MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org.
At the beginning of our parsha HaShem promises Yaakov, “And your seed will be like the dust of the earth; and you will burst forth west and east and north and south; and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you and your seed”. (Bereshit 28:14.)
This promise is echoed in the prophetic commandment of “oneg Shabbat”, which assures one who delights in the Shabbat “nachalat Yaakov avikha” - the inheritance of Yaakov Avinu. (Yishayahu 58:13-14.) The gemara explains by pointing out that Yaakov’s inheritance, bursting out in all directions, is different from those promised to Avraham and Yitzchak: “Not like Avraham of whom it is written ‘Rise, and walk in the land, its length and breadth’” - indicating limitation. “Nor like Yitzchak of whom it is written ‘To you and your seed I will give all of these lands’” - again specifying limitation. But one who delights in the Shabbat merits an unbounded inheritance! (Shabbat 118b.)
We can begin to understand this idea by summarizing the difference between Shabbat and weekdays as follows: while weekdays are days of giving, Shabbat is a day of receiving. On weekdays we give to the world, striving to perfect and improve it, but on Shabbat we leave the world alone. These ideas of giving and receiving begin on the material level and extend to the spiritual.
Materially, our weekdays are devoted to expending energy, to moving and creating and providing. And these days become days of spiritual giving through the mitzvot, which enable us to infuse our mundane, spiritually neutral activities with sanctity. A central theme in explaining the meaning of mitzvot is to show how through the mitzvot our worldly involvement becomes elevated and enables us to sanctify the world.
But Shabbat is a day when material giving is circumscribed, and material receiving is enhanced. On the giving side, Shabbat is a day when visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved were barely permitted (Shabbat 12b); when giving presents is limited (MB 306:33); when helping the needy, despite its immense importance, is not as essential to the day as it is on Yom Tov. (Zohar Yitro II:88b.) On the receiving side, we indulge ourselves, for example by resting and eating three festive meals.
Spiritually also, Shabbat is a day of receiving and not giving. Many of the mitzvot devoted to spreading holiness are not fulfilled on Shabbat. For instance, the blessings of worldly requests are omitted from the Shabbat Amida, limiting the scope of the immense tikkun of prayer. Mitzvot which require some melakha, such as writing a Torah scroll or Torah books, are not fulfilled. Whereas the idea of Shabbat as a day of spiritual receiving is beautifully exemplified by the idea of the neshama yeteira - the extra spirit every Jew receives on Shabbat. (Beitza 16a.)
Now the idea of repair is inherently connected with the idea of limitation. Precisely because the extent of the material world is limited - because HaShem created it in six days and then rested on Shabbat - we have the ability to repair it completely! This concept is hinted at in Aleinu, where we long “letaken olam bemalkhut Sha-dai” - to repair the world in the kingdom of G-d, where we specifically use that name of G-d which testifies to limitation, the name which reminds us that HaShem said to the creation, “Enough!” (See Chagiga 12a.)
This means that the day will come when our weekday work of spiritual giving will be completed. Then every day will be like Shabbat. We see that there is an intimate connection between Shabbat as a commemoration of the past, “a commemoration of the work of creation” and Shabbat as a harbinger of the future, “a taste of the World to Come”, the Messianic age which is also referred to in our Shabbat blessings as “a day which is all Shabbat”. Because Shabbat marks the demarcation of the work of creation, it creates the possibility and even necessity of a future time when the work of spiritual repair will be completed and we will be devoted to spiritual receiving, to delighting in HaShem’s radiance.
So when we indulge ourselves on Shabbat, we show that our abstention from work does not mean distraction or discouragement from the repair of the world but on the contrary testifies to our firm belief that the work of tikkun olam will someday be crowned by success. Then the limitations of this world will be transcended, and we will inherit the world to come - an inheritance without limits.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.