On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest [alt.: Shabbat of Shabbatot], holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.
[Moses] intentionally mentioned to them the prohibition in reference to the Sabbath before the command about building of the Tabernacle in order to intimate that it does not supersede the Sabbath.
And what, then is the meaning of the term: Shall dies, in the verse? Does it mean that one who commits an unwitting transgression is punishable by death? It means that he shall die by payment of money. Death is used in the sense of punishment; he will be forced to pay for numerous sacrifices to atone for his sins.
Akeidat Yitzchak 55:1:6 (Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama)
Since man has not been created to sit idle, with his hands folded in his lap, it is fitting that his activities should be commensurate with the lofty status he occupies in the universe. … The key to man’s achieving his perfection lies then in the activity not motivated by lust, greed and phantasies, but by his moral imperatives. … This is also what we must learn from the opening portion of our Parshah … When viewing the entire panorama of human activities which God commanded each one of us, one understands that just as God imposed activities upon Himself from which He desisted once He had achieved his objective so all who model themselves after Him, will seek out activities that possess the distinction that toil and effort expended on them leads to margo-ah, serenity of their soul and personality, does not leave them feeling exhausted, unfulfilled, empty.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
the command to keep Shabbat is more important [than building the Tabernacle]. The implication is that the command to rest on Shabbat pertains not only to ordinary matters (“your work,” as it says in the Ten Commandments) but to sacred work as well.
…the work of the Tabernacle serves as a basic, though not exclusive, model for the forms of work prohibited on Shabbat.
Even someone with a thorough knowledge of the laws of Shabbat must grapple with the complicated question of what exactly is considered work by the Torah’s definition.
On the one hand, one may carry heavy loads, and labor and sweat over any number of undertakings, without violating any melakha according to halakha. On the other hand, simple acts such as lighting a fire, writing two letters, or moving a pin from one place to another are considered melakha, and entail a serious penalty.
…there is a more basic question: What is the inner logic that informs this definition [of prohibited melakha].
The first possible definition that comes to mind is largely responsible for the common misunderstanding of the Torah’s concept of work: the identification of work with effort. … Connected with this understanding of work is a parallel rationale. According to this understanding, the exact definition of work is not effort; rather, the effort must be forced effort, an act that one is obliged to perform, and not an act of one’s own free will and desire. Thus, an act that bring enjoyment to its performer is not considered work but play and delight. … This view of work is clearly based on the physical feeling that the work brings.
Let us suggest a different approach to the concept of work, one that is not at odds with the preceding on but that nevertheless is essentially different from it. Work can be viewed not primarily with respect to the effort involved but with respect to the result that is produced. … This conception of work is essentially connected with the intention and thought that inform the effort. Hence, only a purposeful activity can be considered work. That is, the defining concept of work is not toil but creation. … In this conception of work, the existence and measure of work are defined by the quantity and value of the result. … melakha is a physical act performed with intention and thought.
Here, however, arises the central problem: What is the reason for this suspension of creation and those long Shabbat hours of noncreative inactivity?
Shabbat serves both as a separation and as a bond between the divine work of the Creation and the human work of creation. … Shabbat is a day of stillness, in which we suspend the practical-physical aspect of creation.
The same distinction we made between exertion and work … exists between inactivity and rest as well. … rest entails the practice of deliberate, purposeful inaction in preparation for further action in the future. [emphases added] That is to say, although rest does not involve exertion, it, too, is a creative act, because it creates the possibility and prepares for all further creation. … Rest … is necessary for perceiving the spiritual significance of one’s work. … finding its spiritual and meaningful content, and making it possible to raise the entire enterprise to a higher level. … God took the time, as it were, to look at His creation and see all that He had made, and find that it was very good. Even loftier than this, Shabbat enabled finding the pure purpose that lay in this creation.
The stillness of Shabbat is a state of contemplation, a state of preparation for a deeper understanding of the essence of things, in a greater effort to attain their purpose. … its true nature is elevation from the mundane activities of the week to the attainment of a higher and holier level of creation.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib
“Six days shall work be done” [Shemot 35:2). This refers also to the six directions, the four “winds” and above and below. All the powers and qualities gather together to build a palace for that innermost place, the Sabbath. This is the true building of the mishkan, of which it says: “Where is the house you will build Me?” (Isaiah 66:1).
Thus said the LORD: The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me, What place could serve as My abode? All this was made by My hand, And thus it all came into being–declares the LORD. Yet to such a one I look: To the poor and brokenhearted, Who is concerned about My word.