Shabbat - Part 1

  • Rav Ezra Bick


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in loving memory
of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky z”l whose yahrzeit is 17 Cheshvan



            There are many aspects which combine to produce the uniquely Jewish experience of Shabbat. We will be discussing several in the next few weeks, but, in general, Shabbat may be divided into two: the prohibitions - activities which are not permitted; and those halakhot which positively impart a special sanctity and character to the day. The "Aseret Ha-Dibrot" (Ten Commandments) are found twice in the Torah, once in their proper narrative position (parashat Yitro, Exodus ch. 20), and once in Moshe's long speech summarizing the forty years in desert (parashat Va-etchanan, Deut. ch. 5). In the first case, it says, "Remember ("zakhor") the Shabbat day to sanctify it;" in the second, "Keep ("shamor") the Shabbat day to sanctify it." "Zakhor" is understood to refer to the positive commandments, whereas "shamor" is understood to refer to the prohibitions. The Sages write that "shamor" and "zakhor" were said simultaneously; i.e., both versions were uttered by God at Mt. Sinai. In other words, the two aspects are totally intertwined and form a unity, even if, individually, they are distinct and even a little contradictory.

            The most prominent aspect of Shabbat is the set of prohibitions which fall under the category of melakha (labor) - "Lo ta'aseh kol melakha." The Hebrew word "melakha" is never itself explicated in the Torah, although, in one place, the Torah prohibits kindling ­"Do not light a fire in all your dwellings on the Shabbat day" (Exodus 35,3). The delineation of "melakha," and its division into 39 subcategories, is part of the "oral law," that part of Torah law which explains and fills in the gaps in the "written law." Concerning the laws of Shabbat, the mishna says they are like "mountains suspended by a thread," meaning that an enormous amount of detailed regulations (the tractate Shabbat is the longest in the Talmud) have only a slight explicit scriptural basis.

            The mishna (Shabbat 7,2) lists 39 categories of melakha (pl. "melakhot"). Each category is named after an activity performed in the preparation of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert, and includes not only that particular activity but any activity found to consist of the same essential nature. For instance, sowing is a melakha, since different plants were necessary in constructing the mishkan, but sowing includes any activity which fosters vegetative growth, such as watering or pruning. Shearing is a melakha, since wool was needed for the mishkan, but the category includes detaching any growing part from a living body, including fingernails and hair. Basically, the list is divided into the preparation of foods (starting from plowing, through grinding and up to cooking), the preparation of animal products (from trapping and killing to tanning the hide, and including the activities associated with the preparation of cloth, such as weaving, sowing or knitting), and various individual melakhot, such as lighting a fire, writing, constructing, laundering, etc. Since these categories do not signify the action after which they are named, but the essence of the activity, many other activities are forbidden by extension, and it is necessary for the Talmud (and afterwards the commentators) to try and understand what that essence is. Every few years, until this day, some new activity comes up and scholars debate whether it should be included in a particular melakha.

            A cursory look at the list, especially when viewed as categories of types of activity, indicates immediately that what is prohibited on Shabbat is not WORK, in the sense of strenuous activity, but CREATIVITY or production. Simply put, it is forbidden on Shabbat to create something new, or to significantly alter the state of some object and thereby reach a new stage in its existence. Killing a live animal transforms it from "animal" to "material" - skin or meat, and that is a creative action, producing something new. There is a common misconception that since in ancient times, many activities were much more difficult, strenuous labor is what lies at the heart of the Biblical prohibitions. But despite what you learned in the Scouts, nobody would light a fire by rubbing sticks - they simply saved embers and used them to relight a fire. This is a bit more complicated than throwing an electric switch, but not significantly so. The point here is not how much you sweat when you perform a melakha, but what is the RESULT - is there a new object which is produced? On Shabbat, one doesn't change the world; we leave it as it is.

            Why? What is the meaning of this "cessation" from creative activity on Shabbat? (The word "shabbat" means cessation, not rest. "Rest" is "menucha" in Hebrew.) I would like to suggest three levels of explanation, each of which not so much contradicts the previous one as it deepens it.

I. FIRST ANSWER - God rested

            The obvious answer is that cessation from melakha commemorates the creation of the world.

"Remember the Shabbat to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and do all your labor, but the seventh day shall be a Shabbat to the Lord your God. You shall not do any labor... for six days did God make the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day..." (Ex. 20, 8-11)

Shabbat is often called, for instance in the kiddush, "a remembrance of creation." So the most obvious answer is to say that we rest on Shabbat because God rested on Shabbat, after He created the world. In other words, we are imitating God by "resting," thereby commemorating the Divine rest of the first Shabbat.

            Now I think that this can only be true if there is value in rest. We shall see in a future shiur that there is some truth to this. However, once we define Shabbat not as "rest," but as cessation, and cessation from acts of creativity, it becomes difficult to assert that Judaism has defined Shabbat as the high-point of the week because on that day we imitate God in his lack of action. The idea of imitating God, imitatio Dei, is essential to Jewish thought, but, not surprisingly, it generally appears in the context of God's DEEDS. The classic expression of this principle is the statement of the Sages: "Walk in the ways of God; He clothes the naked, so should you clothe the naked; He visits the sick, so should you visit the sick; He consoles the mourner, so should you console the mourner; He buries the dead, so should you bury the dead." Shabbat is regularly seen as the goal of the week's work, as the intended fulfillment of the six days of work. Are we enjoined to work in order to rest? (In the very last shiur, I pointed out that the precedence of night to day in the Jewish time-scheme indicates the exact opposite). If we were to choose whether to imitate God in His creativity, or in His rest, does it not stand to reason that we should imitate and value creativity? Consider this midrash:

A philosopher asked R. Hoshaiya: If circumcision is dear (to God), why did He not give it to Adam? He answered him: Why do you cut your hair (which you were born with, like the foreskin) but leave your beard?... Everything which was created in the six days of creation needs completion... like the grain, which needs to be ground. Even Man needs completion! (Bereishit Rabba 11,6)

            Man's task in the world is to continue the creativity of God, for EVERYTHING created in the first six days is incomplete; the act of creation is not over, and Man continues where God has left off. (Notice the example in the midrash. Grinding grain is prohibited on Shabbat, and is a classic example of creativity. Circumcision as well is a melakha, both because of the of a live tissue and the drawing of blood; however, the Torah specifically suspends the Shabbat prohibitions and requires that a baby be circumcised on the eighth day even if it is Shabbat.) Why, then, is Shabbat, when we are enjoined from creativity, the "the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people?"

            In fact, the opposite of Shabbat, the source of those activities which are prohibited on Shabbat (namely the building of the tabernacle), is itself the greatest example of Man's need to complete creation and not accept it as it is. The tabernacle is the house of God. A major theme of Tanakh (the Bible) is the story of how the Jews are to build a house for God (who, when it is built, will "dwell in your midst," and not in the house - but that is another story). God creates the world, but won't build a place for Himself in it - He does not live on a Mt. Olympus. He waits for man to do so. The place where the presence of God descends is a house built by man. Mt. Sinai, where God came to the Jews, is not a holy mountain, but Mt. Moriah, where the Jews built the Temple, is. And what in fact is prohibited on Shabbat? Building the tabernacle! This is true both literally ­the work on the tabernacle stopped on Shabbat, and essentially - the prohibited activities of every Shabbat are those that were necessary in order to build the tabernacle. Does Shabbat celebrate the value of not building, not creating, not bringing the Divine Presence into the world?

            Furthermore, it cannot be denied that God does not exactly rest on Shabbat. If we do not water our lawns, He very often does. The midrash notes this point.

"Turnus Rufus (a Roman general) asked R. Akiva: If, as you say, God honors the Shabbat, He should not cause the winds to blow, nor bring rain, nor grow grass on Shabbat?!" (Bereishit Rabba 11,5).

            R. Akiva answered him that God is master of the world and does not share it with anyone; hence He may do as he pleases. In other words, God does not rest on Shabbat after all!!

II. SECOND LEVEL - God created

            Digging a little deeper, we can suggest a slight alteration to the previous solution. The cessation of work does not commemorate only God's cessation of work on the seventh day, but rather the entire process of creation, all six days, up until its completion on the seventh day. Shabbat is, in the words we recite in kiddush every Friday night, "a remembrance of the act of creation." We desist from creating in order to testify that "in six days God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested." In other words, by abstaining from creativity for one day a week, we testify that God is the ultimate creator, that the world, despite our contribution, is really His, and that our efforts to imitate Him throughout the week are not attempts to supplant Him, but rather to extend, and continue within Divine providence, the Divine creativity. We are not celebrating rest as the goal of human life, but recognizing the divine source and the heavenly nature of creativity, thereby in effect asserting the true value of human creativity. Without Shabbat, we are likely to view our accomplishments as independently valuable, to begin to worship ourselves and our achievements in the manner of the nineteenth-century humanists, to view the world as ours to do with as we see fit, and to use Man as the measure of all value. Resting on Shabbat leaves the world in the hands of God - as the midrash said, He continues to bring rain and move the winds - thereby ensuring that our creative actions and accomplishments during the week will be genuinely valuable, by being rooted in the ultimate source of value and creation. The challenge to be creative is, according to the message of Shabbat, an invitation to be the PARTNER of God in continuing Creation. This does not limit human creativity; it raises to the level of genuine creativity, as a continuation of the divine activity. Only a measure of humility vis-a-vis man's domination of the world can grant man the power and the ability to really change the world.

            In this picture, the objective truth of Shabbat is "higher" than that of the week - Shabbat says that God is the ultimate creator; the week says that I create. Shabbat has holiness, because it is God's day, it testifies to God's presence in the world and His ultimate supremacy. The days of the week are secular, mundane, not sacred, compared with Shabbat, because they are "our days," our creativity, our accomplishments. The purpose of Creation, however, is found precisely in the mundane sphere, and our ability, by remembering Shabbat throughout the week, to sanctify the mundane from below, from within ourselves. The purpose of Shabbat is to ground the value of my creativity during the week by making it part of the divine creation of the world, and by making me into God's partner. Shabbat doesn't deny the value of human creativity; it doesn't place rest on a higher pedestal than creativity; quite the contrary. Rest is valuable because it asserts the ultimate Godly value of creativity, thereby endowing my affirmation of human creativity with divine value. Without Shabbat, human creativity is merely human, with a tendency towards idolatry. Without the days of the week, Shabbat is merely a renunciation of human potentiality.

            (A bit of thought on this theme could lead to a balanced formulation on questions of ecology and exploitation. Shabbat promotes neither an absolute reverence for "nature," in the manner of the philosopher quoted in the midrash above, nor an arrogant policy of remolding my environment in whatever image suits me, but a charge to CONTINUE the unfinished work of Creation in order to maximize its value, by both assuming the responsibility to change and construct as well as accepting the primacy of God and His creation as the basis for my efforts. I leave this to you to ponder.)

            While this represents a significant advance over the previous level, it is still unsatisfactory. The main thing troubling me is that the Sages do indeed present Shabbat as a GOAL of existence, as a higher and more desirable state of man. The most blatant statement of this kind is "Shabbat is a taste of the world-to-come." The future of the world is described by R. Akiva, in a statement cited at the end of the Shabbat morning prayers, as "a day that will be completely Shabbat and rest for eternal life." In the picture we have just painted, Shabbat divorced from "sheshet yemei ha-ma'aseh" (the six days of activity) would have no value for humans. It would be the equivalent of God's existence before he created Man at all, totally sovereign, with no partners. That may be religious ideal, but how can it be an ideal for human existence?

            Even without delving into the positive halakhot of Shabbat, which I reserve for a future shiur, we can say that their very existence indicates that Shabbat cannot be merely a denial of human pretensions, even if that is integrated with a renewed affirmation of Man on the morrow. One is, at the very least, supposed to "enjoy" Shabbat ("oneg Shabbat"). And, as I pointed out at the beginning, "shamor" and "zakhor" were uttered as one; the positive side of Shabbat cannot be divorced from the prohibitive side.

            Furthermore, human creativity is not prohibited totally on Shabbat. There is no doubt that the Halakha and its expositors, the sages and scholars of old, considered the study of Torah and its development to be one of the highest, if not the highest of human creative activities. The Torah is God's learning, in which Man participates, expanding, disagreeing, even, in some very suggestive Talmudic stories, overcoming the arguments of God himself. Is Torah study forbidden on Shabbat? On the contrary, there is a special obligation of study on Shabbat, beginning with the institution of the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue, and continuing with the study of individuals, freed from the obligation of livelihood. Why not celebrate the ultimateness of God in this area as well? Why not affirm that, here too, Torah is God's Torah, just as we affirm that our creation is the continuation of God's creation? Why not cease Torah study for one day, to show that God is the ultimate source of all intellectual accomplishment?

            (Another area of human activity not prohibited - in fact, recommended for Shabbat - is no less a supreme example of creativity. What is more creative, more transcendent, than the creation of another human being? On Yom Kippur, for example, when we act as though we were angels, and not human, sexual relations are prohibited. This is not true of Shabbat.)

III. THIRD LEVEL - Man creates

            In real life, I would look at my watch now and say, "Uh-oh, my time is up." In VR, I look at my word processor and say, "Uh-oh, I've reached my byte limit." Since I know I will not be able to forgo anything I have already written, I am not going to try and edit this shiur to make it any shorter. I am simply going to take a break. I will finish this topic next shiur. In the meantime, think about the following statement of the Sages:

"Just as it is a mitzva to cease ("lishbot", to make shabbat) on the seventh, so it is a mitzva to work for the six days."