| Jr. Feature |

Walking Through the 39 Melachos

Which of us have had experience winnowing? When was the last time you used a weaving loom?


t’s warm and sunny when we get out of the car on Route 42. The air smells of grass, of summertime... and of farm animals??

“We have animals on this side of the road, yes,” confirms our guide for today, Rabbi C.Z. Hershkowitz. “On this side is our exhibition of the 39 Melachos of Shabbos.”

I’m curious. I’ve learned the names of the melachos; we had tests on it in school. But some of them are hard to imagine in today’s day and age. After all, which of us have had experience winnowing? When was the last time you used a weaving loom? Or dyed the leather hide of an animal?

Today, a group of boys were coming to take a tour of the Meleches Betzalel exhibition. A photographer and I went along, to capture it in words and pictures, so that all of you would get a chance to enjoy the tour, too!

Well, Well, Well

A real well! Or is it? This miniature well takes center stage in the center of the lawn. It’s a real-life demonstration of a discussion in the Gemara about carrying water from a well on Shabbos. If there are trees in the corners, would they act as a “wall” so that people camping over Shabbos (because they’re in the middle of a journey) could draw water for their camels on Shabbos? It’s fascinating to see a lifelike model of this idea, which is hard for us to picture. It’s a far cry from faucets!

Getting It "Write"

Our next stop is a small shed, demonstrating the melachos involved in preparing parchment and writing. Although we’re used to pen and paper, sofrim still use the same techniques and materials that they did in ancient times — animal parchment, quill, and ink.

Rabbi Hershkowitz gives continuous explanation, and there are clear printed signs at each exhibit that tells us the relevant melachah from hilchos Shabbos.

Writing a sefer Torah doesn’t start with dipping your quill in ink, either; it begins with a live animal! That animal has to be trapped (tzad), shechted (shochet), and skinned (mafshit), to create parchment.

In this exhibit, we see the soft, furry skin that belonged to real animals from the farm. One skin belonged to a cow that the Hershkowitzes shechted and used for their Yom Tov seudos on Rosh Hashanah! It must be very cozy to wear one of those...

It’s a long process from animal to klaf. The next melachah involved in the process is me’abeid, tanning, which means to prepare the skin by hardening, softening, or stretching it. Here one of the boys is pouring a chemical mixture onto the skin to improve the quality. After that comes the melachah of memacheik, scraping away the roughness of the skin to make it smooth for writing. That ruler looks sharp enough for the job!

We learn about the question in the Gemara, about whether to use write the words on the “meat side” or the “hair side” of the animal skin. Now we can see the two sides in real life! Do you know the answer to the question? (Clue: there are different halachos for sifrei Torah, mezuzos, and tefillin — it’s not so simple!)

Did you know that tefillin boxes are made from animal hide, just like parchment? Neither did I, until I saw this exhibit. Mechatech is the melachah of cutting to a specific shape, and here we see how the tefillin boxes are cut out of hardened leather, and made into the tefillin that we recognize.

Here comes an easy one, the melachah of koseiv, writing. The klaf has come on a long journey, but now it will become a sefer Torah, or the parchment for tefillin or a mezuzah! It looks like we have some budding young sofrim here, dipping their quills into the ink the way a real sofer does it.

Rabbi Hershkowitz shows us the ksav of a passul mezuzah and we try to spot the mistake — it’s not easy!



We move on quickly to the next part of the demonstration. There’s so much to see, I’m not surprised that one boy hangs back to take some pictures; I’m tempted to do the same myself!

Now we’re out in the sunshine again, learning about the next set of melachos, those involved in baking bread.

So, baking bread starts with a trip to the store to buy flour, right? Nope! You got it — we’re starting from scratch. And that means preparing the ground to plant the seeds to grow the wheat to grind the flour… whew1! It makes me tired just to think of all that!

Rabbi Herskowitz demonstrates how this plowing tool2 was used to make lines in the ground and turn over the soil. It looks like hard work to me; I’m glad I’m not a farmer from back then.

Seeing These two types of plows, both over 100 years old, and used in different countries, helps us understand the differences and complications raised in Chazal by plowing before or after sowing we got one from the Germans and one from out west.

The Tur in hilchos brachos says that’s why one should hold the bread with ten fingers during the brachah.

The wheat is fully grown! The next step is cutting it down. We look at two types of sickles. The boys called out questions and answers, and I’m impressed with their knowledge of the tools and the relevant halachos!

We actually found one of the sickles in the forest behind our property! Hashem placed it there many years ago for us to discover (others in Northern Vermont’s antique stores)

Gathering (me’amer), threshing (dash), winnowing (zoreia) — what does it mean? Well, the farmer has to gather the harvested grain, remove the actual kernels of wheat from the stalks, and then toss the grain to the wind to separate the heavier, good wheat kernels from the outer chaff that’s not good for eating. The lighter chaff will scatter in the wind, and we’ll be left with grain that is ready to grind into flour and make into bread.

A real grinding stone! When this boy turns the handle around, the wheat inside will become flour.

Here’s something I didn’t recognize — an oven that baked bread when the dough was stuck to its inside wall. It’s a demonstration of a discussion in the Gemara about someone who took the baking bread off the walls on Shabbos. No oven trays here… ouch! Careful with the fingers!



We’re back in the shade again, this time in the shed that shows the process of making clothes. This starts with shearing the sheep, to produce the wool for garments. Watch out, that tool looks sharp!

Later on, in the farm area, we get a chance to try snipping some wool off an animal ourselves. This is an alpaca, a cousin to the llama. It doesn’t hurt him at all; it’s just like getting a haircut! Hey, Mr. Alpaca, how do you like your new look?

The wool then has to be untangled into separate strands. This is the melachah of menapeitz, combing the wool. It must be hard work to comb through the wool of an entire sheep…

What fun — a chance to try out a real weaving loom, and to see how they wove actual clothes from wool back in the olden days.

The spinning wheel is from New Zealand and loom from Australia. As the Gemara says, Hashem makes people fascinated in weird stuff so that we can learn “baruch she’masar Olamo l’shomrim”.



Guess what this is for? That’s right, a butter churn. Pour in creamy milk, fresh from a cow, turn the handle for a loooong time, and you’ll get butter! This is actually part of the melachah of boneh, building.

The last melachah that we see is makkeh b’patish, the final act that completes a building process. The person who made this clay dish, designed to hold oil for candles, did makkeh b’patish by pressing the clay with his finger to make the last little indentations before drying it and making it into a hard vessel, ready to use.

This is the exact example of the mishnah in Beitzah.

Soon it’s time to cross the road and see the family’s small farm, where they raise their own animals. “It’s all about learning halachah,” Rabbi Hershkowitz tells us. “We have many types of chicken breeds here. One who wants to learn all about the mesorah can see and study all the differences, and many rabbanim come for hours to see and study them and the simanim of the animals. When we learn about something, we try to find a way to bring it to life for ourselves.”

Here in the country, the extended family spend their summer in the company of clucking turkeys and a few larger farm animals. They feed them, milk them, shear them, show visitors around, but they don’t lose sight of the real goal — to help themselves, and others, in their understanding of Torah.

“Rav Don Segal came to the museum for two hours, and he told us afterward that his entire trip to America was worth it just to finally get an understanding of the weaving process and the Mishnah,” Rabbi Hershkowitz tells us with a smile.

Our trip today was definitely worth it, too!

Especially lately with the recent debate over whether the braekel and leghorn chickens are kosher, we even have the Egyptian Fayoumi, an ancient chicken breed, used in Mitzrayim (drawn on the crypts) or the actual quails (slov) the Yidden ate.

The alpaca in particular is fascinating that it chews its cud and has a split hoof. However, the split is not a full split, and it also has a soft underfoot. All these issues are heavily discussed in the Rishonim in the explanation of the kosher simanim.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 791)

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