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From Ches to Hei

Parshas Vayakhel begins with the command to refrain from forbidden work on Shabbos. The Gemara states that there are 39 types of forbidden work, and learns this from the opening verse of the parshah, “Eileh hadevarim—there are the things that Hashem has commanded to do.” The word eileh (אלה) has the numerical value of 36; the word devarim adds another two, as it is written in the plural; and the hei at the beginning (hadevarim) adds one more, totaling 39.

This is the way the number of melachos is derived in the Bavli. In Yerushalmi, by contrast, it is learnt from the word eileh itself: since the letters hei and ches are interchangeable, it is as if the word is written with a ches, giving us the numerical value of 39.

This is difficult to understand. When we say that hei and ches are interchangeable, it is because there are certain areas in which they share a common denominator. In those areas, it is understood that they can be exchanged. However, with regard to their numerical value, there are certainly not alike: hei equals five, while ches equals eight. How can these letters be exchanged to create a different gematriya?

Arrogance Vs. Bittul

We find the letters hei and ches playing a role in a different area—in the words chametz and matzah. Both words possess the letters mem and tzaddik, but they differ with regard to the third letter: chametz has a ches, while matzah has a hei.

What is the difference between chametz and matzah?

As is known, matzah, which is thin, represents humility and bittul, while chametz, which rises, symbolizes arrogance and yeshus. Chametz possesses the same ingredients as matzah, yet it swells and expands. Similarly, a baal gaavah doesn’t necessarily possess additional qualities and talents, yet he is haughty and arrogant.

Haughtiness is the source of all evil characteristics. This explains an interesting terminology used in Gemara. When Chazal want to describe someone who deviated from the correct path, the word used is hechmitz (“he turned sour”). The reason why chametz is used is because it is arrogance that leads to all other negative traits.

Matzah, by contrast, represents someone with bittul. Such a person won’t be jealous of what others have—just because someone else has something, why should he have it too? Even if thoughts of jealousy do surface, he will immediately yield and won’t act upon his desires. But a baal gaavah’s thought process is just the opposite: How can it be that the other has something that he does not? He must have it too!

In addition to the fact that arrogance leads to sin, it also prevents the sinner from repenting.

When a person has bittul, he will be overcome by remorse over the fact that he transgressed and will mend his ways. But if he is arrogant, he will never concede that he made a mistake. Either he will convince himself that it wasn’t wrong, or he will find any and every type of excuse to shift the blame from himself and place it on someone else. There is no way he can accept the fact that he is to blame. And since he will not find himself at fault, it will be very difficult for him to do teshuvah.

The Second Opening

The difference between the spelling of chametz and matzah is that chametz includes a ches while matzah has a hei. These two letters similarly signify arrogance and bittul.

Both a ches and a hei possess three lines: one on top and one on either side. The difference is that while a ches only has one opening on the bottom, a hei has a second opening, between the left leg and the top line.

The Gemara states that the bottom opening, which exists in both letters, represents the doorway to sin—lapesach chatas rovetz (“sin crouches at the opening”). The left opening, which exists only in the hei, represents the doorway to repentance.

The hei, the person with bittul, may also stumble; but if he does, he will recognize his misdeed and make his way to the second opening—he will do teshuvah. By contrast, when the arrogant ches sins, there is no opening for teshuvah, because he will not allow himself to see his errors.

Why Must We Work?

Let’s return to the 39 melachos.

The Gemara derives which melachos are forbidden from the Mishkan (based on the fact that the two topics appear alongside each other in Parshas Vayakhel). Any type of work performed in the Mishkan is considered a melachah, while those which were not done there are not.

Everything in Torah is exact. If the melachos are derived from the Mishkan, there must be an association between the two. What is the connection between them?

The melachos are the categories of work we must do to earn a living (as we are enjoined not to rely on miracles, and we must create a vessel for parnassah). However, a Jew must realize that the melachos are not merely methods of making a parnassah. Why indeed did Hashem make the world in such a way that we must work to earn a livelihood? Because He wants us to make a Mishkan for Him. He wants us to bring His presence not only into our spiritual pursuits, but even into our mundane activities—our plowing and sowing, our buying and selling—by doing these actions leshem shamayim.

When a Jew performs the 39 melachos, they are infused with bittul—with the recognition that it is Hashem who gives a Jew parnassah, and that he must make a Mishkan for Hashem by doing them leshem shamayim (for example, to give tzedakah and to be able to study Torah with peace of mind). However, this is only the way these melachos appear once the Jew enters the scene. Before that, the melachos are mundane and coarse.

Take, for example, a non-Jew who is doing these very melachos. He lacks this feeling of submission, and presumes that his success is the result of his own know-how and business acumen. Instead of bittul, the melachos are blown up with arrogance and yeshus.

It follows that the task of a Jew is to take the 39 melachos, which on their own are a ches, and transform them into a hei.

This is why there are 39 melachos, corresponding to the word eileh as if it were written with a ches, while in actuality eileh is written with a hei. The ches and hei are interchangeable, meaning that it is up to us to transform the coarseness of the melachos into bittul and convert them into a Mishkan for Hashem.

For further study, see Likkutei Sichos, vol. 1, pp. 129–132.