The Ramban has difficulty with this. The Ramban explains that when the word אַךְ/only precedes a mitzvah, it restricts the application of the mitzvah. (e.g. אַךְ/Only restricts the mitzvah of Shabbos with regard to circumcision. We may perform circumcisions on Shabbos.) Applying this logic to the Mishkan, if the word אַךְ/only were coming to restrict Shabbos with regard to work on the Mishkan, it should mean that work on the Mishkan is permitted on Shabbos. Why, then, does Rashi say that from אַךְ/only we learn that work on the Mishkan is prohibited on Shabbos?
In order to answer the Ramban’s question, we need to understand the relationship between Shabbos and the work of the Mishkan.
On Shabbos we can more easily be aware of and experience God’s presence. God, of course, is everywhere always. However, during the week it is more difficult to experience His presence. His presence is hidden, in a manner of speaking. There are people, though, who experience God’s presence during the week as well. Torah scholars, for example, through their Torah learning, are aware of and experience God’s presence even during the week. This is why the Zohar calls Torah scholars Shabbos. In fact, Shabbos can be defined as a state of being connected to God, the source of life.
The Chiddushei HaRim points out that like Shabbos, the purpose of the Mishkan is the revelation of God’s presence. (The book of Shmos ends with the building of the Mishkan and the revelation of God. The Ramban explains that the revelation of God at the end of Shmos was the culmination of the redemption from
Chazal tell us that after the revelation at
After the sin of the golden calf, being on a lower spiritual level, the two crowns were taken away from us. God was hidden from us. We needed the Mishkan to be able to experience closeness to God. The Arizal taught that on Shabbos, though, Moshe Rabbeinu returned the crowns to us. The Arizal is teaching us that on Shabbos, God reveals Himself. On Shabbos, God makes it easier for us to be aware of Him. On Shabbos we can feel close to God without the Mishkan. This is the meaning of the pasuk in this week’s parsha referring to keeping Shabbos, “... לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם/… to know that I am God who sanctifies you.” (Shmos 31:13)
This explains the relationship between the Mishkan and Shabbos. The purpose of both is to allow us to experience closeness with God.
We find another example of the word אַךְ/only regarding purifying vessels that we receive from non-Jews, “אַךְ אֶת־הַזָּהָב וְאֶת־הַכָּסֶף .../only the gold and silver …” (Bamidbar 31:22) In this case, as well, אַךְ/only qualifies that which follows it. When purifying the gold, it must not have any rust on it. אַךְ/Only tells us that only unsoiled gold can be purified.
The Sfas Emes explains that in this sense אַךְ/only qualifies the day of Shabbos, as well. On Shabbos, there is no barrier between us and God. Because there is no barrier, God’s presence is manifest even without the Mishkan. This is why Bezalel was not permitted to do the work of the Mishkan on Shabbos. The Torah is commanding us to experience God’s presence on Shabbos, through Shabbos alone, without the Mishkan.
For this reason, as well, Chazal learn that only the thirty nine types of work found in the Mishkan are prohibited on Shabbos. God is the life giving force behind every action that we do. It appears, though, as if we are autonomous, that we are running on our own power. The thirty nine different types of work that we do during the week, therefore, actually hide God. They act as a barrier. In reality, though, we only act because God gives us strength to do so.
Our mission during the week is to realize that our actions and activities are being powered by God. Paradoxically, the thirty nine categories of work are also the tool for revealing God’s presence. Realizing this enables us to feel God’s presence during the week as well. Since Shabbos was given to us so that we can more easily experience closeness to God, the thirty nine types of work that hide His presence are prohibited. On Shabbos, they are superfluous.
Contemplating this during the week as we go about our daily activities is a kind of keeping the Shabbos even during the week. Chazal hint at this when they advise us that we can keep the mitzvah of remembering the Shabbos during the week as well. If we find something good during the week we should set it aside for Shabbos. We’ve explained that Shabbos can be defined as a state of connectedness to God. Accordingly, we can keep an aspect of Shabbos during the week by thinking and realizing before every activity and action that God’s force is within it and powering it. Our job during the week, is to subordinate our own intentions for our actions to God’s. Even if we do not know what they are, the Sfas Emes teaches else that the act of subordinating our own desires in favor of God’s helps us to merit understanding and success.