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The Significance of Thirty-nine

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)

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In this paper I would like to understand the meaning or significance of the number thirty-nine (39).


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


There are forty labors, less one, corresponding to the thirty-nine lashes,[1] which are not administered on Shabbat; they correspond to the ten curses given to Adam, the ten curses given to Chava, the ten curses given to the snake, and the nine curses pronounced on the earth.[2]


The following is an excerpt from Meam Loez:[3]


Thirty-nine is numerically equivalent to the Hebrew word tal – טל, ‘dew’. HaShem will resurrect the dead with dew according to the Talmud:


Chagigah 12b Araboth is that in which there are Right and Judgment and Righteousness,[4] the treasures of life and the treasures of peace and the treasures of blessing, the souls of the righteous and the spirits and the souls[5] which are yet to be born, and dew wherewith the Holy One, blessed be He, will hereafter revive the dead. Right and Judgment, for it is written: Right[6] and judgment are the foundations of Thy throne.[7] Righteousness, for it is written: And He put on righteousness as a coat of mail.[8] The treasures of life, for it is written: For with Thee is the fountain of life.[9] And the treasures of peace, for it is written: And called it, ‘The Lord is peace’.[10] And the treasures of blessing, for it is written: he shall receive a blessing from the Lord.[11] The souls of the righteous, for it is written: Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound up in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God.[12] The spirits and the souls which are yet to be born, for it is written: For the spirit that enwrappeth itself is from Me, and the souls which I have made.[13] And the dew wherewith the Holy One, blessed be He, will hereafter revive the dead, for it is written: A bounteous rain didst Thou pour down, O God; when Thine inheritance was weary, Thou didst confirm it.[14] There [too] are the Ofanim[15] and the Seraphim,[16] and the Holy Living Creatures,[17] and the Ministering Angels,[18] and the Throne of God; and the King, the Living God, high and exalted, dwells over them in ‘Araboth, for it is said: Extol Him that rideth upon Araboth[19] whose name is the Lord.[20] And whence do we derive that it[21] is called heaven? From the word ‘riding’, which occurs in two Biblical passages. Here it is written: ‘Extol Him that rideth upon Araboth’. And elsewhere it is written: Who rideth upon the heaven as thy help.[22] And darkness and cloud and thick darkness surround Him, for it is said: He made darkness His hiding-place, His pavilion round about Him, darkness of waters, thick clouds of skies.[23] But is there any darkness before Heaven?[24] For behold it is written: He revealeth the deep and secret things; He knoweth, what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with Him.[25]


The Sages of the Kabbala explain that HaShem possesses thirteen attributes of mercy. Thirty-nine represents a three-fold expression of these qualities. Thus, both numbers are associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


Flogging stimulates a similar process of renewal and purification of a sinner’s soul. Before flogging a man is called ‘wickedרשע’, After flogging, a man is called ‘your brother - אחיך’. אחיך is numerically equivalent to thirty-nine.


Why did the Torah choose to teach me that a person receives thirty-nine whips in such a strange way. If the Torah means thirty-nine, why does it say forty. After all, one should say what he means and mean what he says. The Maharal deals with this intriguing point as follows. The reason he explains a person is sentenced with forty lashes is because HaShem, we know, takes forty days to create the embryo. Seeing as HaShem troubled himself for forty days with the “Yetzirat Havlad”[26] and the person by sinning undid the purpose of his creation, it is befitting that he should be whipped forty times, one for each of those forty days. The Maharal adds that in creating the embryo, for thirty-nine days HaShem creates the body, the Guf, and on the fortieth day blows in the soul-the Neshama. As far as sentencing is concerned the whole person sinned and therefore the whole unit consisting of the Guf and Neshama has to be punished. However, the Maharal continues, when it comes down to the whipping itself, one by one, representing day by day, when we come to the thirty-ninth day the Guf has been totally atoned for. What remains is only the Neshama. The Neshama is pure. The Neshama did not sin, so it need not be punished.


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


In Our Tzitzith


Our tzitzith (fringes), which we wear on a four-cornered garment, also model the meaning of thirty-nine.


The two sets of strands (four in one strand and three in the other strand) are knotted together twice, and then the shamash (a longer strand) is wound around the remaining seven strands a number of times (see below). The two sets are then knotted again twice. This procedure is repeated three times, such that there are a total of five knots, the four intervening spaces being taken up by windings numbering 7-8-11-13, respectively. The total number of winds comes to thirty-nine, which is the same number of winds if one were to tie according to the Talmud’s instruction of thirteen windings of three winds each. Furthermore, the number thirty-nine is found to be significant in that it is the gematria (numerical equivalent) of the Hebrew words: HaShem Echad - יהוה אחד (“God is One”), from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:4.


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


Forbidden Shabbat Labors


We fulfill the “safeguarding” aspects of Shabbat by refraining from thirty-nine categories of “melacha” (creative activity), which the Jews had to perform on weekdays in order to build the Mishkan. We also refrain from other activities, which may be halachically permitted, but are not fitting or appropriate on this special day.


There in an opinion in the Yerushalmi[27] that says that the thirty-nine Melachot (labors) correspond to the number of times it mentions the words “Melachah” and “Avodah” in the description of the building of the Mishkan. According to this, the first opinion in the Gemara is not only giving the source for what the Melachot are, but also for how many Melachot there are. The Talmud Bavli also speaks about these labors:


Shabbath 49b Again they[28] sat and pondered: Regarding what we learnt, The principal categories of labour[29] are forty less one,-to what do they correspond?[30] -Said R. Hanina b. Hama to them: To the forms of labour in the Tabernacle.[31] R. Jonathan son of R. Eleazar said to them, Thus did R. Simeon b. R. Jose b. Lakonia say: They correspond to [the words] ‘work’ [melakah], ‘his work’ [melakto], and ‘the work of’ [meleketh], which are [written] thirty-nine times in the Torah.[32]


THE 39 MELACHOT - Lamed-Tet Melachot


Here is the list of the 39 Melachot (main activities) prohibited on Shabbat:


1. Zoreah - Sowing (seeding)

2. Choresh - Plowing

3. Kotzair - Reaping (cutting)

4. M’amair - Gathering (bundling sheaves)

5. Dush - Threshing

6. Zoreh - Winnowing

7. Borer - Sorting (selecting, separating)

8. Tochain - Grinding

9. Miraked - Sifting

10. Lush - Kneading

11. Ofeh / (Bishul) - Baking/cooking

12. Gozez - Shearing

13. Melabain - Whitening (bleaching)

14. Menafetz - Disentangling, Combing

15. Tzovayah - Dyeing

16. Toveh - Spinning

17. Maisach - Mounting the warp (stretching threads onto loom)

18. Oseh Beit Batai Neirin - Setting two heddles (preparing to weave)

19. Oraig - Weaving

20. Potzai’ah - Separating (removing) threads (Unweaving)

21. Koshair - Tying a knot

22. Matir - Untying a knot

23. Tofair - Sewing

24. Ko’reah - Tearing (unsewing - ripping)

25. Tzud - Trapping

26. Shochet - Slaughtering (Killing)

27. Mafshit - Skinning

28. M’abaid - Salting/tanning process [1]

29. Mesharteit - Tracing (scratching) lines

30. Memacheik - Smoothing / scraping

31. Mechateich - Cutting (to shape)

32. Kotaiv - Writing two or more letters

33. Mochaik - Erasing two or more letters

34. Boneh - Building

35. Soiser - Demolishing

36. Mechabeh - Extinguishing (putting out a flame)

37. Ma’avir - Kindling (making a fire)

38. Makeh B’Patish - Striking the final blow (Finishing an object)

39. Hotza’ah - Transferring (transporting) from domain to domain (carrying)


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


Thirty-nine days To The Omer


On their thirty-eight day of the exodus from Egypt, the Bne Israel were counting the thirty-ninth day to the Omer. On this very significant day, there were three very important events:


  1. Israelites eating quail for thirty days – Day 1.[33]
  2. Israelites camp at Rephidim (baluster place) in 2448 AM. This is camp 10, day 1.[34]
  3. Moshe smote the rock to provide water for the people.[35] 


On this day the Bne Israel were sent quail to eat in response to their complaint regarding meat. As a result of this quail, many would die. The remaining souls would have learned the danger of complaining abount the manna.


On this day, the Bne Israel would arrive at Rephidim. In this place they would be attacked by Amalek.


Shemot (Exodus) 17:8 Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.


This is highly significant because the command to inflict thirty-nine lashes for the transgression of a negative commandment was given in the same parasha.[36]


Finally, on this day Moshe will strike the rock to bring forth water and this act will prevent him from entering the Promised land. Now water always means Torah.


Ta’anith 7a R. Hanina b. Ida said: Why are the words of the Torah likened unto water-as it is written, ‘Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye for water’? This is to teach you, just as water flows from a higher level to a lower, so too the words of the Torah endure only with him who is meekminded.


Baba Kama 82a ‘That the law be read [publicly] on Mondays and Thursdays.’ But was this ordained by Ezra? Was this not ordained even before him? For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water, upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: water means nothing but Torah, as it says: Ho, everyone that thirsteth come ye for water. It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted.


Chazal, Our Sages, teach that Amalek came because the Bne Israel were lax in their Torah study. Rashi teaches the following:


Rashi to Devarim 25:18


all the stragglers at your rear Those who lacked strength on account of their transgression. [And because these Jews had sinned,] the cloud [of glory] had expelled them [thereby leaving them vulnerable to Amalek’s further attack].[37]


you were faint and weary faint from thirst, as it is written, “The people thirsted there for water” (Exod. 17:3), and [immediately] afterwards it says, “Amalek came [and fought with Israel]” (verse 17:8).[38]


Targum Pseudo Jonathan for B’midbar (Numbers) 33:14. Rephidim, where, because their hands were (raphin) neglectful of the words of the law, there was no water for the people to drink;


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


The Number forty


This meaning of thirty-nine is particularly interesting when we compare it to the meaning of forty!


Every time one finds the number forty in Torah, its inner meaning is the ascent from one level to the next higher one. We get a new mission at forty. But the attainment of a higher level can come only after first reaching and fulfilling all aspects of the previous level, and then making an emptiness in the middle to allow for the emergence of something entirely new.



* * *


Yosef was thirty-nine when Yaaqov brought all his family to live in Mitzriam.


* * *


Although the Jewish People approach Yom Kippurim with dread, it is also a happy day, on which our people finds rapprochement with HaShem. After thirty-nine days of repentance and prayer, we take solace and confidence in the Biblical promise that HaShem will always receive

His children with open arms: For on this day He will atone for you, to purify you. From all your sins before HaShem you will be cleansed.


* * *


Moshe according to tradition died on the 7th of Adar while the manna ceased on the 16th of Nisan, a difference of thirty-nine days. The explanation seems to be[39] that though the manna in fact ceased to fall after Moses’ death, the children of Israel continued for thirty-nine days to eat of that which had been gathered on the day of his death.


* * *


The significance of thirty-nine is that it is associated with purification from an undesireable state and the emergence of a new entity.


* * *


This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:


Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501


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(360) 918-2905


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[1] Administered to one who has deliberately violated a negative mitzva.

[2] Tikunim 48

[3] The Torah Anthology, MeAm Lo’ez, by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, page 90. Moznaim Publishing Company.

[4] Heb. צדקה, which implies righteous actions and is often used in the sense of charity.

[5] Rashi explains that either ‘spirits’ and ‘souls’ are synonymous, or else ‘spirit’ means the soul that has bodily form (ectoplasm?).

[6] E.V. ‘Righteousness’.

[7] Tehillim Psalm) 89:15.

[8] Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 59:17.

[9] Tehillim Psalm) 36:10.

[10] Shoftim (Judges) 6:24. Rashi renders: He (the Lord) called it (peace) unto Him.

[11] Tehillim Psalm) 24:5.

[12] 1 Shmuel (Samuel) 25:29.

[13] Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 57:1.

[14] Tehillim Psalm) 68:10. The verse refers to the Revelation at Sinai, when, according to the Midrash, the souls of the children of Israel momentarily left their bodies, but God with His bounteous rain or dew of resurrection revived them. Cf. Cant. Rab. to Cant. V, 6.

[15] Lit., ‘Wheels’, i.e., wheel-like angels; v. Ezek. 1:15f.

[16] V. Isa. VI, 2; in Rabbinic literature they are understood to be angels of fire, cf. Deut. Rab. s. 11. But v. B. D. B. s.v.

[17] V. Ezek. I, 5f.

[18] Apparently distinct from those dwelling in Ma’on (v. p. 70).

[19] A.V. ‘upon the heavens’; R.V. ‘through the deserts’.

[20] Tehillim Psalm) 68:5.

[21] I.e., Araboth.

[22] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:26.

[23] Tehillim Psalm) 18:12.

[24] I.e., God.

[25] Daniel 2:22.

[26] The creation of the embryo.

[27] Yerushalmi Shabbat 7:2

[28] The Rabbis maintained above.

[29] Forbidden on the Sabbath; for aboth, lit., ‘fathers’, v. supra 2b.

[30] On what basis are they selected?

[31] Every form of labour necessary in the Tabernacle was regarded as a principal category of work forbidden on the Sabbath. This is learnt from the juxtaposition of the commands concerning the Sabbath and the erection of the Tabernacle, Shemot (Exodus) 35:1-3;4 seq.

[32] Lit., ‘forty times minus one’.

[33] Meam Loez Shlach

[34] Seder Olam 5

[35] Exodus 17:6, Seder Olam 5   

[36] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25:3

[37] Tanchuma 10

[38] Ibid.

[39] v. Mah.