Vayakhel-Pekudei: Work Done by a Non-Jew on Shabbat

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Kiddush Cup
11 Mar 2010

At the beginning of our parsha we learn that we may do work only on six days (Shemot 35:2). Based on this verse, the Midrash learns that another verse which says that on Yom Tov, and Shabbat, work may not be done (Shemot 12:16) means that work may not be done for us even by a non-Jew! (Mechilta deRebbe Yishmael parshat Bo on Shemot 12:16). Most authorities consider that this prohibition is only d’Rabbanan, but the fact remains that not only are we forbidden to do any melacha on Shabbat – it is even forbidden to have work done for us by non-Jews. Only if the non-Jew working for us decides of his own free will to do the work on Shabbat is it permitted.

Of course, this means that the non-Jew is permitted to work on Shabbat on his own initiative. This permission should not be obvious. Refraining from work on Shabbat is a testimony that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Non-Jews are also obligated to believe in and worship G-d, and we might think that they too should testify to His role as Creator.

In fact, our Sages taught that non-Jews may not keep Shabbat as we do! Although Noach was a righteous man with a resolute faith in HaShem, our Sages assert that he and his descendants were actually forbidden from keeping Shabbat! (Sanhedrin 58b).

In previous columns, we explained that the spiritual significance of the fact that the world was created in six days is that the work of creation is limited. This means that the work of tikkun, of bringing the world to perfection, is limited and therefore feasible. On Shabbat we refrain from this work of tikkun. Resting from work demonstrates our faith that the world’s repair can be completed; Shabbat indulgence shows our faith that it will be completed, ushering in a period of spiritual receiving and enjoyment, foreshadowed by our “Oneg ShabbatShabbat:Oneg Shabbat”.

The spiritual repair which we effect during the weekdays has two distinct aspects: the first is to improve the material state of the world per se, making it a suitable receptacle for Divine blessing; the second is to relate to this re-formed materiality in a way which actually infuses it with berakha.

The thirty-nine forbidden labors such as plowing and sowing are purely material improvements; Torah commandments such as forbidding plowing and sowing with mixed species are the infusions of berakha into this process. Both kinds of “repair” are forbidden on Shabbat.

Non-Jews are our partners in the first kind of tikkun; they too are devoted to changing the material conditions of existence in order to improve human welfare. But the second kind of tikkun is the special charge of the Jewish people. Individual non-Jews can achieve heights of faith and devotion to G-d, but without mitzvot they don’t have the full means to translate their inner spiritual achievements into the spreading of holiness in the world.

Just as periodic abstention from spiritual repair testifies to our vision of a future world of spiritual perfection, so periodic abstention from material repair could testify to a vision of a future world of purely material perfection. Materialistic world-views such as Marxian socialism attribute great importance to a weekly day of rest for workers for this very reason.

Our Messianic vision is not based on an era of material abundance but rather of spiritual abundance where G-d’s spirit fills the entire world (Yishayahu 11:9). This is the “sign” to which Shabbat testifies. And when our tradition does speak of a world of future material plenty, this plenty is itself a result of the spreading of Divine blessing – not a product of human economic ingenuity (See Shabbat 30b).

Non-Jews are primarily our partners in the very important mission of the world’s material improvement. If they were to abstain from Shabbat labor on principle, this would symbolize faith in the future perfection of the material world. This carries the danger of pointing the way to a purely materialistic Messianic vision, and ignoring the infinitely more important spiritual aspect of the redemption.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.