Shabbat is the Legacy of 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. (Shemot 31:16-17)

1. The Shabbat morning Amidah’s reference to Shabbat

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. There are two ideas expressed in these passages:

• Shabbat commemorates that Hashem created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh day.
• Through observance of Shabbat, we fulfill a covenant between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.

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. (Shemot 20:8-11)

The message of these passages is similar to the message of the pesukim in our parasha. 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 Torah passages, the Sages choice of pesukim 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. (Shabbat morning Amidah)

This introduction emphasizes that the commandment to observe Shabbat was inscribed by Hashem upon the Tablets of the Decalogue given 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, we are directed – almost apologetically – to the passages in our parasha![1]

The commentary Iyun Tefilah explains that although the Sages are noting the centrality of Shabbat through emphasizing its inclusion in the Decalogue, their selection of passages from the Torah for inclusion in the morning Amidah was dictated by the message following these pesukim.

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 Your nation Israel You gave it in love – to the descendants of Yaakov that You selected. (Shabbat morning Amidah)

2. The exclusivity of the relationship between Shabbat and Bnai Yisrael

The message of these sentences from the Amidah is that although the message of Shabbat is universal – that the universe and all within it are the creations of Hashem – the observance of Shabbat is given exclusively to Bnai Yisrael. The passages from our parasha are the perfect segue into this message. These pesukim focus upon the exclusive relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Shabbat. Shabbat was given to us alone as an expression of our covenantal relationship with Hashem. The passages in the Decalogue do not make reference to this exclusivity.[2]

The exclusivity of this relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Shabbat is not merely an abstraction. It is expressed in specific form in halacha. The Talmud explains that it is prohibited for a non-Jew to observe Shabbat.[3] There are a number of reasons for this restriction. But one reason is the message expressed by 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.

3. The difference between Taryag and the Seven mitzvot given to the rest of humankind

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 – the Taryag Mitzvot – 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 as 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 some limits upon their pursuit of pleasure and gratification.

However, the Torah includes an entire additional class of mitzvot. These mitzvot are often referred to as Chukot (plural of Chok) or Divine decrees. The Torah often provides an explanation for Chukot. In general, these explanations share a common theme. The Chok is designed to communicate or reinforce some fundamental message or attitude. For example, one of the central themes of the Torah is our redemption by Hashem from Egypt. This theme is communicated and reinforced through a number of mitzvot. Among these mitzvot is the celebration of Pesach with all of its various aspects. The mitzvah of mezuzah is another example of a Chok designed to communicate and reinforce a specific message. We are required to place a mezuzah on the doorway in order to remind ourselves of the commandments. Chukot are designed to educate us, refine our habits, and to encourage the integration of the fundamental truths of the Torah into our outlook. Shabbat is another 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 and attitudes. Consequently, it is understandable that the non-Jew is excluded 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 Taryag Mitzvot and is not included in the seven laws provided to the rest of humanity.

4. Chukot are an innovation of the Torah

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, perceptions and attitudes. 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 communicated through the Chukot of the Torah. If we restrict our observance of the Torah to guiding our actions but do not embraced 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. We become enlightened and our innermost thoughts and feeling reflect the truths of Torah.

1. Avudraham notes that the Sages reluctance to insert the pesukim from the Decalogue into the Amidah may reflect the same concern that led the Sages to object to the recitation of the Decalogue within the daily prayers. The Sages feared that this practice would lend credence to a frivolous claim of the Torah’s detractors. These detractors claimed that the Decalogue is the only authentic revelation and that the remainder of the Torah is not a revealed law. (Tractate Berachot 12a and Commentary of Rashi). Perhaps, this same concern led the Sages to acknowledge that the mitzvah of Shabbat is included in the Decalogue but in demonstrating that Shabbat observance is a Torah level commandment, the Sages selected a set of pesukim that are not from the Decalogue. In this manner, they not only avoided giving undue preference to the Decalogue, but they also affirmed that there is no distinction between the binding nature of these passages and those in the Decalogue as all passages in the Torah are revealed truth.

2. Rav Aryeh Lev Gorden, Siddur Avodus HaLev, Commentary Iyun Tefilah.

3. Tractate Sanhedrin 58b.