Last week Torah portion, Emor, speaks about the prohibition of working on Shabbat. In fact, the Talmud enumerates precisely 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat. But why 39? Rabbi Shimon b’ Rabbi Yossi ben Lakunya (Shabbat 49b) suggests that the number 39 can be derived from the number of times the various forms of the word “melacha” (work) appear in the Torah. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to see how this works out. In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel (990-1053) already pointed out that this word appears 61 times in the Torah, not 39! Actually, this word actually appears 63 times! Another Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Chanina of Sepphoris derives the number 39 homiletically strenuously computing gematria of the phrase, “These are the things.” (Shabbat 7:2) The lack of clear source for the number of the prohibited activities on Shabbat makes it even more puzzling why all Talmudic Sages stuck to the number 39 as ironclad. What does this number signify?
Let us note that 39 is three times thirteen (3Í13 = 39). We have a principle philosophy of Chabad that when a mitzvah is prohibited on Shabbat, we are not missing it because the spiritual level of that mitzvah is already present on Shabbat. For example, when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, we don’t blow shafar – the main mitztvah of Rosh HaShanah. Yet, Chassidism explains, we are not missing anything, because the level we could ordinarily achieve only through the sounds of shafar, is already present on Shabbat. In other words, that which should have been accomplished by the blasts of the shafar, is accomplished automatically by Shabbat itself. This principle opens the door to understanding the spiritual significance of the number 39. When a holiday falls on a weekday, when opening the Torah Arc (Aron HaKodesh), we recite three times the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy – yud gimel midot harachamim. However, when a holiday falls on Shabbat, we skip that prayer. Why? Because this level of holiness is intrinsic in Shabbat and whatever we could have accomplished by reciting three times thirteen attributes of mercy (3×13 = 39) is accomplished by Shabbat itself. So we see that the number 39 is hardwired in the kedushah (holiness) of Shabbat.
Moreover, homiletically, these two numbers, 3 and 13, represent 39 in a different way. We note that the sum of all consecutive prime numbers between 3 and 13 equals 39. Indeed, 3+5+7+11+13=39. This is significant, because prime numbers, which by definition have no other divisors besides the number itself and 1, are fundamental to mathematics. These five consecutive prime numbers are fundamental to Shabbat as well:
3 – the number 3 represents three levels of holiness (kedusha) on Shabbat. Unlike holidays, which level of holiness stays constant throughout the day, the holiness of Shabbat raises as the day progress through three distinct levels. This is reflected in the fact that all three main prayers of Shabbat (tefilot) are different (whereas on yom tov all tefilot are the same). From another perspective, the number 3 represents the three-dimensional space in which we leave. three-dimensional space means that in order to specify a position of any point in space we need three numbers (x, y, z). To do that, we first need to select the center of our coordinate system – point zero – and then draw three lines (X, Y, Z axes) through this point thereby creating coordinate systems. That means that we actually need four numbers – point zero and three coordinates relative to this point. Each axis represents one dimension in which we can travel. However, we can travel in each dimension in opposite directions – forward and backward. We can move right or left, up or down. In other words, each dimension represents a degree of freedom to move in one of two directions. That is why the oldest book of Kabbalah, Seffer Yetzira, describes our universe in terms of “A depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of East, a depth of West; a depth of North, a depth of South.” Thus, we have six directions in which we can move in 3-dimensional space. Six directions plus the center of coordinates gives us the number 7. Shabbat is the seventh day of the week. It represents the center of coordinates as it were. During the weekdays, we engage in extravert creative activities going out of the center into the world to improve it and make it a better place. On Shabbat, we retrieve back to the center, back to ourselves in the introvert contemplation of the spiritual reality within. This is represented very vividly by a Jew sitting during the holiday of Sukkot in a sukkah, surrounded by six walls, while the person inside represents the center, the inner space. Sukkot lasts seven days, which reminds us that time has the same spiritual structure as space – six plus one – six weekdays plus Shabbat. At the root of all this, is the number 3 representing three dimensions in space.
5 – represents Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch), the Torah. The Talmud states that a person who scrupulously observes the laws of Shabbat is as if he fulfilled all mitzvoth (commandments) of the Torah. And conversely, a Jew who publicly desecrates Shabbat is deemed to have a legal status of a non-Jew because it is as he denies all of the Torah.
7 – this number needs no explanation as the seventh day of the week is Shabbat. Number 7 also represents the last sefirah – the seventh midah – Malchut, which corresponds to Shabbat.
11 – corresponds to the eleven herbs in the sacred mixture of incenses (ketoret) burnt during biblical times in the Temple. Ten of these incenses are sweet and the eleventh is a bitter-smelling herb. This represents the inclusion of that which is not good into that which is good. Shabbat also gathers all good and not-so-good that happened during the week and elevates it. In the first chapter of Bereshit, we read about Ten Divine Sayings by which the world was created. Actually, there were eleven sayings. After the first Ten Sayings, G‑d said that it was good. The eleventh saying is, “And it is not good for a man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:11) Shabbat is an auspicious time for the marital union because this is the time of the supernal union of Kudshey Brich Hu (the Holy One, representing in Kabbalah the male aspect of the Divine) and Shchintei (Divine presence representing the feminine aspect of the Divine), in the language of Zohar.
13 – as we said before, the number 13 represents Thirteen Attributes of Mercy – (Yud-Gimel Midat HaRachamim). In Kabbalah, Shabbat is called a 13-petal rose, which means that Thirteen Attributes of Mercy shine on us every Shabbat.
Another way to represent the number 39 is 31 + 32 + 33 = 39. Shabbat celebrates the creation of the world. The spiritual DNA of our world is made up of ten sefirot (Divine emanations). These ten sefirot are arranged into three triads of sefirot (Chochmah-Binah-Daat, Chesed-Gevurah-Tiferet, Netzach-Hod-Yisod) plus Malchut. At the most quintessential level, each of these triads is made of three principles – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. This is why the number three is so fundamental to creation and to Shabbat which celebrates it.