Many of us realize the importance of the Sabbath, but have confused ideas about how to keep it.
After all, rest has many connotations. For some, it may mean a relaxing game of golf. For others, it may be an afternoon watching television.
Others may think of rest as reading a good book, painting a picture, or writing a poem.
Somehow, these ideas do not seem to fit the Jewish idea of Shabbos.
The Sabbath is supposed to remind us of the drama of creation. But exactly how does this work? How does the Sabbath bring us to recall this?
There is another thing about the Sabbath that many of us seem to find difficult to understand. There is a whole body of ritual law, Halacha, surrounding the Sabbath. This consists of a set of very stringent rules. They comprise two major tracts of the Talmud, Shabbos and Eruvin, and include almost 200 chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the unabridged code of Jewish Law.
Most of us are hardly aware that this body of law exists.
If we are aware of some rules, we do not understand them at all. Because of this lack of understanding, we often fail to observe these rules completely.
If we think of the Sabbath as a “day of rest” from a hard week’s work, then these rules do not make any sense at all.
These rules involve ritual laws. Many things are forbidden even where no physical effort is involved. It is not only forbidden to make a bonfire, it is even forbidden to throw the smallest stick into a flame. One may not pluck a single blade of grass, write down a telephone number, or put a pot on the stove to boil, even though none of these things involve much physical effort. We are told that riding a car is “work,” even though walking certainly involves more effort.
In the Torah, we find an account of a man found gathering some sticks on the Sabbath.1 He was not working very hard, but was found guilty of breaking the Sabbath and therefore punished by death.
What does all this mean?
Why are we forbidden to do so many things even when little or no physical work is involved?
It is obvious that the restrictions of Shabbos are not directed at physical work, but rather some form of ritual work.
Clearly, we must delve further into the Sabbath and fathom its meaning.
The Torah calls the Sabbath an everlasting sign between G-d and Israel. 2
The Sabbath involves both G-d and the Jewish people. In order to understand its rules, we must look more deeply into both of these ideas.
As we discussed earlier, the concept of the Sabbath is intimately bound to the concept of G-d’s rest after the act of creation.
Before we can hope to understand the Sabbath, we must first understand the meaning and significance of G-d’s rest. But this itself presents some difficulties.
What does the Torah mean when it says that G-d rested?
Was He tired? Had He worked too hard? Was Creation an exhausting task?
Is the Torah so naive that it looks at G-d in such anthropomorphic and human terms? Does it really assume that G-d needed a rest after six days of hard work, just like any other laborer?
Of course not. The Bible itself says (Isa. 40:28), “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The L-rd, the everlasting G-d, Creator of the wide world, grows neither weary nor faint.”
G-d did not rest because He was tired or overworked. Even creating a universe is not hard work for G-d. Our sages teach us that it involved less effort than to pronounce a single letter. 3
G-d rested in another sense. He rested when He stopped creating —when He no longer interfered with His world. This gives us an insight into the Torah’s definition of Sabbath rest.
We rest in a Sabbath sense when we no longer interfere with the world. In this way, we emulate G-d’s rest on the Sabbath, when He stopped interfering with His world.
During the six days of Creation, G-d asserted His mastery over the universe by actively changing it. On the Sabbath, He “rested” by no longer asserting this mastery.
We emulate G-d by relinquishing our mastery over the world on the Sabbath.
We now have a new understanding of work that makes the entire concept of the Sabbath make sense.
This is our definiton:
Work, in the Sabbath sense, is an act that shows man’s mastery over the world by means of his intelligence and skill. 4
We now also have a definiton of rest:
Rest, in Sabbath sense, is not interfering with nature nor exhibit- mastery over it. It is a state of peace between man and nature.
We can now understand the Sabbath ritual. We must leave nature untouched. We must not demonstrate our mastery over nature, nor change it in any way.
We must not intervene in the natural process. Any change or interference, no matter how trivial or small is a violation of this rest.
Heavy work and physical labor, such as plowing and building, are still work in this sense. But it also includes many things that require no effort at all —things like lighting a match, plucking a rose, or frying an egg.
These may not require much effort, but they are symbols of man’s dominance over nature.
The Sabbath is much more than a mere “day of rest” from a hard week’s work. It is a symbol of our belief in G-d’s creation. On Sabbath, the process of creation stopped completely.
We emulate G-d’s rest with our Sabbath. Therefore, even the most trivial act of interference with creation can be considered work and a violation of the Sabbath.
The Day of Eternity
The Sabbath is called both holy and blessed. This is intimately tied to the Sabbath of creation and to the concept of rest. The Fourth Commandment thus reads (Ex. 20:11): “For in six days, G-d made heaven, earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, G-d blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
To understand the deeper significance of the Sabbath, we must first understand the Sabbath of creation. Why did G-d rest after six days? Why did G-d set aside a day when He specifically stopped working?
This becomes even more puzzling when we look at the account of creation. As we go through the six days, we find that each one brings a higher level of creation.. First there is inert matter, then plants, then animals, and finally man. We would expect the seventh day to continue this sequence and produce something even higher. Instead, we find nothing…
We can understand this in terms of a Midrash. 5 In the account of creation, the Torah says (Gen. 2:2), “G-d finished on the seventh day.”
The Midrash asks an obvious question. If G-d rested on the seventh day, how could He have finished on the very same day? If He did nothing on the Sabbath, then obviously, He finished on the sixth day.
The Midrash gives us a most profound answer. It says that on the Sabbath, G-d created Rest.
In order to understand this, we must introduce a still more fundamental concept:
The more something resembles G-d, the closer it is and the more it partakes of Him. Indeed, the ultimate purpose of Judaism is such an emulation of G-d. 6
G-d dwells in Eternity, in a realm beyond change and time. He Himself told His prophet (Malachi 3:6), “1 am G-d, I do not change,” 7 Serenity and tranquility are therefore an imitation of G-d’s attributes.
On the Seventh Day, G-d added this dimension of tranquility and harmony to the world. It was no longer in a process of change, and therefore was able to partake of G-d’s serenity. As such, it became holy and blessed.” 8
The Sabbath thus became the day of eternity. In this way, the world was then able to partake of G-d’s timelessness.
In a sense, G-d descended to the world on the Sabbath of creation. It is interesting to note that the word Shabbos is related to the word Sheves, to dwell. On the Sabbath, G-d made the world His dwelling place.
The Sabbath thus brought about an integral harmony between G-d and His world. Rather than continuing to change the universe, G-d brought it into harmony with Himself.
The Zohar tells us that the mystery of the Sabbath is Unity. 9 On the Sabbath, G-d created Harmony between Himself and the universe.
When man observes the Sabbath, he too partakes of G-d’s eternity. He enters into a state of harmony with both G-d and the world. Man is then in a state of peace with all creation.
This immediately explains why the concept of peace is so important on the Sabbath. One of the most common Sabbath greetings is Shabbat Shalom/Sabbath peace, for the main idea of the Sabbath is peace; not just peace between man and his fellow, but peace between man and all creation.
To Be a Man
This also gives us a deeper insight into how the Sabbath recalls the Exodus. Both symbolize freedom.
All week long, man lacks a certain freedom. He is bound to the material world and is a slave to its pressures. He may show his dominance over nature by taking bread from the ground, but this is also part of the curse (Gen. 3:19), “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” Man’s act of asserting his dominance over nature makes him a slave to it.
On the Sabbath, man is freed from this slavery. He can exist in harmony with his world and need no longer battle it.
All week long, man is ruled by his need to dominate the world. People are usually defined by their occupations. One is a plumber, another a nurse, or a brickmason, or a writer, or a housewife. A man’s occupation is, in fact, the way in which he exercises his dominance over nature. But somehow, his most basic humanity is submerged by his occupation.
On the Sabbath, all this is changed. Every man is a king, ruling his own destiny. He is no longer defined by his occupation. He is a man —in the fullest sense of the word.
On the Sabbath you can be a man…
You can also be a Jew…
More than at any other time, the Jew can live as a Jew on the Sabbath. He divorces himself from everything else in the world and turns to G-d. He looks into the window of Eternity and feels the closeness of G-d.
The main Sabbath ritual is negative action. One observes the Sabbath by not doing. As long as one does not do any of the forbidden categories of work, he is actually fulfilling the Mitzvah of keeping the Sabbath. 10
One can therefore observe the Mitzvah of keeping the Sabbath literally every second of the day, even while sleeping. All that is required is that one not do any work. The Sabbath is unique in this respect, giving a person the opportunity to be totally immersed in a Mitzvah for an entire day, without any positive effort on his part.
It is told that the Hasidic leader, the Lentcher Rebbe, once said, “The Succah is one Mitzvah into which you can enter, even with your boots.” When Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Pshiska, known as the “Holy Yid,” heard this, he remarked, ‘You can walk out of the Succah —but you spend every instant immersed in the Sabbath.”
The unique aspect of the Sabbath is the fact that through it we can partake of G-d without any positive effort. All we must do is refrain from work, and G-d does the rest. 11
In a sense, this is what the Torah means when it says (Ex. 31:13), “You shall keep My Sabbaths … that you may know that I am G-d, Who makes you holy.” At all other times, one must strive to make himself holy, by doing the various Mitzvos. But on the Sabbath, one need only refrain from doing-and G-d does the rest. It is then He who is the One making the person holy. 12
The Midrash tells us that all the days were paired off except the Sabbath. Sunday was paired with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, and Thursday with Friday. Only the Sabbath was left without a mate. When the Sabbath complained, G-d proclaimed that the Jewish people would be his mate. 13
On the Sabbath, you can be a Jew in the fullest sense of the word. Every second of the day can infuse you with the unique closeness to G-d that is the essence of Judaism.
When All Will Be Sabbath
The great hope of the Jewish people is the Messianic Age which will be followed by a time of universal harmony. It will be a time when man will learn to live at peace, both with his fellows and with nature. It will mark the end of all war, injustice and exploitation.
In the Talmud 14 the Messianic Age is called Yom SheKulo Shabbos —the day when all will be Sabbath.
As the Bible describes it (Micah 4:4), “Every man will sit under his vine and beneath his fig tree, and none will make them afraid.”
The coming of the Messiah will herald the greatest revolution in the history of mankind. It will mark the ultimate triumph of man over evil.
One of the great problems with revolutions is that they usually fail. The new regime is usually as corrupt as the old one. The revolutionaries know what they wish to destroy, but they most often have no idea with what they wish to replace it. They never have a chance to really get the feel of the new order. Then, when they finally seize power, they are too busy with the details of administration.
The Sabbath is a rehearsal for revolution.
On every Sabbath, we partake of the Future world —of the peace and harmony of the Messianic Age. The Jew who keeps Shabbos knows the meaning of true harmony and tranquility. He knows how to use it and how to elevate himself with it.
When the Messianic revolution comes, he will not be unprepared. By observing the Sabbath, he will be ready for the Day When All is Sabbath.
The Sabbath keeps us aware of our final goal in life. It is very easy to become engulfed by the worldly. The Sabbath constantly reminds us of a higher reality. 15
The Shabbos teaches us to plan ahead. Everything we eat on the Sabbath must be prepared beforehand. The same is true of Eternity. When speaking of the Future Reward the Talmud says, “He who prepares on Friday, will eat on the Sabbath. 11 16
Every time we prepare for the Sabbath, we are also reminding ourselves to prepare for the World When All is Sabbath. We remind ourselves that our stay in this world is, but a preparation for something much more lofty.
The Torah calls Shabbos (Ex. 31:17), “an eternal sign.” The author of Reshis Chochmah writes that this means that it is a “sign of Eternity.” On Shabbos, the door opens a crack, and we see a spark of the Eternal. We feel a breeze blowing from the Future World When All is Sabbath. The Shabbos feeling is a sign of the Future, when man and G-d will be in total harmony. 17
The Fourth commandment tells us to “Remember the Sabbath. ”