The Special Relationship Between Shabbat and Bnai Yisrael

And Bnai Yisrael will observe the Shabbat to perform the Shabbat for their generation as an eternal covenant. Between Me and Bnai Yisrael it is an eternal sign that Hashem created the heavens and earth in six days and on the seventh day He ceased and He rested. (Sefer Shemot 31:16-17)

1. The inclusion of Parshat Ki Tisa’s discussion of Shabbat in the Shabbat prayers
Parshat Ki Tisa reviews again the commandment of the Shabbat. The above passages are the final two passages of this section of pesukim. They were selected by our Sages for inclusion in the Shabbat morning Amidah. It is interesting that our Sages selected these two passages for inclusion in the Shabbat morning Amidah. In selecting these passages, the Sages skipped over a prior set of passages that are the Torah’s initial commandment regarding Shabbat. These prior passages are in the Decalogue – the Aseret HaDibrot. In the Decalogue, Hashem commanded Bnai Yisrael to observe the Shabbat.

Remember the day of the Shabbat to sanctify it. Six days you should labor and perform all of your work. And the seventh day is Shabbat to Hashem your G-d. Do not perform any work – you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid servant, and your convert in your gates. For in six days Hashem made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all within them. And He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Hashem blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it. (Sefer Shemot 20:8-11)

2. The omission of the Decalogue’s discussion of Shabbat from the Amidah
The above passages are the discussion of Shabbat in the Decalogue. The message of this set of passages is similar to the message of the passages in our prashsa. Shabbat was given to us in order to commemorate the creation of the universe from the void. Why did the Sages pass over the Decalogue’s passages in favor of those in our parasha?

If we consider the sentences in the Shabbat morning Amidah that precede the selected passages, the Sages’ choice is even more perplexing.

Moshe will rejoice with his gift-portion. For a trusted servant You called him. A crown of glory you gave when he stood before you on Mount Sinai. Two stone tablets he brought down in his hand. And written in them is observance of Shabbat and similarly it is written in Your Torah. (Siddur, Shabbat morning Amidah)

This introduction emphasizes that the commandment to observe Shabbat was inscribed by Hashem upon the tablets that He gave to Moshe. We would expect these introductory remarks to be followed by the recitation of the Decalogue’s commandment to observe Shabbat. But instead, after noting the inclusion of Shabbat upon the Tablets of the Decalogue, we are directed – almost apologetically – to the passages in our parasha!

The commentary Iyun Tefilah explains that although the Sages are noting the centrality of Shabbat through emphasizing its inclusion in the Decalogue, the passages selected for inclusion in the morning Amidah is dictated by the message following the selected passages.

And Hashem our G-d did not give it to the nations of the land. Our King did not give it as a portion to those who serve false gods. Neither do the uncircumcised dwell in its rest. Rather, to You nation Israel You gave it in love – to the descendants of Yaakov that You selected. (Siddur, Shabbat morning Amidah)

3. Shabbat is the exclusive legacy of Bnai Yisrael
The above quotation is lines that follow the selected passages. In these lines we declare that although the message of Shabbat is universal – that the universe and all within it are the creations of Hashem – the observance of Shabbat was given exclusively to Bnai Yisrael. The passages are the perfect segue into this message. The passages in our parasha focus upon the exclusive relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Shabbat. It was given to Bnai Yisrael alone as a sign of our covenant with Hashem.

The exclusivity of this relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Shabbat is not merely an abstraction. It is expressed in specific form in halachah. The Talmud explains that it is prohibited for a non-Jew to observe Shabbat.[1] There a number of reasons for this restriction. But one of those is found in the passages in our parasha. Shabbat is given exclusively to Bnai Yisrael. By adopting Shabbat observance, the non-Jew lays claim to a legacy given exclusively to Bnai Yisrael.

4. The theme of the Seven laws given to the descendants of Noach
But why was Shabbat given only to Bnai Yisrael? Its message is universal and relevant to all humankind. Possibly part of the answer lies in a fundamental difference between the system of mitzvot given to Bnai Yisrael and the system assigned to the rest of humanity. The Torah tells us that Hashem provided humankind with two sets of mitzvot. The Torah and its 613 commandments were revealed to Bnai Yisrael at Sinai. For the rest of humanity – the descendants of Noach – Hashem provided seven general mitzvot. This system is comprised of six prohibitions and one positive commandment. The prohibitions are against stealing, murder, idolatry, blasphemy, removing and eating the limb of an animal that has not first been slaughtered, and various forms of incest and adultery. The positive commandment is to establish a judicial system. These mitzvot have a very specific focus and function. Their observance assures the existence of a functional, meaningful society. The society that results from these laws is just; it promotes monotheism, and its members accept limits upon their pursuit of pleasure and gratification.

5. The 613 mitzvot and the role of Chukot
However, the Torah includes an entire additional class of mitzvot. These mitzvot are often referred to as Chukot or Divine decrees. The Torah often provides an explanation for Chukot. In general, these explanations share a common theme. The Chok (singular of Chukot) is designed to communicate or reinforce some fundamental message. For example, we are commanded to celebrate Pesach with all of its various aspects in order to recall our redemption from Egypt. We are required to place a mezuzah on the doorway in order remind ourselves of the commandments. Chukot are designed to educate us, refine our habits, and to encourage our integration into our outlook of the fundamental truths of the Torah. Shabbat is one of the Chukot of the Torah. It is designed as a regular reminder of Hashem’s creation of the universe and all that exists within it.

The system of commandments that Hashem assigned to the descendents of Noach does not include commandments that are designed to educate and promote ideas. Consequently, it is understandable that the non-Jew is prohibited from observing Shabbat. In other words, although the message of Shabbat is universal, this entire class and type of educational commandments is limited to the system of 613 mitzvot and is not included in the seven laws provided to the rest of humanity.[2]

The Chokot of the Torah — mitzvot with an educational aim, is one of the Torah’s greatest innovations. It communicates that the Torah is not merely a set of behavioral expectations. Instead, it addresses every aspect of our lives – our homes, our work, our interpersonal relationships, and even our most inner convictions and perceptions. The Chukot are designed to impact our world view, to refine our behaviors, and to integrate fundamental Torah truths into the innermost aspects of our thinking.

We must open our minds and respond to and embrace the messages of the Torah. If we restrict our observance of the Torah to guiding our actions but do not embrace it as a personal perspective and world view, it loses much of its meaning and purpose. But when Torah extends beyond informing our behaviors and enters into the entirety of our lives and our very thinking, then it transforms us. It illuminates our existence and endows even the most mundane aspects of our lives meaning and sanctity.

[1] Tractate Sanhedrin 58b.

[2] This is only a partial explanation. It explains the absence of a Shabbat commandment from the seven commandments given to all of humanity. However, other commandments – including Chukot – may be adopted and observed by a non-Jew without penalty. Therefore, it is clear that other considerations are relevant to the prohibition upon the non-Jew regarding Shabbat observance.