Of all the 39 categories of מלאכה, malacha, productive work, that define the prohibitions of Shabbat, I’ve always had the greatest trouble with מכים בפטיש, makim b’patish, which literally means “hitting with a hammer”, but is the label given to a variety of activities which are seen as applying the final touch (the imagery is of a craftsman tapping on his finished product to signal its completion, Ta-Daaaa!). It’s often used as a catch-all for activities authorities want to prohibit but can’t find another, better category (I continue to strongly doubt that turning on an electric light on Shabbat is really a matter of “completing the circuit” by throwing the switch, but since another major force in halacha, Jewish law, is to not separate yourself from the community, I certainly do observe the prohibition anyhow). In any event, this category has always eluded my understanding.
Over the recent yahrzeit (death anniversary) of the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the great Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the early 18th century (and my own most powerful teacher and influence), I came across a passage in אדיר במרום, Adir B’Marom, Precious On High, where he describes the Hebrew letters as, each of them, comprised of two primal energies which he calls the ניצוץ, netzutz, spark, and the רקיע, rakiah, firmament (see Bereishit (Genesis) 1:6). (By this his is referring to each Hebrew letter being built by combining either a point, י, yud, or a line, ו, vav–examine the letters for yourself to confirm this.)
One of the fundamental principles of the mystical underpinnings of Jewish tradition is that the universe was created by means of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. This means that the primal energy which forms both all matter and energy in our universe enters existence as modulated by the energies contained/symbolized in each of the letters!
With this thought in mind, I returned to the idea of makim b’patish, striking with a hammer, and saw the correspondence between the spark that results when striking, say, an anvil with a hammer and formulating the basic building blocks of all reality, the Aleph-Bet, by “smashing” the netzutz, י, into the rakiah, ו.
Admittedly, I’m in even deeper perplexity understanding makim b’patish as adding the finishing touch since it seems I’ve just defined it as even before the first step of creating something. Nonetheless, it doesn’t always have to result in a pretty package with a ribbon on top, and the exploration brings great beauty to my mind as well as provoking further thought.