Shabbat and Rest


Hi Rabbi, I find the concept of “rest” on Shabbat confusing. Why is walking up eight flights of stairs in my high-rise building considered not “work,” but pushing an elevator button is yes considered work?

Thanks for any insight.



  1. Good question. To one who is unfamiliar with its laws and philosophy,many aspects of the observance of the Sabbath may appear illogical and even bizarre. I once spent Shabbat at the Holiday Inn in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where I was given a room on the eleventh floor of the hotel. I did not use the elevator because of the Shabbat restriction against turning electric circuits on or off (to be explained later), so instead I used the staircase designatedfor the staff. Wheezing and staggering up the tenth flight of stairs I encountered a waiter at the hotel, who asked me why I was not using the elevator. I replied, “Because it is the Sabbath, our day of rest.” We looked at each other for a moment; he nervously smiled and sped away before I could explain how climbing eleven flights of stairs is considered “rest.”

    And what is “work,” anyway? The Torah obviously doesn’t say not to do “work,” being that work is an English word and the Torah is in Hebrew. The relevant Hebrew word regarding Shabbat in the Torah is melacha, and the Torah tells us not to do melacha on Shabbat. Although, melacha is sometimes defined as “work,” that’s not really a good definition. So, what is melacha?

    Melacha means “creative act.” By refraining from creative acts, we recognize God as the “Ultimate Creator.” Melacha is any act which represents the uniquely human ability to put our intellect to work and shape the environment. Thus, switching on a light is melacha. Among other things, it can be considered “building” a circuit. Specifically, a melacha is anything that fits into one of 39 categories of activities listed in Tractate Shabbat. This list includes activities such as seeding, uprooting, building, writing and burning. In the case of an elevator, the problem here is that by closing an electric circuit you are taking something that is not functioning and by creating/allowing electron flow through the circuit you are putting it in working order. The category of prohibited activity under which this falls is building/constructing.

    In order to understand Shabbat on a more philosophical and less technical level, I suggest seeing the book called “Gateway to Judaism” by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. In addition, the following books are good to start with: Shabbos, Day of Eternity by Aryeh Kaplan, The Shabbat by Dayan Isadore Grunfield, 39 Avot Melacha by Rabbi Baruch Chait; illustrated by Yoni Gerstein, and The 39 Melachos by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat.

    Best wishes from the Team