The Difference Between Shabbat and Festival

  • Rav Ezra Bick


Earlier in this series, we discussed the prohibitions of Shabbat at length. It may be worthwhile reviewing that discussion, since I wish today to try and understand the difference between the prohibition of labor on Shabbat and the corresponding prohibition on festival days (Yomtov) - the first and last days of Pesach, or Shavuot, for example.

A. The Prohibition on Creative Activity

            First, what is the difference between Shabbat and Yomtov. On both days, labor - "melakha" - is prohibited. The definition of melakha is based on the list of 39 categories of creative activity. However, there is a major exception on Yomtov. "Melekhet ochel nefesh" - activities which are directly involved in the preparation of food - are permitted. The exact definition of what is included in this exception is extremely complicated and subject to numerous disagreements, but we need not go into that in this shiur. The general idea is that it is permitted to cook the festival meals, as well as various other activities associated with the preparation of those meals.

            It would be incorrect to view this as being merely a leniency in order to allow tastier meals on a festival. After all, eating a meal - three meals, in fact - is an obligation on Shabbat as well. I think we have to understand the general category of forbidden activity on Yomtov, and distinguish it from the corresponding category on Shabbat, using cooking as the means to analyze the two different categories.

            The Ramban, the great Spanish commentator of the 13th century, based the Shabbat-Yomtov distinction on a slight change in the Torah phraseology concerning the two prohibitions. On Shabbat, the Torah states, "Do not perform any melakha (labor)." On Yomtov, the corresponding prohibition reads, "Do not perform melekhet avoda (labor of work)." The Ramban claims that melekhet avoda refers to the work of the field, manufacture, but does not include work at the table, or in the kitchen, which is more personal. But still, we have to understand the ideological distinction between the two categories.

            When we discussed Shabbat, I advanced the following theory (in short). The six days of work consist of experiences, conflicts, opportunities to create in the external world - all of which are the means for one to create and develop one's creativity. One grows only by experience. On Shabbat, all external input is excluded, all creativity using THINGS - other things and objects. Shabbat is internal, one lives off what one has gained during the week, one creates from within, based on the forces of creativity that have been developed by the external experiences of the six days of creation. One may not invest these forces into external objects, whether foods or manufactured goods. Only by negating all external stimuli can we discern and enjoy the internal power of the creative human being itself.

B. Work on Yomtov

            By contrast, I wish to claim that Yomtov, the festivals of the Jewish year, are the complete opposite. They are devoted to assimilating totally new experiences and values - values so external to the human personality that they are not only absent from the inner human personality, they can not be discovered implicitly by interacting with the external natural world either. These values are gifts of heaven, transcendental investments of God in Man, which can only become part of human existence if they are recharged by reconnecting - not to the world - but to the encounter with God. For this reason, we are enjoined from growing and developing on Yomtov, just as we were on Shabbat, but not so that we can listen and feel the inner creative life of ourselves, but so we can listen, feel, and experience the power of the presence of God and assimilate that which He offers us from above. In other words, on Shabbat we do not create in order not to grow at all (but to experience our growth); on a festival we do not create in order to leap above mere growth, in order to experience something which transcends the potential of natural human growth. So while Shabbat is opposed to change, the festival is about radical change - in the case of Pesach, for instance, the change from slavery to freedom.

            What are these transcendental values, unobtainable from within human experience. We have merely to examine the basic themes of the festivals. Pesach is in three weeks. What does Pesach bestow? - Freedom, of course. Pesach is "yom cheiruteinu," the day of our freedom. Seven weeks later is Shavuot, "yom matan torateinu," the day of the giving of the Torah. Shavuot gives us Torah. Sukkot, the festival that follows Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is somewhat more cryptic. We discussed it in the first shiur of this year - it celebrates the presence of God on man, man's living in a tabernacle of Divine glory. If you wish to include Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur in the cycle, they are dedicated to God's kingship and divine forgiveness, the atonement for sin.

            What do all these qualities have in common? They cannot be achieved by man alone! Torah is not man's wisdom, it is not within the reaches of human intelligence to discover. It is the word of God. The others directly refer to God's presence. The secret of Yom Kippur is that repentance washes away sin, erases the past, which is impossible in human rational terms, but can take place when one is in the presence of God, as the defining verse of Yom Kippur declares - "before God be purified."

            But, you will say, what about the freedom of Pesach? Is not freedom the birthright of Man? Are not all men born free, even if everywhere they are in chains? Is not slavery a denial of man's natural condition, a denial of his creation by God?

            The answer of the Torah, I think is clear. A slave cannot free himself. Nothing in the experience of the slave is the steppingstone for freedom. Servitude filters every experience of the slave and denies any growth, because the slave has no future of his own; he has no purpose of his own. The entire story of Pesach is based on the fact that God took the Jews out of Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." There are many sayings of the Sages which emphasize this point; for example, "There was never a case of a slave who escaped Egypt." Slavery, the Torah is telling us, is a trap from which there is no escape - except by the power of God. That is why we emphasize the miracles of the Pesach story so much, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea. The miracles themselves are not so important, as is what the Egyptian magicians said to Pharaoh when they beheld them - "It is the finger of God."

            The fact that Jewish history begins in slavery, and the fact that we return every year to be redeemed anew, teaches us that freedom is not a natural state. Man is born into slavery - to his environment, to his parents, to his economic limitations, to his genes. What is more - and this is the secret of the Jewish yearly cycle - even a man who is freed will slip back into slavery as the day of his freedom recedes. It is not enough to eliminate the external bonds, for slavery lies deep in his heart, in his need to have someone else take responsibility for his life and destiny. Certain things are prerequisites for the commencement of a life of creativity and growth - and the first and foremost is freedom. Freedom precedes growth; you cannot grow into it, at least not into its first stage. It must be granted from above, and it must be re-acquired yearly. In other words, freedom is a non-natural quality, a transcendent one. We may formulate a law of metadynamics - metaphysical entropy always decreases. The amount of freedom will always decrease with time if left to natural causes. Once a year, a Jew must re-experience the exodus from Egypt in all its miraculous transcendence. To do so, to experience that which is beyond human experience, requires the cessation of human creativity - the prohibition on creative work.

            This is reflected in the difference between Shabbat and Yomtov. On Shabbat, we negate creativity itself, in order to avoid any new interaction with the external world. Hence, all creative activities are prohibited. On Yomtov, on the other hand, we are not opposed to new experiences - on the contrary. The cessation from creativity is not in order to hear the small still inner voice, but in order to make room for a totally new revolutionary experience. Hence, it is important that we be most receptive to this new experience. The very same reasoning that mandates that we not be engaged in our usual natural business requires that our spirits be uplifted, even if through external stimuli, that our senses be sharpened, and that we be in a state of happiness and joy. Therefore, those creative actions that are not "business" - the work of the field - but are activities involving taking care of our feelings of celebration, which heighten our receptivity to the gift of God, are not prohibited. It is not cessation per se that is important here ("Shabbat" means cessation; the term "menucha," [rest] appears only in the context of Shabbat), but the clearing away of intrusions and the openness to transcendence. Work occupies and therefore preoccupies; it can serve as a distraction. Food removes malaise and distraction, bringing us to the heights of receptivity and openness.

            (If you remember the discussion of chametz, I pointed out that chametz - dough that has undergone the leavening process - represents the natural process of growth and development, a good and desirable thing all year, but one which has to be put aside during the festival of freedom. Jewish freedom is transcendent freedom, freedom even from the bonds of natural development.)

C. Chol Ha-moed

            The first day (two days outside of Israel) of Pesach and Sukkot are followed by four or five "intermediate" days, called "chol ha-moed" (Shavuot is an exception and does not have a chol ha-moed). There exists a prohibition on work on these days as well, but here the list of exceptions is much longer. Anything which is needed for the enjoyment of the holiday is permitted, as is personal grooming and the prevention of a loss. Practically speaking, this means that one should not go to work, or attend to jobs about the house that can be done just as well after the holiday. In other words, this comes close to what the western world calls a holiday - a time off, without tasks. What is the purpose of these days?

            Transcendent qualities, like freedom and the presence of God, are not simply additions to our resources that we can accept and place on reserve for when we need them. They are revolutionary qualities which change every aspect of our lives. The Torah therefore gives us a few days to assimilate them before plunging back into the schedule that dominated our lives before the transcendent experience. This is a third type of melakha-prohibition - not cessation of all creativity, and not the divorce from all new creative interaction, but a separation from tasks, from routine responsibilities, in order to experience and enjoy the new quality of our lives. Naturally, this being halakha, this is promoted by fixed prohibitions and not a general recommendation to "take a few days off," but the meaning of the complex of prohibitions is to free oneself to slowly approach life anew.

D. The cycle of the year

            Each festival has a theme of its own, and each one returns yearly. The experience that the festival seeks to grant to us apparently must be granted anew every year. The meaning of the year in halakha is a life cycle, a mini-life, as it were. Because these experiences are in origin not natural to man, he needs to renew the original grant every year. The Haggada on Pesach, after relating the story of the exodus, concludes, "In every single generation a man must see himself as though he had left Egypt." The seder experience is one of exodus itself - one must once again experience the bondage of Egypt and the redemption of God, in order to begin a new year of freedom and continue onto the giving of the Torah. On Shavuot we do not merely celebrate the historical anniversary of the giving of the Torah, we experience it anew; we do not only commemorate Sinai, we relive it, in order to not only have a holy book but to also have the experience of hearing God's voice and receiving His instructions directly from Him. On Sukkot we do not merely remember the booths of the Jews in the desert but rather we place ourselves under God's clouds of glory, experiencing the existential dimension of being in His presence. The facts of life are that these existential elements will be ground down under the pressure of mundane living, because they are not part of the natural order and do not integrate FULLY into one's life.

            I emphasized the word "fully" in the last sentence because it would be a mistake, I think, to say that they are foreign elements. Man is, according to the philosophy of the Sages, a complex being, whose life is based on a tension-filled contradiction between the natural and the heavenly; he is part angel and part animal. These are not merely different aspects, they are contradictory. Their integration is never complete. Their coexistence is insured by a dynamic fusion, by a continuous use of force to maintain the complex of a spiritual human being. This dynamic fusion is the Jewish year-cycle. The three festivals are called pilgrim festivals, for in Temple times the Jew was required to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot and appear before God. In the Torah, this is always expressed not as an obligation to come to the Temple and bring a sacrifice, but to come and be seen before God. Rav Soloveitchik zt"l used to say that on Shabbat God comes to our homes, on Yomtov we go to His. Shabbat is the holiness that is inherent in our lives, that has become part of our personalities. Yomtov is the holiness that properly belongs only to God, to which we are able to come and draw from and take away back to our own world. A year goes by, and the well runs dry, and we must go back to the source and draw anew.

E. Halakhic summary

            The laws of melakha on Yomtov and the exact distinction from Shabbat are very complicated. This is only an extremely sketchy summary.

1. All melakhot forbidden on Shabbat are forbidden on Yomtov, unless it is a melakha whose purpose is one of directly preparing food.

2. While it is permitted to light a fire on Yomtov, it is forbidden to create a new fire. Hence matches and electronic ignition may not be used. It is customary to leave a candle burning all Yomtov in order to light the stove. This applies to the lighting of the candles of Yomtov as well (on the second day).

3. Although it is permitted to cook on Yomtov, that is only for the enjoyment of the same day. Hence it is forbidden to cook on the first day foods which will only be eaten on the second. On years when Pesach falls on a Friday, this means that preparations for Shabbat cannot be performed on Friday. The solution to this problem is the preparation of an "eiruv tavshilin" on Thursday - instructions are in the siddur. The "eiruv tavshilin" means that preparations have begun on Thursday, which allows us to continue on Friday.

4. During the intermediate days, melakha is also prohibited, unless it serves the enjoyment of the intermediate days, is part of personal grooming, or is necessary to prevent a loss. The days should be devoted to enjoyment and celebration.

5. The holiness of Shabbat is greater than the holiness of Yomtov (Think about that in terms of the explanations given above!). Therefore, when Shabbat follows Yomtov, havdala is said only after Shabbat. On Friday night, the holiness is increasing, so only kiddush of Shabbat is recited. When the opposite takes place, when Shabbat precedes a Yomtov, the border between the two is marked by havdala for Shabbat and kiddush for Yomtov.