The fourth of the Ten Commandments begins, “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat le-kadesho” – commanding that we “remember” to observe Shabbat as a sacred day (20:7). Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, famously comments, “Zakhor ve-shamor be-dibur echad ne’emru” – that God simultaneously proclaimed this command of “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat,” and the command in the version of the Ten Commandments which appears in Sefer Devarim (5:12), “Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat” (“Guard the day of Shabbat”). The command to observe Shabbat is formulated differently in these two versions because God actually uttered both “zakhor” and “shamor.”
The common explanation of the Mekhilta’s comment, as the Ramban famously writes in his commentary to Parashat Yitro (20:7), is that the commands of “zakhor” and “shamor” refer to the two fundamental aspects of Shabbat observance. The command of “shamor” speaks of the obligation to refrain from the various forms of forbidden activity, whereas “zakhor” instructs that we actively treat Shabbat as a special day of sanctity. God is said to have issued both commands simultaneously to impress upon us that both elements of Shabbat observance are equally vital.
Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef, offers a different explanation for the significance of “zakhor” and “shamor.” Somebody who is charged with guarding an object must ensure not only that he does not cause it harm, but also that it is not taken or damaged by other people. Therefore, Rav Salant writes, the command of “shamor,” which requires us to “guard” Shabbat, refers to the obligation to try to protect Shabbat from violation. Beyond our personal obligation to observe Shabbat – “zakhor” – we are also required to do what we can to minimize Shabbat desecration by others.
On the basis of this theory regarding “zakhor” and “shamor,” Rav Doron David Gold suggests in his work Orchot Mussar (pp. 446-447) an insightful explanation for the famous story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai told in Masekhet Shabbat (33b). The Gemara tells that after Rabbi Shimon and his son spent twelve years hiding in a cave, engrossed exclusively in Torah study, they finally left the cave and saw people working as farmers. Rabbi Shimon and his son could not bear the sight of Jews involved in mundane activities instead of devoting their time to Torah learning, and were enraged by what they saw. The Gemara describes that a “fire” erupted wherever they looked. A heavenly voice condemned the rabbis for “destroying” the world, and ordered them back into the cave. They left a year later, on a Friday afternoon, and they saw a man running with two bundles of fragrant myrtle branches. Rabbi Shimon and his son asked the man why he was carrying these bundles, and he explained that he was bringing them home in honor of Shabbat. He was bringing two bundles, he said, to correspond to the dual commands of “zakhor” and “shamor.” Rabbi Shimon said to his son, “Look at the Jews’ love for mitzvot!”
Rav Gold explains that the association drawn between fragrant myrtle branches and the commands of “zakhor” and “shamor” sent an important message to Rabbi Shimon and his son. These commands, according to the Be’er Yosef, express the obligation to both observe Shabbat and to try to ensure that others do so, as well. Rabbi Shimon and his son were shown that this can be achieved only in a pleasant manner, through love, affection, respect and sensitivity. If we feel distraught by other people’s disregard for mitzvot, the proper response is not the anger shown by Rabbi Shimon and his son when they first left the cave, but rather the “fragrance” of myrtle branches. It is specifically by projecting warmth, kindness and joy, by displaying the beauty and appeal of Torah life, that we are able to inspire people to embrace mitzva observance.