We read in Parashat Ki-Tisa of God’s instruction to Moshe that he relay to Benei Yisrael the command of Shabbat observance: “You shall speak to the Israelites that you shall observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for all your generations, to know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (31:13). This command appears in conjunction with the commands regarding the construction of the Mishkan, and is thus commonly understand as emphasizing to the people that the lofty project of building the Mishkan does not override the Shabbat prohibitions, and must be suspended on Shabbat.
The Gemara in Masekhet Beitza (16a) cites this verse as a source for the requirement to inform the recipient when giving him or her a gift. Unless the recipient is bound to reveal this information eventually in any event, the one who gives the gift must inform the recipient. The Gemara explains that God told Moshe to convey to Benei Yisrael not merely the command of Shabbat observance, but also its great reward, the “gift” we receive by observing Shabbat – something which otherwise we would not have become aware of. And thus God instructed Moshe to convey to the nation this information so that they “know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” – they realize that God has given us this remarkable gift.
Elsewhere, we find a different source for the concept that God wanted Moshe to inform us of the great “gift” of Shabbat observance. The Midrash Lekach Tov infers this from Moshe’s declaration to the people on the first Friday after the manna began falling: “See that the Lord has given you the Shabbat; therefore, He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day” (Shemot 16:29). According to the Midrash Lekach Tov, it was then, when Benei Yisrael first received the manna shortly after the Exodus, that Moshe was told to tell Benei Yisrael about the great gift of Shabbat, which absolved them of the need to collect manna on Shabbat.
Rav Menachem Kasher (Torah Sheleima to Shemot 31:13, note 44) writes that the version in Lekach Tov seems more accurate, as it marks the first time that Benei Yisrael were told about Shabbat. It stands to reason that the first time Moshe was instructed to tell the people about Shabbat is the occasion when God expressed the need for him to inform them of the precious gift they were receiving.
Apparently, the Gemara felt that there is something unique about the gift of Shabbat that is expressed specifically in the command here in Parashat Ki-Tisa, which is given in the context of the commands of the Mishkan. For some reason, the special “gift” of which Moshe needed to inform the people is associated with the command of Shabbat given in Parashat Ki-Tisa, and not with the command of Shabbat given earlier, in the context of the manna.
The explanation might lie in the different themes of Shabbat reflected in these different contexts. (These themes are developed at length by Rav Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Moadot, vol. 1.) The command of Shabbat given in reference to the manna relates to our daily pursuit of our physical needs. We human beings, like animals, must scurry about in search of food and the other commodities we need in order to sustain ourselves. Benei Yisrael were told upon entering the desert that on Shabbat, this is not necessary. Six days a week, we need to leave our homes to collect our manna, to work to receive the livelihood which God makes available to us, but on Shabbat, we are assured that we can remain home. In the context of the Mishkan, however, the command of Shabbat observance reflects a different concept. The project of the Mishkan’s construction represents, perhaps in the extreme, the human being’s role as God’s partner in the world’s development. While we are, on the one hand, like other animals who must struggle to sustain ourselves, we are also fundamentally different creatures, endowed with a divine image, invited to take part in the Godly project of continuing the process of creation through our creativity and mastery of the natural world. This is most clearly manifest through the construction of the Mishkan, when human beings were called upon to build an earthly abode for the Almighty. Here, the command of Shabbat serves the function of forcing us to stop to recognize that ultimately, God is the sole true Creator and Ruler over the universe. In the context of the Mishkan, Shabbat observance is a vitally important reminder that although all week long we work as God’s “partners,” we are subordinate to Him and under His absolute authority.
In light of this distinction, we can perhaps explain why the hidden “gift” of Shabbat, which Moshe needed to reveal to us, is associated with the command in Parashat Ki-Tisa, and not with the earlier command given in reference to the manna. In the earlier command, the “gift” element of Shabbat is clear and obvious, as it absolves us of the need to struggle to earn a livelihood one day a week. Here in Parashat Ki-Tisa, however, the “gift” aspect of Shabbat is less evident. In this context, Shabbat is about limiting our power and stature, reminding us of our status of subservience. At first glance, this aspect of Shabbat is not a “gift,” a precious privilege, but rather a restrictive force, setting limits on our capacity to build and produce. This does not appear as a gift. And thus specifically in this context, God told Moshe to inform us that Shabbat is, in truth, a precious gift that we should cherish. Our status as God’s servants who work strictly under His command is a great privilege. Even this aspect of Shabbat observance should be embraced as a precious treasure. While we normally associate servitude with deprivation and shame, our status of servitude vis-à-vis the Almighty should be viewed as a source of honor, pride and exhilaration. In commanding Benei Yisrael to halt their work building the Mishkan on Shabbat, Moshe was to inform us that even this is a precious gift, for there is nothing more precious and valuable than serving our Creator.