What is work? A physicist would use one definition, and a labor statistician would use a different one.
Most of us would define work in terms of effort, whether physical or mental, and we would certainly class paying jobs as work regardless of what the jobs entailed. For example, a baby-sitter is “working” even while sitting still.
And we are familiar with the traditional Jewish definition of “work,” the one that rules out riding in a vehicle on Shabbat even though it might entail less physical effort than walking. Where do we get that idea?
This week’s parashah is most often cited in connection with its most memorable episode, the story of the Molten Calf. It also contains several other elements that warrant study, beginning with the odd story of the census at the very start of the parashah. The peculiarity is not the discussion of a census as such; even in the ancient world a census was far from unknown. What is odd is that each person who is counted in the census of the Israelites has to pay a ransom. Imagine how much more resentment there would be of the U.S. census if, in addition to filling out a form and divulging personal information, everyone had to pay a filing fee!
The rationale for the ransom of half a shekel apiece seems to be that counting the people of Israel is a privilege essentially reserved to God, and a mundane census endangers the person being counted. Even today, in traditional circles, effort is made to avoid counting Jews. For example, if there is doubt about whether a minyan exists, the usual way of counting is to have the group recite a Bible verse, one word at a time, that consists of exactly ten words. And some of us may remember grandparents who would count “Not one! Not two! Not three!”
This parashah also contains the source text for the definition of work that is prohibited on Shabbat. After the instructions about the census, God gives Moses detailed instructions about various accoutrements of the mishkan, and designates Bezalel, Oholiav, and others to make them. Immediately following these instructions, God tells Moses to speak to the people about keeping the Sabbath.
But keeping the Sabbath has already been commanded (in the Aseret ha-Dibrot), so why say it again? On the principle that nothing in the Torah is redundant, Jewish tradition takes the association to indicate, first, that even work to carry out God’s instructions about the mishkan is subject to the commandment of Shabbat observance, and second, that all the various kinds of work needed to build the mishkan and make its accoutrements are specifically prohibited on Shabbat.
This section contains a text that is familiar from the Shabbat liturgy, V’shamru:
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed (31:16–17).
This parashah contains another passage memorable from the liturgy. After breaking the tablets of the Law, destroying the Molten Calf (and making the people drink a solution of its ashes, the likely cause of the plague that follows), and ordering the Levites to kill the chief offenders, Moses returns to the mountain to receive a second copy of the Law. Even though God communicates with Moses “face to face” (33:11), Moses wants to know more—perhaps he is affected by a little of the same doubt that led to the creation of the Molten Calf—and asks to see God’s “Presence” (k’vodekha, the “glory” that will fill the mishkan at the end of Exodus).
God answers confusingly that Moses cannot see God’s face, but that God will pass before him and he may see God’s back. As this takes place, God intones a list of God’s characteristics that is part of the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim:
The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations (34:6–7).