This column is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of Shlomo Eliezer ben Chaya Sarah Elka.
The Gemara in Shabbos 49b discusses different options regarding what the 39 melachos correspond to. One opinion in the Gemara holds that they correspond to the 39 times that the Torah uses the word “melachah.” The Gemara says that Rav Yosef asked whether the word “melachah” in the pasuk that describes when Yosef was going to Potifar’s house – “la’asos melachto” – is included in the count. The Gemara suggests that a sefer Torah be taken out and checked. The Gemara responds that it will not help to check, for Rav Yosef was unsure about something else, namely whether the count of the words of melachah included the pasuk in parshas Vayakhel, “vehamelachah haisa dayam,” or the pasuk that uses the word melachah regarding Yosef.
This uncertainty is caused because the word melachah in both pasukim can be interpreted differently. Regarding the pasuk by Yosef, there is a dispute whether Yosef had intended to go into the house to do his ordinary work. In this case the word melachah would be appropriately counted in the list of the 39 other times the Torah uses the word melachah. However, others opine that Yosef had intended to enter the house to tend to his own needs. In this view the word melachah is not a reference to the general word melachah.
The pasuk in parshas Vayakhel, “vehamelachah haisa dayam,” can be interpreted to mean that the melachah was complete, denoting that there was no more melachah.
In short, the Gemara is unsure which pasuk refers to the 39th in the list of times that the Torah uses the word melachah. Acharonim suggest that there is a halachic difference that would result, depending on which pasuk is included in the list. If we are to include the pasuk concerning Yosef, then a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa will be exempt. Why? Because if that pasuk is included in the list, the interpretation of that pasuk is that Yosef intended to perform his daily melachos. These melachos were those that were tzericha legufa. But if we are to include, as the 39th time, the pasuk in parshas Vayakhel that says that there was a sufficient amount of melachah already performed, then the melachah in that pasuk is referring to an unnecessary melachah. This should indicate that one would be prohibited from performing a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa according to the Torah, not only by rabbinic prohibition.
The Maharsha, in Baba Basra 119, says that the mekosesh eitzim (the individual who was mechallel Shabbos in the midbar) acted l’sheim shamayim. He was mechallel Shabbos so that bnei Yisrael would learn which form of death a mechallel Shabbos deserves, since prior to that point in time it was not clear which form of death a mechallel Shabbos deserved. He violated Shabbos thinking that it was a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa and therefore thought that he would not be put to death. He reasoned that his act of chillul Shabbos was a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa because he was only acting so that others would learn from the result – not because he wanted the melachah. The Maharsha concludes that indeed he was deserving of death because the witnesses who warned him not to be mechallel Shabbos were unaware of his intentions and he did not inform them of his intentions. Thus, in his scenario, he was deserving of death. However, if one makes clear that he is only acting so that others will learn from him we would consider his actions a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa.
Others argue that there is no indication from the pasuk in Vayakhel that one is Biblically prohibited from performing a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa. They do not hold that doing an unnecessary action should constitute a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa. The classic example of a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa is when one digs a hole in order to take the dirt. Generally, the melachah of digging is performed for the purpose of having a hole. In this situation the individual has performed the melachah of digging. However, he did it for a different purpose – namely to get the dirt. But if one performs a melachah that was unnecessary, provided that he did the melachah for the correct purpose, it will not be classified as a melachah she’eino tzericha legufa and will not be biblically prohibited. We do not take into consideration the motive behind why the individual performed the melachah. We only consider whether the action was done with the same purpose as the purpose in the Mishkan, e.g., digging to make a hole, regardless of why one needs a hole. If one digs a hole for the sake of having a hole, he is liable min haTorah.