this law also prohibits the use of lipstick and eye shadow during Shabbat. However, there are permanent cosmetics that can be put on before the Sabbath and last the entire day.
This includes all crocheting, knitting, and braiding activities. Also included are basket weaving and net making.
The prime example involved setting up a loom for weaving.
This includes setting up the warp on a loom, even when no weaving is being done.
This includes all weaving and needle work, such as needlepoint, embroidery, and rug hooking.
This includes undoing knitted or woven material.
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. Thus, 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.
This includes all undoing building operations. This extends to taking apart any kind of machinery or taking down a tent or temporary structure.
This includes capturing or restricting the natural movement of any living creature.
This includes killing, wounding or bruising any animal or human being.
Animals which pose a danger to life can be killed on Shabbat.
This includes removing the hair, feathers or wool from any living creature.
Also included are such things as hair cutting, shaving and cutting one’s fingernails.
The spirit of the law also forbids the combing of hair on Shabbat, since this normally also pulls out hairs. Using a soft brush, however, is permitted.
This includes skinning any animal for its hide.
This includes all tanning and softening methods to make hides into leather. It also includes softening to improve leather, such as oiling or saddle soap.
This includes all smoothing and polishing operations.
The prime example is the preparation of leather, where the hair is removed and the surface rubbed smooth.
Shining shoes is also included under this heading, as is polishing silver or any other metal.
This includes marking or scoring lines on any surface in preparation for cutting or writing.
This applies even when such marking does not come under the category of writing.