Skip to main content

The Mishkan and the Shabbat

Rav Michael Hattin
16.03.2000

Introduction 

Parashat Ki Tisa opens with further concrete preparations for the Mishkan underway, as God tells Moshe to command the people to each contribute a half-shekel of silver towards its construction.  The Torah goes on to elucidate the laver or wash basin, as additional details of Aharon's service are presented.  The preparation of the anointing oil and incense, both of which figure prominently in the service, are then enumerated.  Finally, Bezalel is named as the chief artisan of the undertaking, and a checklist of his skills, talents, as well as of his responsibilities, follows. Clearly, the theme of this first section of the Parasha again pivots around the Mishkan, but this time the narrative concludes with a startling, succinct but strongly worded injunction concerning the observance of the Shabbat.  Significantly, next week's Parasha of VaYakhel appears to repeat the juxtaposition, as the section begins with Moshe's decree to the people at God's behest to observe the Shabbat, and immediately proceeds to describe the commencement of the collection drive to gather materials for the Mishkan's construction.

 

The Shabbat constitutes one of the greatest innovations of the Torah, and perhaps the most important ritual observance of the Jew.  A cherished and beloved expression of Jewish identity, it would not be a hyperbole to suggest that the survival of the Jewish people as a faith community has in no small measure been due to its continued observance.  Throughout our long and checkered history but especially in the modern era, however, the relevance of Shabbat has been questioned, and its observance has been derided and ultimately discarded by many.  Its conventional practices but especially its prohibitions have been portrayed as antiquated, restrictive, and overly ritualistic.  Even among the observant, many of us are hard-pressed to explain the underlying rationale behind the interdiction of putting on a light, driving a car or painting a picture, especially when these activities are, in our modern context, so effortless.  We may attempt to conceal our ignorance with vague and ambiguous references to 'Tradition', but what is genuinely needed is a fundamental overview of the core ideas of Shabbat.

 

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we will attempt to acquire a more balanced and profound understanding by examining the purpose and relevance of Shabbat, its core essence, through a close and careful study of the Torah's text as well as of the Talmudic and Midrashic explications.  We will find direction along the way by critically analyzing the meaning of the fundamental vocabulary associated with its observance.  Although at times it will seem as if we have strayed far from the fertile ground of our Parasha, we will in fact discover that the two most critical texts for our investigation are to be found in this week's Parashat Ki Tisa and in next week's Parashat VaYakhel.

 

 

Shabbat Bereishit

 

We must, of course, begin our search with the first mention of Shabbat in the Torah, for it is in that context that its primary features are spelled out. After the six days of creation are concluded, and their slow but steady progress from chaos to order and from inanimate to humanity is attained, the seventh day is introduced: "The heaven and earth and all of their host was completed.  God completed on the seventh day all of His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all of His work that He had done.  God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He rested from all of His work that He had created and done" (Bereishit 2:1-3). 

 

The critical repeating words in this text are 'completed', 'rested', and 'done.'  Evidently, Shabbat, from the root ShBT that is here translated as 'rested', is commemorative of God's repose after the completion of creation.  Significantly, however, the most oft-repeated words in the section are 'seventh day' and 'work', and their linkage is obvious: on the seventh day, God 'rested' from His 'work', and the essence of this seventh day is 'rest from work.'  The difficulties raised by this translation are manifest, for how can we associate the idea of rest with a Being who is absolute and omnipotent?  How are we to understand the nature of His 'work', a term that we employ to describe activity, toil, labor and especially effort?  The notion of 'rest from work' in our familiar frame of reference implies that physical exertion has taken place and that recuperation is needed.  Clearly, understanding the terms in this fashion is impossible, for "surely you know and have heard that the Lord of the universe is Hashem; He who has created the ends of the earth neither wearies nor tires, and His wisdom is unfathomable" (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:28). 

 

For now, let us content ourselves by noticing that the word for 'work' employed throughout the passage, is without exception indicated by the Hebrew term 'melakha': "The heaven and earth and all of their host was completed.  God completed on the seventh day all of His work ('melakhto') that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all of His work ('melakhto') that He had done.  God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He rested from all of His work ('melakhto') that He had created and done."  Let us also take note of the fact that this first mention of the Shabbat is not an injunction or a command directed towards Man, but rather a narrative description of events in the life of God.

 

 

Shabbat of Parashat BeShalach – Intimations of an Ancient Memory

 

Although the Torah has introduced the notion of Shabbat as being coeval with the very dawn of human existence, there are no additional references in the Book of Bereishit to its centrality.  The narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs make not a single mention of its observance.  Perhaps we can assume that although as a conceptual idea, Shabbat enters the world of human consciousness early on, it is not crystallized into a set of formal practices and ceremonials until much later.  It is not until Bnei Yisrael have left the bondage of Egypt that Shabbat reappears, here in the guise of an observance taking shape and in the context of a reference that is somewhat oblique: "On the sixth day, the people gathered two measures of manna, two omer-measures per person, and all of the leaders of the congregation reported so to Moshe.  He said to them: 'thus has Hashem spoken, that tomorrow is a holy Shabbat unto God.  Bake what you intend to bake and cook what you intend to cook, and leave over the remainder until morning. The people left some over until morning as Moshe had commanded, and it did not become spoiled nor riddled with worms.  Moshe said to them: 'Eat it today for today is Shabbat unto God, today you shall not find manna in the fields.  For six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh, the Sabbath, you shall not find it…God has given you the Shabbat and therefore gives you double measure on the sixth day.  Remain in your places on the seventh day, and do not go out (to gather it) on the seventh day.'  The people rested on the seventh day" (Shemot 16:22-30).

 

The miraculous manna that began to fall after the people had successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds, would appear every morning with the rising of the dew.  Intended to inculcate the profound lesson of ongoing trust in God's providence, the manna could not be stored up.  Try as one might, only a single omer-measure could be gathered per person, any remaining on the ground ungathered vaporized in the heat of the late morning sun, and any uneaten and left for the morrow became rotten and inedible.  A double amount, however, would fall on the sixth day, thus providing the people with provisions for the Sabbath.  That twofold blessing carried with it a new responsibility, for henceforth the people were bidden not to 'gather' manna on the Sabbath. 

 

For the first time, Shabbat is presented as a formal observance possessing a prohibitive component, although it is a specific activity rather than a range of actions that is here curtailed.  The text provides no elaboration concerning the mysterious concept of 'melakha.'  Conversely, though, it does seem to indicate that the people have a previous familiarity with the notion of Shabbat, for otherwise a more direct, explicit, and comprehensive introduction of its observance would have been expected.

 

 

Shabbat of Asseret HaDibrot – the Imperative and 'Melakha'

 

At last, in Parashat Yitro, the Shabbat is presented as a broad and inclusive rite, as the fourth of the Ten Utterances.  Its inclusion among these ten guiding principles is more than enough to secure its position as a central tenet of Jewish faith and observance, for it shares company with some of the most enduring ideals that humanity has ever known.  "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  For six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day shall be a Shabbat to the Lord your God.  You shall not do any work, neither your son nor your daughter, nor your servant nor your maidservant, nor your animal, nor the convert that resides within your gates.  This is because for six days God made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day, therefore God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" (Shemot 20:8-11).

 

Here, the Torah establishes a direct link between our cessation of work on Shabbat and God's completion of His work after six days of creation.  We are to work for six days and rest on the seventh after the manner of God's own example.  By implication, the activities with which we are occupied during the six days of the week and from which we are to bidden to desist, are those very ones that recall God's own acts during the first six days.  It is of extreme consequence that the Torah consistently utilizes the term 'melakha' to describe the 'work' from which we are to refrain on the Shabbat: "For six days shall you labor and do all of your work ('melakhtecha'), but the seventh day shall be a Shabbat to the Lord your God.  You shall not do any work ('melakha')…"  It will be recalled that this expression was also used to describe God's activities during the first six days of creation; during those six days, God did 'melakha.' 

 

At this juncture, it is significant to point out that the Hebrew language does possess a number of synonyms for the word that we typically translate as 'work.'  These include most commonly 'avoda', but also 'maaseh', 'amal', 'peulah', and 'alilah.'  Notwithstanding this lengthy list of worthy analogues, not a single one of them ever occurs in the context of  'Shabbat Bereishit' (Sabbath of Creation), or of the Shabbat of the 'Asseret HaDibrot' (Ten Utterances).  Thus, although the command to observe the Shabbat as delineated in the Ten Utterances sheds no new lexicological light on the meaning of 'melakha', we can nonetheless draw two important conclusions thus far.  Firstly, we now know that 'melakha' is associated almost exclusively with the act of Creation and that cessation from it constitutes the central pillar of Sabbath observance.  Secondly, we realize that whatever 'melakha' is, it must differ fundamentally from 'avoda' and its ilk, for the Torah consciously avoids use of these other terms when Shabbat is the topic of discussion.

 

The next mention of Shabbat in the Torah is a fleeting reference to it found in Parashat Mishpatim: "For six days shall you do your work ('maasecha') but on the seventh you shall cease ('tishbot').  This is in order that your ox and donkey may rest, and that the son of your maidservant and the convert may have respite" (Shemot 23:12).  Curiously, the focus of this verse is the animals, servants and converts.  The ox and the donkey are of course the paradigmatic beasts of burden of antiquity; the son of the maidservant, as well as the convert, were frequently marginalized members of society and therefore often associated with menial labor.  This verse, although providing no new insight into the prohibited activities of Shabbat, speaks worlds about the social sea-change that Shabbat unleashed on human history.  Certainly, it was novel enough that according to Torah legislation, a day each week had to be set aside for people to transcend their  preoccupation with weekday pursuits.  But that the animals and economically depressed members of society should also partake of that rare gift, not as a function of patrician charity but rather by right and entitlement, was nothing short of revolutionary.

 

 

Bezalel and the Mishkan

 

Finally, we return to our Parasha.  Here, as in the Ten Utterances, the observance of Shabbat is spelled out at some length.  As in previous contexts, its most salient feature involves cessation from 'melakha': "…For six days shall work ('melakha') be done, but on the seventh day shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton consecrated to God, whosoever does work ('melakha') on the Sabbath day shall die…" (Shemot 31:15).  What is unusual about this mention of Shabbat is that it seems incongruous with its context.  Bracketed on the one side with the narrative of Bezalel and the Mishkan, and on the other with the account of the Golden Calf, it appears to be wholly out of place.  As we shall see, however, the Oral Tradition regarded these juxtapositions as being absolutely critical in ascertaining the precise definition of 'melakha.'

 

"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Behold, I single out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Chur from the tribe of Yehuda.  I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and the ability to execute all manner of work.  To weave designs, to work with gold, silver and bronze.  To cut stones and to fit them, to carve wood and to do all manner of work.  Behold I have provided as his assistant Oholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, and in the heart of all of the wise I have placed wisdom, so that they will do all that I have commanded you.  Namely, the Tent of Meeting and the ark for the Testimony, as well as the lid that is upon it and all of the other vessels of the Tent…'" (Shemot 31:1-7).

 

Surely one of the most gifted characters mentioned in Tanach, Bezalel has rare and unique talents.  Full of wisdom and insight, he is also a capable artisan.  His unusual abilities are not confined to one particular area of the plastic arts but rather find uniform expression across them all.  He is comfortable working with textiles, metals, stone and wood.  His prodigious talents were enough to draw the attention of the Ramban (13th century, Spain), who wondered about their source and significance: "While Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt they were broken by the heavy work of brick and clay; they never learned the fine arts of working with gold, silver and precious stones, and never saw them at all.  How remarkable then, that there should be found among them a gifted and wise artisan capable of working with silver, gold, stone, wood, textiles, embroidery and weaving.  Even among those who have studied these arts before the wise, it is not possible to find one who is expert in all of them.  Even those who are familiar with these crafts, if they are burdened with the coarse toil of brick and mortar, they soon lose their dexterity and their ability to execute fine, detailed, and beautiful work.  In addition to practical skill, Bezalel was filled with wisdom, insight and knowledge so that he understood the profound mystical meaning of the Mishkan and all of its vessels, why they were commanded and to what they pertain.  Therefore, God said to Moshe: 'Behold this great wonder!' so that Moshe and the people of Yisrael should realize that He filled Bezalel with all of this ability so that he should construct the Mishkan, for so it was His will that the people construct this edifice in the wilderness for His glory.  God announces the generations from the beginning as it says concerning Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah): "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I already designated you as a prophet to the peoples" (Yirmiyahu 1:5).

 

Textually, Ramban's explanation addresses the unusual introductory remark of God to Moshe: "Behold, I designate by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur from the tribe of Yehuda…" He explains that to be designated by name involves a selection which is unusual and unexpected.  It is unreasonable to assume that Bnei Yisrael had any exposure to the fine arts during their years of bondage.  According to all indications in the Torah, the people of Yisrael were involved with back breaking labor in the brick pits and fields, and were certainly not enrolled at the great art academies of the Delta.  Assuredly, then, Bezalel did not receive a formal education in the arts.  Even if one could surmise that Bezalel was a 'natural' possessing innate abilities, his talented hands would have become blunted and dulled by the rough and crude work of bricks and mortar. 

 

Even more extraordinary, notes the Ramban, Bezalel is proficient in every form of fine craftsmanship.  Gifted goldsmiths are not usually talented weavers as well, and sculptors of stone cannot generally execute filigree in silver.  Not only is Bezalel a gifted artisan but also a designer, a scholar and a teacher (see Shemot 35:34 and the comments of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra).  Finally, he possesses keen spiritual insight and wisdom so that he truly comprehends the meaning of the undertaking and all of its allusive and elusive details.  What could possibly be the source of all of this exceptional  expertise?  There can be only one possible explanation: "Behold I have designated by name…I have filled him with the spirit of God."  The Ramban explains: God has inspired this man with all of this aptitude at this time so that he will be the architect of His house.

 

Next week, God willing, we shall continue to explore the importance of Bezalel's appointment.  We shall look at him as an archetype and begin to unravel the intrinsic connections between his work of building the Mishkan, the act of Creation and melakha and of course, the observance of Shabbat. 

TO BE CONTINUED 

Shabbat Shalom 

 

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!