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In describing the Melachos of Shabbos, the Mishna in Shabbos 73a says that there are "40-1" Melachos. Why not say 39?

Side note: There are some answers as to why Malkus is also described that way, but the answers I know of are Malkus specific, so they would not apply.

  • Maybe it was a figure of speech. – mevaqesh Sep 15 '16 at 15:56
  • The mishna was an oral text. What's easier to remember: thirty nine or almost forty? – magicker72 Sep 15 '16 at 16:24
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    you can see 4 answers here: dafyomi.co.il/shabbos/insites/sh-dt-073.htm – Menachem Sep 15 '16 at 17:53
  • i read once somewhere (could be sefer yetzira) it parallels the creation of the world which was with 10 utterances, each one split to 4. but somehow the first one was differnt – ray Sep 15 '16 at 19:00
  • @Menachem Those answers are good. Perhaps you can summarize them in an answer. – sabbahillel Sep 15 '16 at 20:04
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Four answers to this question are brought here. (summarized below)

Tosfos Yom Tov provides the first 3 answers. In his commentary to mishnayot Shabbos 7:2 he writes:

  1. Since 39 lashes are referred to as "forty minus one" (see Makkos 22a), 39 Melachot are as well.

  2. The Talmud (Shabbos 49b) says that the number of Melachot is derived from the number of times it says Melacha in the Torah. The Talmud points out that it actually says Melacha 40 times, and says that one doesn't count. Therefore we say there are "forty minus one" Melachot.

  3. One only performs the Melacha of sewing if one ties a knot at the end. Tying a knot is also a Melacha. Therefore, if someone transgresses all 39 Melachot he did two acts of tying knots, so 40 transgressions to do all 39 Melachot.

Mayim Chaim provides a fourth reason:

  1. There are actually two plowings done when planting a field. One before the sowing, and one after. Therefore, if someone transgresses all 39 Melachot he did two acts of plowing, so 40 transgressions to do all 39 Melachot.
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    Combining answers 3 and 4 yields 41 transgressions to do 39 melachos. – DonielF Apr 4 at 15:50
  • @DonielF right so you'd have to say Tos Yom Tov #3 & Mayim Chaim must reject one another's shita in order to still be 40 -1 – alicht Apr 4 at 20:02
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    @alicht Which just begs the question: how do they interpret the other's proof? – DonielF Apr 4 at 20:02
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R’ Aryeh Kaplan zt”l noted in a class once that Chazal number the melakhos as “40 missing 1”. It could be a shorthand for 39, much the way the “i” is placed before the last “x” in the Roman numeral version “xxix”. People using Roman numerals would think of a number that ends in "9" as a "missing one" from the round number.

And even that may be a prosaic piece of the puzzle; it's how the non-Jews around us wrote numbers.

However, there is also significance to forty as forty. The acts of creation is described in mishnah Avos (5:1) as being 10 utterances -- "בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם". Based on a verse in Yeshaiah (43:7), “כֹּ֚ל הַנִּקְרָ֣א בִשְׁמִ֔י וְלִכְבוֹדִ֖י בְּרָאתִ֑יו יְצַרְתִּ֖יו אַף־עֲשִׂיתִֽיו׃ -- everything (1) called in My name and for My Honor, (2) I created it, (3) I formed it, (4) I even did it” The Zohar derives from this verse that each act had 4 aspects. Thus yielding 10 * 4 = 40.

The same 40 shows up as a symbol of birth and rebirth in the number of days of rain in the flood, the number of years it took us to mature into a nation in the desert, the number of se’ah of water in a miqvah, the number of days after gestation before the soul enters the fetus as well as the gender is determined, etc…

But of the 40 acts of creation, one is creation ex nihilo (making something where there was nothing), yeish mei’ayin. Since people can’t rest from creating something from nothing — we can not do it altogether during the week either — the rest of Shabbos is very much a break from “forty missing one” activities.

And “forty missing one” is also the maximum number of makos (lashes) meted out as punishment, given the person could survive that many. They are given in sets of three: on the right, the left, and the middle, and separated by a pause for a medical inspection — can the person handle another three?

The 39 melkhos can be broken down into four categories: The first 11 melakhos listed in the mishnah (Shabbos 7:2) begin with planting, and describes the steps necessary to grow the wheat, turn it into flour, and make the lechem hapanim, the showbread. The next 13 are about preparing the cloth of the curtains of the Mishkan, from the wool to the dying to the weaving and sowing. Seven melakhos relate to preparing hides into leather, and the last 8 are simply “none of the above.

Ashkenazim make 39 windings on our tzitzis — also in groupings of 7, 8, 11, and 13. Yemenites wind their tzitzis in groups of 3. The Shulchan Arukh haRav rules both -- double knots separating the windings the same way other Ashkenazim would, but also a daisy chain of smaller knots down the side grouping the windings into 3. Notice again the same convergence of symbolic numbers.

Just as tzitzis are worn “so that you will remember all of My mitzvos“, so too Shabbos commemorates the creation of the whole, and the punishment of makkos is to bring someone back after having violated the purpose of the whole. "Forty missing one" is used in all these cases as a number indicating the entirety of human action.

(Any errors are likely because R' Kaplan passed away 33 years ago, meaning that we're relying on the accuracy of my memory of a talk given over something like 34-35 years ago.)

  • I always thought of RA"K zt'l as a writer; where did he lecture? – Shalom Mar 7 at 7:36
  • NCSY. It was that relationship that led to the various NCSY published booklets. – Micha Berger Mar 7 at 9:50
  • So at various NCSY groups at synagogues across the US? Was there (is there?) some NCSY headquarters building? (I realize NCSY has changed drastically over the years; it's no longer an acronym because they seldom operate out of synagogues anymore!) – Shalom Mar 7 at 23:00
  • At the time I belonged to NY Region. Before that, New York City was multiple regions. Long Island region too. In other words, Shabbatonim in shuls across the Greater NYC Area more than across America. – Micha Berger Mar 8 at 2:24
  • Did you meet him personally? – Dr. Shmuel Apr 4 at 15:49

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