Why the Sabbath

July 17, 2006

There is a miracle in Shabbat.

Even if you have never felt it yourself, it is there. It is one of the most important ingredients of Jewish survival.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Jew has survived two thousand years of persecution and humiliation largely because he had the Sabbath. It was one factor that not only made him survive, but kept him alive, both spiritually and morally. 1

Without the Sabbath, the Jew would have vanished. It has been said that as much as the Jew has kept Shabbat, so has Shabbat kept the Jew.

As long as Judaism exists as a vibrant, vital force, the Sabbath is its most outstanding ritual practice.

In order to understand this, you would have to experience a true traditional Shabbat. You would see a change take place, almost like magic. Take the poorest Jew, the most wretched person, and the Sabbath transforms him, as if by a miracle into a man of dignity and pride. He might be a beggar all week long, but on this one day, he is a true king.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jews who keep the Sabbath, with the number growing every year. To understand what Shabbat means, you must live it with them.

I remember once spending Shabbat with a poor working man in Williamsburg. He was a simple but pious man who did not have very much in the way of worldly goods. Seeing his cramped, dreary apartment, you might have pitied him, but at his Shabbat table, he sat like a king.

He made a remark that has remained with me all these years. “I pity people who don’t keep Shabbat. I really pity them. They don’t know what they are missing. They have no idea at all.”

There is a Sabbath prayer that reads. “Rejoice in your kingdom, you who keep the Sabbath.” The miracle of Shabbat is the kingdom of every Jew.

There is a miracle in the Sabbath.

Let us look into it more deeply.

The Primary Ritual

Two of the major parts of Judaism are the ethical and the ritual.

We can all understand the importance of the ethical laws of Judaism. None of us have any difficulty comprehending why the Torah tells us not to kill and steal, or why we must not shame or hurt another person.

On the other hand, Judaism contains many ritual laws, rules that strengthen man’s relationship with G-d. These include the holidays, the Kashrus laws, and such things as Tallis, Tefillin and the Mezuzah. It is, in large part, these rituals that separate Judaism from all other ethical systems.

Among the many rituals of Judaism, we find one prime ritual that stands above the rest.

That is Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath.

More than Rosh HaShanah, more than Yom Kippur, more than keeping Kosher or attending services, the Sabbath is the one ritual that marks the Jew.

It is the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Think about it for a moment. Of all the many rituals of Judaism, only one is mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Many people claim that, to be a “good Jew”, one need only observe the Ten Commandments. But if you do not keep the Sabbath, then you are only keeping nine of them.

At this point, the question must be forming in your mind, “But why? What is so special about the Sabbath? Why does it merit a place in the Ten Commandments? Why is it so important?”

The question becomes even stronger when we realize that, in ancient times, when Jews administered their own system of Justice, when capital punishment was administered, violating the Sabbath was a major crime, punishable, in extreme circumstances, by death.

The Torah openly states (Ex. 31:14), “You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; any one who profanes it shall be put to death. For whoever does any work on that day shall be cut off from his people.”

Put to death … Cut off from his people … Very strong terms indeed. But why?

In Torah law, we find that the penalty for violating the Sabbath was to be stoned to death, the worst possible form of execution. The Sabbath violator was put in the same category as the person who betrays his faith and his people. 2

Jewish law treats one who does not keep the Sabbath as one who abandons Judaism for another religion.

The Talmud flatly states, “Breaking the Sabbath is like worshipping idols.” 3

In many respects, one who willingly and flagrantly does not keep the Sabbath is no longer considered part of the Jewish community. 4,5

But why should this be so?

One way of understanding it can be grasped by studying those authorities who take a more lenient view. They write that in modern times, one may extend to a Sabbath violator the privileges of being a Jew, for a very interesting reason. They state that no one would violate the Sabbath if he truly understood its meaning. Therefore, unless we have contrary evidence, we assume that a person violating the Sabbath is doing so out of ignorance, and therefore we treat him with sympathy and understanding rather than harshness.

All this highlights one point: The Sabbath is the most important institution of Judaism. It is the primary ritual, the very touchstone of our faith.

Not only is the Sabbath the only ritual appearing in the Ten Commandments, but it is also repeated more often in the Torah than any other commandment.

Our great prophets hardly ever mentioned any ritual. Their task was to admonish Israel with regard to faith and morality. But still, they placed a great emphasis on the Sabbath. 6

Throughout the Talmud, the Midrash, and the other great classical Jewish writings, we find that the Sabbath has a most central place in Jewish thought.

Classical Judaism does not recognize such divisions as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There were basically only two kinds of Jews, The Sabbath Observer (Shomer Shabbat), and the Sabbath Violator (MeChallel Shabbat).

There is absolutely no question that the Sabbath plays a most central role in Judaism. But we are still left with our original questions.

How does the Shabbat create such an atmosphere?

Why is it so important?

What makes it so central to Judaism?

Why is a person who violates the Sabbath counted as an apostate?

What is the real meaning of the Shabbat?

A Day of Rest?

Most of us think that we understand the Sabbath. It seems very simple. It is nice to have a day of rest, especially if one works hard all week. Everyone needs a day of rest, both for physical renewal and for spiritual relaxation.

Many of us hold on to this simple notion. We feel that the Sabbath was given as a day of rest for the weary worker. But this notion would imply that if we do not feel particularly tired, there is no need to keep the Sabbath at all, in fact, all too many of us use this as an excuse not to keep Shabbat.

But this simple “Day of Rest” explanation of Shabbat is really very weak —and the more we examine it, the weaker it becomes. In fact, it fails to explain any of the questions we have just raised.

It may be nice to have a day of rest, but why should it have such an important place in Judaism?

Why is it so central to our tradition?

The Ten Commandments are fundamental to Judaism. They contain some of its most important religious principles and ethical concepts. How did a mere “day of rest” sneak in?

If you are not tired on Shabbat, why is it so important to rest? Why not just take a day off whenever you do get tired instead?

If we look into the Ten Commandments themselves, it becomes even more puzzling. The first Commandment tells us to believe in G-d. The second confirms G-d’s unity and warns against idol worship. The third cautions us to respect G-d, and not use His name lightly. If one truly believes in G-d, then He is to be respected.

The very next commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath.

Somehow, it seems to be out of place.

The first three commandments deal with our most basic concepts of G-d. Why does the Sabbath immediately follow? What does a mere “day of rest” have to do with our most basic beliefs?

The mystery deepens when we look at the text of the Commandment of Sabbath. As it appears in the Book of Exodus (20:8-11), it reads:

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you work and do all your tasks. But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the L-rd your G-d. You shall do no manner of work…

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.

The Commandment calls Shabbat, “a Sabbath unto the L-rd.” Exactly what does this mean?

The Commandment also tells us that our Sabbath is supposed to symbolize G-d’s rest on the seventh day of creation. Why is this important enough to be mentioned in the Commandment?

The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah, once in the Book of Exodus, and once in Deuteronomy.

If we look at the version in Deuteronomy, the question becomes still more difficult. Here the Commandment reads (Deut. 5:12-15):

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy as G-d commanded you… And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and G-d took you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, G-d commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

In this version of the Commandment, an entirely different reason is given for the Sabbath.

Here we find that the Sabbath is meant to recall the Exodus rather than Creation.

What is the connection between the two?

What does the Sabbath have to do with the Exodus?

If we say that the Sabbath is merely a “day of rest” and a time to relax after a week’s work, how can we even begin to understand these things?

The truth is that we can’t, and if we really want to gain a real understanding of the Shabbat, we must re-examine the most basic ideas of Judaism.

A Question of Belief

Judaism begins and ends with G-d.

It is essentially a way of life that brings man to G-d.

One who denies G-d, rejects the very basis of Judaism, and is totally cut off from it.

All this may seem very fundamental and obvious, but it is one thing to say that you believe, and it is another to understand exactly what you believe.

Suppose a person were to say, “I believe in G-d.” Suppose that in the very next breath, he were to point to a statue and say, “This is the G-d I believe in!”

Such a person would be an idolator. He certainly does not believe in G-d, much less so in a Jewish sense. What he believes in is idolatry, not G-d.

We know that G-d is not a statue. But what is He?

This is a very difficult and complex question to discuss, but we do have certain concepts about G-d which form a fundamental part of all of Jewish tradition and teaching.

G-d is as real as anything else in the world.

He is One and unique.

He is absolutely incorporeal, having neither body, shape nor form.

Anyone who says that he believes in G-d but denies these truths, is fooling himself. He may say that he believes in G-d, but what he really has done is to set up an idol and called it G-d. 7

Let us clarify this point with an example.

You are standing in a room with Mr. Jones. You make a statement: “Mr. Smith is indeed absent,” you point to Mr. Jones and say, “This is Mr. Smith.”

Saying that Mr. Jones is Mr. Smith does not make it so; neither does saying that Mr. Jones is G-d make it so.

If you say that you believe in G-d, but do not believe that He is as real as you or I, or that He is One, then you really do not believe in G-d, at least, not the Jewish concept of G-d. You are really speaking of something else.

But how do we, as Jews, define G-d?

We find the answer in the very first verse of the Torah. It says:

“In the beginning, G-d created the Heaven and the Earth.”

Here we have a definition of G-d. 8

G-d is the Creator of all things.

He is the One who brought all things into existence.

This has some very important implications.

As creator of all things, G-d must be both greater than all creation and distinct from it. Therefore, we, as Jews, reject the philosophy of pantheism.

As creator, G-d’s existence cannot depend on any of his creatures. Our definition therefore rejects any concept of G-d as an abstract ethical force or social convention. 9

If a person says that he believes in G-d, but does not believe that He is Creator, then he does not really believe in the Jewish concept of G-d.

But there is another point in our belief in G-d.

Some people think that G-d created the world and then forgot about it. They may claim to believe in G-d, and even admit to some abstract Creator, but they insist, at the same time, that his existence has no bearing on their lives. To them, G-d is a remote philosophical abstraction.

We see G-d as much more than this.

When G-d introduced Himself in the Ten Commandments, He said (Ex. 20:2), “1 am the L-rd your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. ”

G-d was telling us that He is involved in the affairs of man and has a profound interest in what we do. 10

G-d Himself gave the Exodus as an example. It was here that the entire Jewish people experienced G-d. To them, G-d was no mere abstraction. They saw His deeds to such an extent that they were actually able to point and say, “This is my G-d.” 11

Here again, one who does not accept G-d’s involvement and interest in the affairs of men cannot be said to believe in the Jewish concept of G-d. He is violating the first of the Ten Commandments.

In the light of these concepts, we can now understand the significance of the Sabbath. 12

Faith requires more than mere lip service. It must also involve action in the form of our steadfast adherence to G-d’s will. The Hebrew word for faith is Emunah. It comes from the same root as Uman —a craftsman. Faith cannot be separated from Action. But, by what act in particular do we demonstrate our belief in G-d as Creator? The answer now becomes obvious.

The one ritual that does this is the observance of the Sabbath. It is the confirniation of our belief in G-d as the Creator of all things.

We now understand what the Talmud means when it says that one who does not keep the Sabbath is like an idol worshipper. Violation of the Sabbath is an implicit denial of faith in G-d, the Creator.

We can also understand why the Sabbath violator is considered outside the Jewish community. Judaism exists as a community striving toward G-d. One who denies G-d as we know Him, cuts himself off from his community.

For the Jew, belief in G-d is more than a mere creed or catechism. It is the basis of all meaning in life, for if the world does not have a creator, then what possible meaning can there be in existence! Man becomes nothing more than a complex physiochemical process, no more important than an ant or a grain of sand. Morality becomes a matter of convenience, or “might makes right”. It is the belief in G-d that gives life purpose and meaning. It is also what gives us a standard of right and wrong. If we know that G-d created the world, and did so for a purpose, then we also realize that everything that furthers this purpose is “good,” and everything that runs counter to this purpose is “evil.”

The essence of Judaism is purpose and morality. One who does not actively believe in G-d as creator of the universe, divorces himself from these two most basic values. He therefore, casts himself outside of Judaism.

This also explains the reason Sabbath violation incurs the death penalty. For life itself involves purpose. A purposeless life is, in reality, no life at all. In a sense, therefore, one who does not keep the Sabbath is not really considered alive in the first place. The existence of the death penalty in such a case is not a mere vindication, but the confirmation of an already existent situation.

In a positive sense, the Sabbath is the focus of Jewish belief.

Once each week, the Jew spends a day reinforcing his belief in G-d. As long as Jews keep the Sabbath, G-d remains an integral force in their lives. Their faith is like a rock, and nothing can shake it. All the waves of persecution and prejudice break before this rock of faith. With this belief, they not only survive, they flourish.

For one day each week, the Jew can see himself in G-d’s eye, and before G-d, every man is a king.

This is as true today as always. Many of our leaders bewail the decline of Judaism. But this decline is only to be found where the Sabbath is neglected. Among the community of Sabbath observers, Judaism is the same living and vital force that it always was.

Sabbath of the Exodus

Once we see G-d as Creator, it is obvious that His creation has purpose.

It should also be obvious that eventually He would reveal this purpose to man.

This immediately brings us to the Exodus.

It is the Exodus that make Judaism unique. G-d revealed Himself to an entire people, and literally changed the course of nature for a forty year period. This was an event unique in the history of mankind. 13

The Torah itself speaks of this when it says (Deut. 4:34), “Did G-d ever venture to take a nation to Himself from another nation, with a challenge, with signs and wonders, as the L-rd your G-d did in Egypt before your very eyes? You have had sure proof that the L-rd is G-d, there is no other.”

There are other religions in the world, but none of them can match the powerful beginnings of Judaism. The others all began with a single individual, who claimed to have spoken to G-d or arrived at Truth. This individual gradually spread his teachings, forming the basis of a new religion. Virtually every great world religion follows this pattern.

Judaism is unique in that G-d spoke to an entire people, three million people at the same time, who saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. That one historic, traumatic experience is the solid bedrock of Jewish faith.

The Exodus not only made us uniquely aware of G-d, but it also showed Him profoundly involved in the affairs of man.

The impact of the Exodus remained imprinted on the Jewish mind throughout our history. We saw every persecuter as Pharoah, with G-d standing on the sidelines ready to repeat the miracle of the Exodus. We were thus able to withstand a long, gloomy exile.

We usually associate the Exodus with Passover. But it is just as intimately connected with the Sabbath.

One of the important miracles of the Exodus was that of the Manna.

For forty years, some three million people were literally fed by a miracle. This miracle, a lesson for the ages, dramatically demonstrates G-d’s involvement, in the day to day life of each one of us.

In order that the Jews not forget that it was a miracle, the Manna was presented in a most unique way. It only appeared six days a week, but was absent on the Sabbath. The miracle of the Manna paralleled the miracle of Creation.

When Moses told the Jews about the forthcoming Manna, he said (Ex. 16:26), “You shall gather it for six days, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there shall be none.”

This also answers another important question. How do we know which day was the Sabbath? Who counted it from the time of Creation?

The answer is that G-d Himself revealed the exact day of the Sabbath in giving the Manna. 14

Thus, the Torah says (Ex. 16:29), “See, G-d has given you the Sabbath. Therefore, He gives you two days’ food every sixth day … let no man go out on the seventh day.”

From then on, for over three thousand years from the Exodus until our own day, the Sabbath has been faithfully kept.

We recall the Exodus and the miracle of the Manna every time we celebrate the Shabbat.

The two Challahs on the Shabbat table represent the double portion of Manna that fell each Friday. 15

The Sabbath tablecloth represents the dew that covered the ground before the Manna fell. The Challah cover is the dew covering the Manna to protect it. 16

During the entire period of the Exodus, we lived with a unique intimacy with G-d.

The Torah says (Deut. 8:3), “G-d fed you with Manna that neither you nor your fathers had known —to teach you that man does not survive by bread alone, but lives by every word that comes from the mouth of G-d.”

On the Sabbath, we seek to revive and deeply feel this close relationship with G-d, and live by the Word.