Don't Build the Mishkan on Shabbat!

Why was this command necessary?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

We read in Parshas Ki Sisa that immediately upon notifying Moshe Rabbeinu that Betzalel would be in charge of constructing the Mishkan, with the assistance of Oholiav, and enumerating all of the articles of the Mishkan whose construction they would oversee, Hashem stipulates that Mishkan construction may not occur on Shabbos: "However, my Sabbaths must you observe, for Shabbos is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem Who sanctifies you. And you shall observe the Shabbos, for it is holy unto you..." (Shemos 31:13-14; Rashi, from Mechilta)

Parshas Vayakhel commences with a brief exhortation by Moshe to B'nei Yisroel to observe Shabbos, immediately prior to presenting to them the concept of the Mishkan and soliciting donations for it: "And Moshe gathered the entire congregation of B'nei Yisroel, and he said unto them, 'These are the things that Hashem commanded to do. Six days shall labor be performed, and on the seventh day it shall be holy unto you...' " This text is followed by the command of the Mishkan: "And Moshe spoke unto the congregation of B'nei Yisroel, saying: 'This is the thing that Hashem commanded, saying: Take from yourselves a donation to Hashem, every person according to the generosity of his heart shall bring a donation unto Hashem: gold and silver and bronze, and techeiles and purple...and oil for illumination, and spices for the Shemen Ha-Mishchah (Anointing Oil)...And everyone of a wise heart among you shall come and make all that Hashem commanded: The Mishkan, its tent and its cover...the Aron (Ark)...The Shulchan (Table)..." (Shemos 35:1-13)

The Meforshim (Commentators) explain that Moshe's exhortation to B'nei Yisroel to observe Shabbos prior to instructing them to bring donations for the Mishkan and to construct it constitute his conveyance of the message to B'nei Yisroel that Mishkan construction was not to occur on Shabbos.

Why was it necessary to warn the people not to perform Mishkan construction on Shabbos? The mitzvah of Shabbos had already been given, and it therefore seemingly should not have been necessary to warn B'nei Yisroel not to construct the Mishkan on Shabbos, for why would they assume otherwise? Why would the people have thought that construction of the Mishkan should override Shabbos observance, absent a command to that effect?

There is a well-known dispute between Rashi and the Ramban as to when Moshe was commanded to construct the Mishkan. Rashi maintains that this command occurred subsequent the Chet Ha-Egel (Sin of the Golden Calf), immediately after Yom Kippur, when complete forgiveness for the Chet Ha-Egel was obtained. The Ramban argues and posits that the command to construct the Mishkan was given prior to the Chet Ha-Egel, but the Mishkan’s actual construction occurred after the Chet, following the simple order of the Torah text.

Getting back to our question as to why Hashem instructed Moshe specifically to warn B’nei Yisroel that the Mishkan was not to be constructed on Shabbos, we can safely answer that according to Rashi, this warning was a necessary reinforcement and follow-up to the teshuva (repentance) on the part of B’nei Yisroel for the Chet Ha-Egel. Having taken matters into their own hands when Moshe did not descend from Har Sinai when expected and creating a own new, forbidden type of leadership and worship in the form of the Egel, B’nei Yisroel were now being forewarned that despite the fact that they would employ their creative talents to construct the Mishkan, they needed to stay within the limits of Halacha and not again stray when giving religious expression to their creativity. This was why it was necessary to emphasize that Mishkan work may not override Shabbos observance.

According to the Ramban, who maintains that the command to construct the Mishkan preceded the Chet Ha-Egel, it would seem that, absent a specific warning about Mishkan work not overriding Shabbos observance, one might think that the Mishkan could indeed be constructed on Shabbos, for just like time-specific Avodah (Mishkan and Mikdash service) occurs on Shabbos, so should construction of the Mishkan, which was a prerequisite of Avodah, occur on Shabbos. Hence was the Shabbos warning necessary.

The precise manner in Parshas Vayakhel by which the Torah warns that Mishkan construction may not occur on Shabbos deserves some focus. Unlike the Shabbos warning conveyed by Hashem to Moshe in Parshas Ki Sisa, in which the phraseology indicated that the warning pertained to Mishkan work, the warning in Parshas Vayakhel does not seem directed at Mishkan work per se; the Torah merely states, "And Moshe gathered the entire congregation of B'nei Yisroel, and he said unto them, 'These are the things that Hashem commanded to do. Six days shall labor be performed, and on the seventh day it shall be holy unto you...'" There is no indication at all that this warning refers to refraining from Mishkan construction on Shabbos. The warning is instead very general.
Why is this? Why does the Shabbos warning in Parshas Vayakhel not specify or in some way indicate that it pertains to the Mishkan, such that it would be clear that Hashem was warning that Shabbos must be observed even while constructing the Mishkan?
Although the answer to this question seems more pertinent to the specific events in the parshah according to the above approach of Rashi, it resonates powerfully and acutely regardless.

The warning not to perform Mishkan work on Shabbos was not merely a stipulation, as if to say that Mishkan work should be done, so long as Shabbos is not violated in the process. Rather, it was a charge of commitment to Hashem’s exclusive authority. The Torah warned that submission to the authority of Hashem always comes first, and only then can one engage in creative acts to serve Hashem. It is insufficient to pledge not to violate the Torah when using our creative talents in the religious realm; mere assurances to stay within bounds are inadequate and miss the point. Only if the starting and ending point, and everything in between, flows from a sense of submission to Hashem, is the creative religious endeavor acceptable and positive. This is why the Shabbos warning is presented without an explicit reference to Mishkan work, as acceptance of the message of Shabbos, which is that of submission to Hashem’s all-encompassing authority, must define us and permeate all that we are and do, and never be taken as a mere stipulation in our activities and creative endeavors. Only once such submission exists on its own can creative spiritual endeavors be legitimized and sanctified.  

While this message is a general, but fundamental one, according to the Ramban, according to Rashi, it elucidates the character of the teshuva on the part of B’nei Yisroel following the Chet Ha-Egel. According to Rashi, the Torah is explaining that B’nei Yisroel did not simply commit to never again stray and to heed Hashem’s word with precision, such that their future actions and undertakings would be in compliance with the Torah, in the spirit of a stipulation. Rather, their teshuva was one of redefining their core values, such that submission to Hashem would be the defining trait and the very essence of their future religious endeavors, totally reframing how they viewed their roles as Jews.

This lesson is as applicable to contemporary times as it was to ancient times, as we witness new movements and trends within the Orthodox orbit – be they neo-Chassidic, feminist, observant/post-denominational, meditative, or otherwise. Although the legitimacy of any new Jewish movement or trend depends on the evaluation and endorsement of the generation’s most eminent rabbinic leadership, total submission to the authority of Hashem is the most fundamental and required characteristic, without which religious creativity cannot obtain legitimacy.              

This is the eternal lesson of Shabbos and the Mishkan.