Shabbos: Judaism’s Priceless Treasure

by | in Inspiration

God’s Modesty
David Klinghoffer

Here’s a title for a book someone should write, with a nod to Robert Fulghum’s bestseller in praise of kindergarten: All I Really Need to Know I Learned from the Jewish Sabbath. Shabbat is “about” so many things; it could really be said to encompass all of Torah. In my own work that seeks to explain and advance the scientific theory of intelligent design, I often think about the design evident in life and nature and how the Sabbath relates it. Is the design really so evident? Yes, but the imprint is subtle.

For a nice way of expressing that fact, I credit an Australian businessman, Rod Salfinger, whom I serendipitously met in Vancouver. Telling me about his own take on the Sabbath, Rod reminded me of a saying from the Talmud. Attributed to Rabbi Yochanan, it makes an observation about Scripture: “Wherever you find mention of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, there you will also find mention of His humility” (Megillah 31a).

God’s humility appears to us as modesty or shyness, almost. I’ve tried to explain this to my kids in terms they can understand, referring them to the deer that sometimes browse in the blackberry bushes at the edge of our driveway. If we want to enjoy watching them, we have to be careful not to scare away our silent, beautiful deer with loud voices or sudden movements.

In the same way, one purpose of setting aside frenetic weekday activities on Shabbat is to make a space where God will feel comfortable and, so to speak, unafraid, of joining with us in our homes in a most intimate fashion.

One purpose of setting aside frenetic weekday activities on Shabbat is to make a space where God will feel comfortable and, so to speak, unafraid, of joining with us in our homes in a most intimate fashion.

This observation about God’s personality may explain why the evidence of design in the world is elusive to many people. What my colleague Dr. Stephen Meyer calls the “signature in the cell” in the genetic code, in protein synthesis, in what biochemist Michael Behe calls irreducibly complex features of biology, in the Cambrian explosion and the rest of the fossil record, in cosmology, in individual types of creatures—from butterfly metamorphosis to the history of whale evolution—whatever piece of the argument for intelligent design that you think of, it is all very lightly imprinted. It takes patience and study to see.

It is the totality of that evidence that impresses you, the way that taken altogether it forms a suggestive pattern and alludes, subtly, to purpose and creativity behind nature’s facade. It is a “still small voice,” hardly more.

Furiously gesturing to your own creativity would be immodest, the opposite of humble—not God’s style at all. Such modesty is just what you’d expect from a deity who would think up an idea like Shabbat as the distinctive medium where He chooses to meet human beings up close.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and co-author, with Senator Joe Lieberman, of The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath (OU Press/Howard Books, 2011).

A Weekly Trip to Hawaii
Yitzchok Adlerstein

Answering the questions of non-Jewish guests poised expectantly around my Shabbos table has forced me to examine and re-examine its place, meaning and purpose. Having to explain it in fifteen minutes got me to finally understand it.

I had never done this before. Individual guests—certainly. But never an entire busload of Korean pastors, disgorged from their vehicle and heading up my front steps for a brief introduction to Shabbos.

They listened attentively as I dredged up phrases and images from a previous life as an NCSY advisor. (Their attention was more polite than substantive. Ten minutes into my monologue, the leader of the group tapped me on my shoulder, smiled, and whispered in my ear, “They don’t understand English!” before beginning to translate.)

Under pressure to score, I came up with a new approach. I described how millions of people experience the yearly grind of the workplace. Counting toward the next vacation makes all the months behind the desk livable. Getting on the plane to Hawaii, however, the pressures and concerns of the office stowaway in the passenger’s carry-on luggage. They follow him around, even while he’s kicking back in a lounge chair at the edge of the ocean. It takes far longer to take the office out of the employee than the employee out of the office. For too many, by the time that deep relaxation is achieved, when the mind has finally been purged of its heaviness, it is time to head back to the airport for the return flight.

Shabbos, I explained to the crowd, is a week in Hawaii without ever leaving home. Every week. The other six days, I told them, I do it all wrong. I rush my meals. I don’t take them with the family. Everything I do is pressurized, compacted and curtailed by the next item on an endless “to-do” list. I have time for no one, including myself. My wife has remarked to (non-Korean) guests trapped in their seats as I slowly and lovingly hold forth on the parashah—before Kiddush! —that the only time I ever relax or do things slowly is at the Shabbos table.

Remarkably, Shabbos hits right after the often most frenetic part of the week—the final preparations for the Day of Rest. But when it is time, it is time. The transformation is instant. Transportation to Maui provided by Hakadosh Baruch Hu Airlines. I become a mensch, with time for family, friends, new company and a good night’s sleep—in a bed, instead of slumped over the desk where I usually crash the rest of the week.

Just becoming a mensch, though, wouldn’t do it for me. Without the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, Shabbos would be like Kauai without a bathing suit.

The Ohr HaChaim notes that the word “Shabbos” contains the word “shav,” or return. During the period of Creation, before Man appeared on the scene, Hashem’s presence was open, notorious, and manifest. Once Man arrived, God had to pull back, as it were. The open presence of Hashem would either overpower Man or, at the very least, remove his free will. Understating His presence allows for the freedom of choice that is the purpose of human life, but it also leaves us feeling distant and disconnected from our Creator. Shabbos changes all that. Each Shabbos Hashem “returns,” as it were, to a state of closeness and availability. All of the “do-nots” connected to Shabbos merely pave the way for the “dos.”

Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm complained that some people swallow the kedushah of Shabbos together with the gefilte fish. We try hard not to do that. The food and drink are literally fit for kings. My wife is a talented chef, and she doesn’t skimp. We try to make sure that we are honoring Hashem, not our stomachs. A great meal with good company but little spirituality at the table leaves me flat and dejected, as if I’ve wasted the Shabbos. The purpose of it all is to welcome Hashem into our home and into our hearts—and that only happens when the conversation stays on topic.

The book that we take along on our weekly vacation is the Good Book. Optimally, the table talk is about Torah. This might be topics from the parashah (it doesn’t happen unless I take the time to prepare them before), or issues facing Klal Yisrael (I don’t view such talk as time-wasting so much as an exercise in passionately asserting one’s connection to and love of the Jewish people). There is gourmet food, finery on the table, and elegant dress and demeanor—but they are all adjuncts to the primary experience. The upshot of it all is seizing the availability of the Shechinah that returns to us once a week.

People who get into their cars and head for a destination with no advance planning can have a good time, but seldom a great vacation. To us, a great Shabbos means reading the travel guides in advance, selecting the appropriate travel companions and, most importantly, insisting on taking in the great beauty of the destination. In a word, Shabbos’s most alluring local attraction is connection with Hashem.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He is also a member of the Jewish Action editorial board, and a founding editor of Cross-Currents.com.


Photo: Menachem Adelman/Meoros Hashabbos

Getting Shabbos Right
Mayer Schiller

I am often asked by talmidim on Sunday morning, “Rebbi, how was your Shabbos?”

This question is, I know, meant as just a pleasant greeting. The required answer is simply some form of Baruch Hashem. Nothing more need be said. Yet, I always find the question an intriguing one. Its literal sense is a compelling exhortation to some serious cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching). How, indeed, was my Shabbos? How have I emerged from it?

Shabbos is a time to open our hearts and minds to Hashem and His Torah. It is a time to do this within the bosom of family, friends and the general community. It is on Shabbos that the great truths of existence may be absorbed and impressed upon us with a force that is capable of enduring the myriad confusions of weekday life. And so the question presents itself: how is this spiritual penetration of heart and mind to be achieved?

It is due to these considerations that I will usually answer talmidim when asked about my Shabbos that it “depends how you do it” or “you have to get Shabbos right.”

I realize that there are those reading this who may say that getting Shabbos right simply means fulfilling its halachic requirements. In keeping with the spirit of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim, it is important to note that yes, there is theological truth to this statement. The compliance with the laws of Shabbos is, in and of itself, transformative. It uplifts the soul and unleashes much spiritual blessing into the cosmos even if we only dimly experience the process. But this halachic compliance is only the structure of shemiras Shabbos. Its essence requires far more.

To begin with, it is worth noting that the process of realizing Shabbos begins long before candle lighting. The custom of yeshivahs and of many individuals to devote extra time to learning on Thursday night is linked to the desire to irrigate our neshamos with Torah as Shabbos approaches. Friday is crucial to experiencing an appropriate Shabbos. Even the physical preparation tasks are meaningful, to the degree that we do them with a sense of the impending holiness of the day and the desire to receive it. But beyond the physical preparations, the spiritual tasks of Friday are particularly necessary.

There are many customs that can transform Friday into erev Shabbos. Going over the parashah (twice mikra and once targum and/or with Rashi) is done by many specifically on erev Shabbos (with some Chassidim and Sephardim wearing tefillin while doing so). Many go to the mikvah and recite or learn Shir HaShirim (with its allegory of love between God and His people) as the Shabbos draws near. Beyond these customs, though, lies the directive noted in both sifrei halachah and mussar to use the time before Shabbos as a period of introspection (cheshbon hanefesh). This may be done by actually setting aside a specific time and place for religious stock-taking, or simply mentally, while going about the other physical and spiritual preparations for the day.

As to Shabbos itself, the rule of thumb is: there is now more time, let us, therefore, make the best of it. This applies, obviously, to prayer, where the unhurried pace allows for a greater investment of mind and heart. This is lost should the longer and slower prayers be seen as an opportunity to come late to shul or catch up with friends. Especially during Kabbalas Shabbos we must focus, for we are welcoming the rarefied Shabbos air. Thus transformed, there are also the social aspects of Shabbos, whether one talks about Torah or engages simply in the very human but also holy activity of keeping up with friends, their lives and feelings.

The seudos are in many ways the centerpiece of Shabbos for the family. They offer a unique combination of prayer and song, words of Torah, reflections on matters of spiritual and social gravity and simple human bonding. What is delicate and difficult is to achieve the proper balance of all the above. To preserve the sense that these are holy rituals where frivolity is inappropriate, and at the same time maintain a sense of calm joy, requires work and mental preparation. Discussion of current affairs of the Jewish people and of humanity in general is in keeping with the spirit of Shabbos, provided that these matters are approached with suitable gravity and compassion. Similarly, singing zemiros is not a time for silliness but for cleaving to God and Shabbos holiness. Personally, I find that it is most important to disentangle the songs from the Shabbos foods and divrei Torah. Each merits the focus of all present.

One of the most moving passages in a most beautiful book, Herman Wouk’s This Is My God—a work that enchanted me in my own early steps towards Orthodoxy—is the description of a Shabbos meal.

The boys, knowing that the Sabbath is the time for asking questions, have asked them. The Bible, the encyclopedia, the atlas, have piled on the table. We talk of Judaism, and there are the usual boys’ queries about God which my wife and I field clumsily, but as well as we can. For me it is a retreat into restorative magic.

Then there is the matter of Shabbos “down time.” Here it is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer. There are the perpetual questions about playing board games or some variety of Bobby Orr Hockey. On a more ethereal level loom the doubts concerning “secular” literature, newspapers (Jewish or other). Once again, I think the answer lies in who we are when engaging in any of the above. Surely we want to spend some, most, or all of our time in explicit talmud Torah, but any of the above, kept in proper proportion and pursued aware of the Divine source of all wisdom and mundane joy may be dabbled in.

The enemy of all the above is hergel—the dull temptation to coast, to strip life of passion and warmth. It is the implacable foe of the spirit and it becomes stronger as we age. Shabbos is a taste of the Afterlife. Just as the latter requires a lifetime of preparation, so does Shabbos. May Hashem grant that we be worthy of this pivotal task.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller is mashgiach ruchani and maggid shiur in Yeshiva University High School for Boys and general studies teacher in Mesivta Beth Shraga in Monsey, New York.


Photo: Yehoshua Halevi

If Only
Hillel Goldberg

 I was dreaming . . .

If only I had an opportunity to think, really just sit and think, without the pressing weight of obligations;

If only I had the ability to put out of my mind, really empty it, of financial and business concerns;

If only I could spend some time with my family on a regular basis;

If only I could forget, even temporarily, the teacher, competitor or detractor who causes me grief;

If only I could escape the insistent ringing of the telephone, not just when I’m out, or when I think it’s safe or necessary to turn on my answering machine, but periodically;

If only I could figure out who I really am, what makes a difference to me, could steadily re-evaluate life’s direction without being flaky;

If only I could sense something of the beauty of this world, not just occasionally on a vacation or ski trip, but regularly, without feeling guilty for stealing the time or for lacking the discipline to do what I am supposed to;

If only I could sleep soundly, truly without a care in the world;

If only I could plug into the deeper layers of existence, the uniqueness of just being alive;

If only I could look out at the world and feel completely at harmony with it;

If only I could add a dimension to my existence, by increasing my ability to sing or dance or listen or laugh;

If only I could shake the depression and self-doubt that sometimes grips me;

If only I could feel at one with people, unconcerned about whether I am better or more successful or respected than they are, or whether they are better or more successful or respected than I;

If only I could be convinced that there is a design, a purpose to this crazy world of ours, with its wars and jealousies and sicknesses and other sufferings;

If only I could get things into perspective, know what is important, worth bothering about, and what is unimportant, not worth bothering about;

If only I could unravel the meaning within life’s mysteries, could know whether they reigned within a larger Mystery;

If only?

I need not dream.

All my dreams are available.

Shabbat.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, PhD, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, finds Shabbat to be an irrefutable proof of God’s existence.

Confinement and Liberation
Yaakov Yosef Reinman

Many years ago, I heard a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was famous for taking advantage of every opportunity to represent the Jewish people to the Almighty in a positive light. I don’t recall the source of the story, and I do not presume to vouch for its veracity. But whether it is factual or just a beautiful Chassidic legend is irrelevant. One of the points of the story struck a chord within me and set off a chain of thought that led me to an altogether different destination.

The story takes place on the first night of Pesach over two hundred years ago in the Ukrainian city of Berditchev. It’s late at night. The streets are dark, but candlelight glows in the windows of the Jewish homes where families sit around the Seder table.

Suddenly, Rav Levi Yitzchak runs into the street and starts shouting, “Everyone, come right away! Everyone, come right away!”

The people in the nearest homes start to come out. Rav Levi Yitzchak sends them off to call all the others and bring them right away. No one is to be missing.

Presently, a large crowd gathers in the street, confused but obedient.

“I am sorry for disturbing you during the Seder,” Rav Levi Yitzchak calls out, “but there is an emergency. I need a certain item, and a lot of it, right away.”

He proceeds to mention a certain piece of contraband, which if found in anyone’s possession would bring a severe prison sentence, if not worse. The people are shocked. They protest that they have no such contraband in their possession; it is much too dangerous, but Rav Levi Yitzchak refuses to accept their denials. He insists and insists until the people relent. Soon, a trickle of the contraband begins to appear in the street in front of Rav Levi Yitzchak, and after a while there is quite a substantial pile.

“And now,” says Rav Levi Yitzchak, “bring out all the chametz you have in your homes, even the smallest piece. Bring it right away. It is critical.”

The people are doubly shocked. Who could find a piece of chametz? There simply is none. Rav Levi Yitzchak insists with ever greater urgency, but all his efforts cannot bring forth even the smallest crumb.

Rav Levi Yitzchak lifts his hands heavenward.

“Master of the Universe,” he calls out, “look at how wonderful Your people are. The government has soldiers, police, weapons and prisons to enforce its rules, and still, if the people feel they can earn a livelihood by selling the contraband, they find ways to avoid the rules. But look. You do not send out police or threaten anyone with prison, and yet, when You forbid chametz on Pesach, there is not a crumb to be found. You should be happy with Your people and bless them.”

Did this story really happen? Who knows? But the elements of the story are undoubtedly true. If such a scene had indeed taken place, enough pressure might have uncovered contraband, but no amount of pressure could have brought forth any chametz. The statement of advocacy is also true. The Jewish people should certainly be commended for their unwavering faith and loyalty.

Hearing the story for the first time, it struck me that the Divine restrictions are much more than a boundary that separates the permitted from the forbidden. It struck me that they are more like a solid brick wall. When faithful Jews come up against the Torah’s restrictions, they do not really have to make decisions. More accurately, they encounter solid walls and cannot cross beyond them.

Taking this idea a step further, we gain new insight into the mysterious magic of Shabbos. The experience of a Shabbos in an observant home is almost always more effective in outreach than any amount of philosophy and argumentation. Why is this so?

I believe that the ubiquitous restrictions of Shabbos confront us with more than one wall. They surround us with an enclosure of walls and leave us to enjoy our time in the space within. These walls form a temple around us, a temple whose walls are shaped from the Almighty’s words, and as such, it is a very holy place.

These temple walls define sanctified places not only in time, but also in space. They embrace entire Jewish communities and imbue everything within them—the homes, the shuls, the streets, the gardens and the parks—with serene holiness. When we enter this temple, we stand in the illuminated shadow of the Almighty. And when we fill this temple with Torah study, prayer, joyous singing, family time, conversations, discussions, camaraderie, good food, rest and relaxation, the experience is transcendent. That is why Shabbos in an observant home is such a powerful instrument of outreach. It is because the holiness in the air is so palpable that it is difficult not to be affected by it, at least to some degree.

Unfortunately, people who are lax in their observance find themselves outside the temple walls. They may walk the same streets, they may live in the same homes, they may attend the same shuls, but the walls of the temple do not encompass them; they are cut off from the Shabbos experience. But those who are within the walls of the temple enjoy a complete spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience unlike any other.

There is an even deeper dimension to this concept. Before we explore it, let us consider a famous Mishnaic statement. “One moment of satisfaction in the next world,” we are told (Avos 4:17), “is better than all of life in this world.” Why is this so? What is so much better about life in the next world than life in this world? The immediate response that comes to mind is that the next world is illuminated by the Divine Presence, that it is a marvelous world of pure spirit that is wonderful and edifying beyond all human imagination. That is what we would be inclined to say, and that is precisely what Rabbeinu Yonah does indeed say in his explanation of the mishnah.

Rashi, however, has an altogether different explanation. Rashi states, in very succinct terms, that in this world we are consistently beset by worries and problems. In essence, life is an endless struggle; if it’s not one thing, it’s another. We may struggle financially, whether it is to put food on the table, to purchase a spacious and comfortable home, to pay tuition and send our children to camp or even to successfully put together all the elements of a multi-million-dollar business venture. We may struggle with health issues in our families. We may struggle with the challenges of raising well-adjusted children. We may struggle with emotional issues such as depression, alienation and low self-esteem. We may struggle with complicated relationships. We struggle, and we worry. That is the universal human experience. And even if we are blessed with extraordinary good fortune, in the final analysis, Rashi concludes, we are all worried about the inevitability of death.

This last point that Rashi makes, in my opinion, touches on the most important element of the human psyche. The awareness of our own mortality destabilizes us. It makes us feel insecure—with very good reason—and neurotic. It gives us complexes, and it leads us to behave in seemingly irrational ways.

Why do people seek honor? What do they gain from it? Why do people work exceedingly hard to accumulate mountains of money that could not possibly be spent even by their great-grandchildren? “One who loves money,” says King Solomon (Koheles 5:9), “will never have enough money.” He makes no such statement about physical pleasures. There can come a time when a person is so sated with a pleasure that it actually becomes repulsive. But the relentless pursuit of money for its own sake has no limit. Why is this so? What motivates people to pursue money just to have it? Some will say they want power, but this is not necessarily so. Plenty of people who want no power over other people still put tremendous efforts into making money they and their descendants will never need. And if we are to speak about power, the same questions arise. Why in the world should someone want power over others for no other purpose than to control them?

I believe it is the awareness of mortality that drives these people. They are keenly aware that they appear on this earth for a fleeting time and then they are gone, and they feel like wisps of smoke that dissipate into nothingness. So they seek honor, power and ridiculous amounts of useless wealth. If people stand up for them when they walk into the room, it gives them the illusion of substantiality. If they control other people’s lives, it makes them feel more solid. If they own ten office buildings in Manhattan, they feel less vulnerable to the winds of time. But it’s all an illusion, a coping strategy that helps them deal with the terrifying prospect of mortality and self-negation.

Woody Allen famously said, “I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Now that is a rational ambition. Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to achieve it.

So this is why, according to Rashi, the next world is more satisfying than this world. In the next world, unlike in this world, we are free of worries and struggles, and we do not have to contend with the thought of our impending mortality. Other than that, Rashi seems to be saying, we can experience the satisfaction of the next world in this world as well, if only we could focus on our spiritual pursuits without the distractions of life’s struggles. If we could learn Torah, perform mitzvos, do chesed for others and commune with the Almighty without having to worry about paying the bills or anything else at all, we would discover a profound joy and spiritual satisfaction that no human being has ever enjoyed. We would know how it feels to be in the next world, because after all, what is the next world but the sum total of all the Torah and mitzvos we accumulate in this world?

This brings us back to the observance of Shabbos. The Talmud tells us (Berachos 57b) that Shabbos is me’ein Olam Haba, it provides us with a “taste of the next world.” We are all familiar with this phrase from the zemiros. We should take these words quite literally.

When we enter among the walls of the temple that the Almighty created for us through His commandments of Shabbos observance, we find ourselves in a place removed from the struggles of daily life. The temple walls restrict us from contending with our problems in any way, either rational or irrational, and so our anxieties fade somewhat from our consciousness and we achieve a measure of peace and serenity. Even thoughts of mortality do not filter so easily through the sturdy temple walls. And when we fill this hallowed time and space with Torah study, prayer, mitzvos, spirituality, love and friendship, when we savor these gifts far removed from the nagging demands of this world, we experience a genuine taste of the next world, and we realize that our confinement is really our liberation.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman is the author of Shufra Dishtara, Abir Yosef al Hatorah and many other works, including the controversial One People, Two Worlds (New York, 2002). His most recent work is Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Brooklyn, New York, 2011).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2012.

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