Rabbi’s Essays

The Sabbath and Its Discontents

I was about to take up the duties of a congregational rabbi for the first time. An older colleague invited me out to lunch shortly after I arrived. In the back and forth of conversation, I asked him what he did in order to pull his head out of the nearly endless affairs of the synagogue. He responded that he made a point every Saturday afternoon, following morning services, of getting in a game of racquetball at a local health club. He added that he did this ‘religiously.’

How is one supposed to react to such a comment? You might think that I should been aghast. How can a rabbi, of all people, violate the Sabbath in such a fashion, and even call it religious! But, why should I be aghast? Was my friend actually violating Shabbat? Perhaps he was honoring it with his ritual racquetball game. How can one tell the difference?

Shabbat is an extraordinary institution. Abraham J. Heschel, whose book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, is a seminal work on the subject, noted that Shabbat is so basic that its name is not translated; only modified when it enters other languages. It absolutely defines the seven-day week. In Hebrew parlance, there are no names for the days of the week, such as Sunday, Monday, etc. The days are simply referred to by number. Wednesday, for instance, is yom rivi’i [the ‘fourth day’]. This is the case for every day except the seventh, which is called Shabbat. Oh yes, sometimes the sixth day is given a name as well: ‘Erev Shabbat [Sabbath eve]. In this context, I am mostly going to employ the Hebrew usage, “Shabbat,” rather than “Sabbath” throughout this essay.

Only Jews and Judaism preserve the seventh day as Shabbat. Christianity nonetheless continues to acknowledge the sabbath as the seventh day. Just look at any calendar and take note of which day is on the far right. Islam, by the way, also acknowledges Shabbat with something of a backhanded slap. In the Sura (Chapter) 16, called ‘The Bee:’ “Then We revealed to you, ‘follow the creed of Abraham, a man of pure faith and no idolater.’ The sabbath was only appointed for those who were at variance with this.” For Christians and Moslems, then, Shabbat is indeed the seventh day, yet a day established-for better, or mostly for worse-for the Jews alone.

Shabbat thus defines the seven-day week, and also defines the Jews. Ahad Ha-am was an important Jewish thinker and essayist at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly influential in articulating and promoting Zionism. Although not religious in a conventional sense, he nevertheless greatly appreciated certain elements of Jewish practice. In this context, he wrote: “even as Israel has kept Shabbat, so has Shabbat kept Israel.” The point of the comment was Ahad Ha-am’s concern for Jewish distinctiveness, an aspect of Judaism he felt essential for survival. ‘Why are Jews Jews?’ he might have asked. The answer, in no small part, would have been their insistence on keeping Shabbat.

An answer to the question, “Why Shabbat?” can therefore be given in terms of Jewish survival. I think this answer is compelling, both in the context of Jewish history, and with respect to contemporary Jewish reality. Through history, Shabbat was the blessing and burden of the Jewish people; the burden being specifically that aspect of Jewish life-along with the dietary laws, kashrut-that publicly distinguished and separated the community. So today, I believe Jews engage in some form of observance of Shabbat-perhaps no more than lighting candles or making a point of having a family dinner-as an expression of one’s Jewishness.

But is this what we are asking when we say, Why Shabbat? Shabbat is certainly not simply an ID tag proclaiming that one is a Jew. Shabbat is also something else, and this is what I want to meditate upon. As noted, Shabbat is a blessing and a burden. At the beginning of Chapter 2 of the Mishna tractate, Avot, or “Sayings of the Fathers,” R. Judah ha-Nasi states, a propos to our concern: “Compute the loss in doing a commandment against its reward, and the benefit of a transgression against what will be lost.” We need to discern whether the blessing of Shabbat is worthy of the bother, or conversely whether the burden is so great as to negate any benefit. Of course, R. Judah would press for the former, as he concludes his thought with “Think deeplyR30;and you will never be gripped by the desire to commit a transgression.” Let us think deeply about Shabbat, and see if indeed the blessing is worth it.

An Ancient Day

The Torah begins with a description of Creation. After six days of creative work, God “ceased [vayishbot] on the seventh day from all the work God had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy (Gen 2:2-3).” This text suggests a number of things. For one, it indicates that, from the point of view of the biblical authors, Shabbat is very old. It precedes Sinai. It even comes before Abraham. Shabbat was not invented by the Jews, or even for the Jews. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that there are indicators in ancient societies of practices that appear to be similar to Shabbat, or that other cultures might have a word like ‘shabbat’ in their vocabulary. The biblical authors themselves would have been aware of such practices and terms.

In his book, Ancient Israel, the French archeologist and biblical scholar Fr. Roland de Vaux, describes some of these terms and practices. The Babylonians, for example, cautioned that the days of the month that were a multiple of seven were days dominated by evil spirits, so that people needed to restrict their activities. The more ancient Mesopotamian culture of the Akkadians, however, observed the middle day (full moon) of a month, which they called shapattu, as a propitious day of celebration. Akkadians also contribute from their language, shabittu, as the word for ‘seven.’ One can see the connection with shapattu, coming twice-seven days into the month, as well as with the Hebrew Shabbat.

Both the Catholic de Vaux and his contemporary Jewish scholar, Yehezkiel Kaufman, among others, caution coming to any firm conclusions from this and other connections. The Babylonian practice took place on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th days of a month, but this does not imply the concept of a week. Lunar months are 29 or 30 days in length. There would therefore be a break of eight or nine days between the last observance of one month and the first of the next. Shapattu, for that matter, would come either on the fourteenth or fifteenth day. Yes, we can see some connection in these observances with the number seven, but we should not conclude any conception of a week, a concept that is ultimately is uncoupled from the lunar calendar.

On the other hand, there were practices that took place according to a fixed cycle of days. De Vaux mentions two: a Roman feast held every ninth day, and a Southwest Chinese prohibition on sewing and washing every sixth day. Through the anthropologist James Frazer, best known for his work, The Golden Baugh, we could add a fascinating practice in dividing of milk and meat by the Masai of equatorial Africa. They would eat only meat products for ten days, then only milk products for the next ten days. Everywhere in the ancient world, one would encounter practices observed on a fixed cycle that was independent of the natural cycles of sun and moon.

Let us imagine the biblical authors for a moment. First, they would have been aware of the Israelite understanding of an observance that took place every seven days. Further, they would have known of other cultures that had regular observances, some of which involved taboos on certain activities, others that included feasts and celebrations. They would also have been aware that other societies placed importance in the number seven, even though it might not involve a regular seven-day practice. What might they conclude? I think it is reasonable to suggest that they accepted that Shabbat was a divine invention, reaching back to the very origins of humankind, but over the generations its practice and understanding was corrupted. Only with the revelation to Israel was Shabbat restored to its original form and purpose.

Why seven? Again, an answer would reach back into pre-biblical history. The Book of Genesis contains two parallel stories regarding the northern Negev settlement of Beersheva, whose name was initially derived from the site being an oasis (Be’er meaning “well”) dedicated to a local deity Sheva. In both stories, a Philistine king Avimelekh (Abimelech in most translations) and a Patriarch have a dispute over water rights. Chapter 21 depicts Abraham giving the Philistine seven (sheva’) lambs in return for the wells. Chapter 26 has Isaac and Avimelekh uncovering the wells after they had been filled in, and then agreeing with an oath (shiv’a) on their division. The stories are designed to bury the original name, but they preserve a sense of veneration for a location so identified with the beginnings of the people.

Sheva is an ancient deity, but this information only moves the question back in time: Why seven? While I have not come across directly any explanation for the sanctification of the number, I think it is logical to relate it to the seven heavenly objects-Sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn-that could be seen wandering (not in a fixed relation with each other as is the case with the stars) in the sky.

A Difficult Day

Although its history is older than Israel, in the time of the Bible, Shabbat is established as a practice uniquely observed by the Jews. Just what practice is that? Many scholars have contended that the role and significance of Shabbat developed through the biblical period. The Babylonian exile was something of a watershed. Without the benefit of the Temple and its sacrifices, the exiled Israelite community needed to turn to other rituals in order to maintain their integrity as God’s covenanted people. Among these rituals would have been b’rit milah, the circumcision of an eight-day boy, and the observance of Shabbat.

Thus, one points to the appeal made by the prophet known as the Second Isaiah: “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day. If you call Shabbat ‘delight,’ the Eternal’s holy day ‘honored.’ And if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, or strike bargains-then you can seek the favor of the Eternal.” [Isa 58:13-14] The importance of Shabbat was then carried on with the return to the land, as attested by Nehemiah: “R30;I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the sabbath, and other bringing heaps of grain and loading them onto asses, also wine, grapes, figs and all sorts of goods, and bringing them into Jerusalem on the sabbath. I admonished them there and then for selling provisions.” [Neh. 13:15]

I think the conventional critical argument is sound, yet might miss the point. There are indeed few references to Shabbat or its observance in the Bible after the first five books (Torah), until one gets to Ezekiel, who was a prophet of the Babylonian exile. Both the texts and a modicum of common sense indicate an intensifying of focus on the importance of Shabbat in the later biblical period. The Torah, however, was substantially committed to writing prior to the fall of Solomon’s Temple. If Shabbat was not treated as strictly at an earlier time, the outline of its practice and the rationale for its observance had nevertheless been established.

Much more to the point in my estimation, is the clear gap between teaching and practice. Let us accept as true the conventional wisdom that Shabbat observance became far more important in the years during and following the exile. Just the same, Nehemiah was chagrined over the way Jews treated the day as just another opportunity to buy and sell. I would conclude that throughout the Bible, from its early to its later strata, Shabbat is presented as an idea that is powerful, vital, transcendent, and yet challenging and difficult for the average Jew to accept. We can therefore read the text with a very contemporary eye. In the days of the Bible, Jews struggled to establish some appropriate level of observance for Shabbat. So, what else is new!

What Does God Want?

What does God want from us with respect to Shabbat? What do we want for ourselves? Obviously, these are two different questions. They are however, easily conflated. Within a religious context, we might argue that, since God is All-Good, what God wants from us is what is good for us, and therefore should be what we want for ourselves. The contention is both logically too simple and emotionally naïve. It is far too easy to rationalize to ourselves that what we crave for in hearts is just what God wishes for us. God’s will is elusive, and our needs are complex. Thus, I return to the two questions as separate concerns.

Let us begin with what God wants, or more properly, what we have come to believe that God wants. What we want will be treated much later. So, we return to the sacred literature, but I want to look initially at the biblical references to Shabbat outside of Torah. This portion of the Bible permits us to relate to a specific person, whom the tradition accords as laboring under divine inspiration, and yet who is responding to the needs and concerns of a particular time. Shabbat is therefore not simply some component of the divine commandments, but is related as a vital element in the lives and fortunes of the people.

To start, we will return to the two passages already cited. In the first-Isaiah, Chapter 58-the prophet asserts that God wishes us to declare Shabbat a delight; that is, it is God’s intent that we derive pleasure from the seventh day. Nehemiah’s concern seems quite the opposite. As Judean governor he seeks to restrain commercial activity on Shabbat, and warns: (13:18) “This is just what your ancestors did, and for it God brought all this misfortune on this city; and now you give cause for further wrath against Israel by profaning the Sabbath!” In Nehemiah’s estimation, God requires restriction of activity on Shabbat, whether that activity gives pleasure or not.

The prophets Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel help to fill out our understanding. Living through the last years of the Judean monarchy, Jeremiah held out Shabbat as a form of promise for God’s protection. Like Nehemiah a century later, the prophet equated Shabbat observance with a cessation from commercial activity: “If you obey Me-declares the Eternal-and do not bring in wares through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day and do no work on it, then through the gates of this city shall enter kings who sit upon the throne of DavidR30;and this city shall be inhabited for all time (17:24,25).” Jeremiah employed both the carrot and the stick: “But if you do not obey My command to hallow the Sabbath dayR30;then I will set fire to its gates; it shall consume the fortresses of Jerusalem and it shall not be extinguished (17:27).”

The prophet Amos, who lived nearly two centuries before Jeremiah, sought to make the same point. He warned (Chapter 8): “I will turn your festivals into mourning and your songs into dirgesR30;(v. 10)” Amos, however, depicted a community that actually observed the prohibition of commercial activity on Shabbat! He nevertheless asserted that their observance was hypocritical and hallow: “Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, ‘If only the new moon were overR30;the sabbath (as well) so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small, and a shekel that is too bigR30;(vv. 4-5).”

What are we to make of the fact that Jeremiah and Nehemiah need to rail against a transgression of Shabbat that appears to have been observed in Amos’ time? We need to revisit this concern later.

Ezekiel lived roughly a generation after Jeremiah, during the exile in Babylonia. God’s punishment has already befallen Israel. When he first speaks about Shabbat, it is in the form of chastisement: “I brought them out of the land of EgyptR30;I gave them My lawsR30;Moreover, I gave them My sabbaths to serve as sign between Me and them, that they may know that it is I the Eternal who sanctify themR30;But the House of Israel rebelled against MeR30;and they grossly desecrated My sabbaths (20:10-13).” Ezekiel does not explain just what he has in mind by desecration. Rashi and the other traditional commentators suggest that he is referring to the initial Shabbat in the wilderness when the Israelites went out to gather in manna, although a double portion had been given to them on the day before just so they would not have gather in their food on the seventh day (Ex. 16).

The commentary seems narrow, but reinforces what I think was Ezekiel’s point. Principally, for the prophet, Shabbat is the sign of the covenant. Its observance is the method by which Israel signals its faith in God and obedience to divine rule. Thus, the desecration on that fateful first Shabbat in the wilderness was not in the ‘work’ of going out to gather manna (indeed, there was no work to be done!), but rather in the disobedience and lack of faith that accompanied the Israelite’s ignoring that they had already received their Shabbat portion. Later in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet depicts Israel restored to its land with a rebuilt Temple. When he refers to Shabbat, it is specifically in the context of the celebration and sacrifices that would take place there. Ezekiel’s focus is on Shabbat as sacred ritual.

Most of the references to Shabbat are in the form of chastisement. They picture an Israelite community that is not observing the day, or, to be more accurate, not observing it properly. There are two types of transgressions suggested. One is being involved in commercial activity. The second is not paying appropriate homage, or showing proper faith in God, through the celebration of the day. It is particularly noteworthy that the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel considered these lapses in the observance of Shabbat as critical elements in the loss of the Land and the kingdom, and that Nehemiah was sufficiently nervous about it to fear that God’s anger would flare again.

The Torah of Shabbat

When we first encountered the Hebrew root sh-b-t, it was as a verb: Vayishbot Elohim mikol m’lakhtoR30;[God ‘rested’ or ‘ceased’ from all the work God had done]. From the onset, Shabbat contains a meaning that connotes a respite from work. Shabbat means ‘rest,’ yet the concerns expressed in the biblical passages we have looked at do not seem to deal with resting. When we are called upon to ‘keep Shabbat,’ are we being invited to rest, to take off from work, every seventh day, or is God expecting something else from us? The Bible suggests it is the latter.

Now we will look at Torah, but specifically in the context of the passages we have already read. Normally, we frame the prophets in light of commandments found in Torah. Here, we are going to frame the Torah as based on the declarations of the prophets.

I believe we can justify this approach in a number of ways. For one, there is classic rabbinic reasoning, embodied in the principle Eyn mukdam um’uhar baTorah [there is no early or late in the Torah]. The rabbis lifted the sacred texts out of time, as God and God’s inspiration is timeless. Thus, although the narrative timeline places Sinai well before the prophets, the assertions of both can be treated as if they are contemporaneous. Modern biblical scholarship also asserts that the written text of Torah, particularly in the form we have today, is no earlier than the prophets. Jeremiah, for instance, is associated with the school of thought that produced Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel with the authors of the so-called priestly documents, such as the Book of Leviticus, and the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis.

Let me suggest one other approach. Torah is difficult, but not in a physical or intellectual sense. As Moses says in Deuteronomy (Chapter 29), God’s commandments are neither in heaven nor across the seas; they do not require mental acuity or physical dexterity in order to be performed. They are, however, difficult in the emotional sense. They are like the child consigned to stay indoors and finish his homework, while all his friends are outside playing. The value or the rightness of God’s will as presented in the Mitzvot is not immediately discernible. Not only do people want to do something else, they feel they can make a pretty good argument that they are justified in their wants.

The Torah is difficult, and moreover, it knows it. Torah is therefore a teaching document, and not a catechism. It does not declaim or demand, but rather unfolds, attempting to move individuals into accepting the position it espouses. I find the Torah’s approach to Shabbat one of the best examples. Shabbat is difficult. It is conceptually elusive; what does it mean to mark consistently every seventh day, regardless of the phases of the moon or the cycle of seasons?

And it is religiously demanding, bidding a people to do (or refrain from doing) something when no one else is. The prophets threatened and cajoled Israel regarding their misplaced practices on Shabbat, but we should not read this as an indictment of a wicked people. It is rather a reflection of just what challenge the Torah, as a teaching instrument, has set before it, getting Jews to do what they are supposed to do.


We are now ready to track Shabbat through the Torah. We follow the references in order, just as we would encounter them in synagogue reading of the scroll.

Shabbat of Genesis

The passage at the beginning of Chapter 2 has already been cited. God finished the work of Creation, ceased from work on the seventh day, and blessed the day “because on it God ceased from all the work of creation (Gen. 2:3).”

Before analyzing this section further, we should note that this is the only reference to Shabbat in the entire book. There is no mention of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or his children ever observing the day. Indeed, with one highly ambiguous exception-Laban’s requirement that Jacob wait a full seven days after being tricked into marrying Leah before he weds Rachel (Chapter 29)-there is no reference to a week! Arguments from silence-concluding something did not exist or was unknown because it is not mentioned in a text-are very weak assertions. Did the personalities of Genesis know of Shabbat? We can only conclude that the issue of a Shabbat observance of any kind was too marginal to the narrative to warrant notice. It was not a definitive or even significant feature of the covenant that God was forging with Abraham and his progeny.

Returning to the reference in Chapter 2, God’s Shabbat is presented as specific and unique. God created the universe in six days, and rested (ceased) on the seventh. This particular Shabbat is not repeated, just as Creation itself was not repeated. God’s attitude toward this day was nonetheless special. At the conclusion of each of the first six days, God evaluates the work completed and pronounces it good. The seventh day, however, is not evaluated-it is not merely ‘good’ or even ‘very good’-rather it is blessed. Work can be rated, but rest is simply blessed.

Shabbat is introduced as an artifact from the past; a piece of data that has no discernible effect on humanity.

The First Shabbat

The book of Genesis passes into Exodus: Israel in Egypt, the appearance of Moses, plagues, Red Sea and liberation into the wilderness. In this first section of the Book, once more no mention of Shabbat is to be found. The number seven, however, shows up. The first plague-the Nile turning to blood-lasts for seven days (Ex. 7:25). The festival of Pesach (Chapter 12) is to be observed over seven days. Neither of these citations, of course, suggests a week.

Shabbat makes its first appearance in Chapter 16. The Israelites have crossed the Sea and are rid of Pharaoh’s army. Within a month, however, they are thirsty, hungry and grumpy. They complain to Moses. God, in turn, decides to provide for their needs. Each day, a sweet and nourishing paste, manna, will appear. The Israelites can go and gather it, eating their fill each day. The manna only lasts a day. Any left over is filled with maggots by morning.

On the sixth day following the first appearance of the manna, the Israelites find double the amount of the previous days. When they inquire, Moses tells them: “This is what the Eternal meant. Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy shabbat of the Eternal. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning (16:23).” The uneaten portion did not spoil when left over night. Moses then continued: “Eat it today, for today is a shabbat of the Eternal; you will not find it today on the plain. Six days you shall gather it; on the seventh day, the shabbat, there will be none (16:25-26).”

The people are now introduced to Shabbat. It is still however God’s Shabbat, and not Israel’s. God is the only one working, by providing the daily manna. Further, it is God who is taking a day off, actually planning for this day by doing its work on the day before. Thus, it is not so much Shabbat that is being introduced, as it is the concept of a seven-day cycle.

Shabbat is brought into human life, to be acknowledged as matter of respect for the God Who has saves and sustains the people.

The Decalogue

Shabbat next appears shortly afterward, in Chapter 20. The context is important. Up to this point in the Book of Exodus, God has been manifest in the plagues rained down on Egypt, in the crossing of the Red Sea, and in the providing of food and water to the Israelites as the begin the journey across the wilderness. God has communicated verbally as well to Israel, but exclusively through Moses. Now, as Israel stands at the base of a mountain, God speaks to the entire community: “I am the Eternal, your God Who took you out of Egyptian bondageR30;”

The Decalogue (a more literal translation of ‘aseret hadibrut than Ten Commandments) describes fundamental relationships between God and the people (There are no other gods; make no graven images), and among the people themselves (Honor of one’s parents, no killing, stealing or coveting). In the midst of these statements, Shabbat is presented: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements (20:8-10).”

The cessation from labor that God has engaged in with the providing of manna, is now extended to Israel as well. The idleness, moreover, must be complete. Not only are the people enjoined from working on the seventh day, they are also not permitted to compel anyone else to work. God gives a reason for this prohibition: “For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and then rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the sabbath day, sanctifying it (20:11).”

The explication is two-fold. It is the basis by which God’s Shabbat becomes Israel’s as well. Moreover, it explains to the people why God has been following this strange seven-day pattern in the first place. The first word of the statement is curious; what does it mean for Israel to remember Shabbat? The answer to this question is two-fold as well. First, it calls attention to the seven-day cycle already established, as in “remember how you have that extra amount of manna, so you do not have to go out and gather it on the seventh day?” Second, just as God’s Shabbat becomes Israel’s, so do the people Israel acquire God’s memory of Creation and make it their own.

God demands Israel to rest, if for no other reason than as a measure of obedience to God.

On Mt. Sinai

The Torah next refers to observance of Shabbat as part of Moses’ forty-day stay on the top of Sinai. Again, the context is important. The text (Exodus, Chapters 25-30) provides an extended and highly detailed description of the construction of a mishkan [normally translated as ‘tabernacle,’ the portable sanctuary that the priests and levites will carry through the wilderness], its sacred objects and the apparel of the priests who will administer to it. At the beginning of Chapter 31, God summarizes the entire project, and then adds: “Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages (31:13).”

The implication regarding Shabbat seems clear. Even as the Israelites begin to busy themselves in the task of building God’s sanctuary, they must not violate the prohibition on work that has been enjoined on them for every seven days. Sacred rest is more important that sacred work. The overriding significance of Shabbat is reinforced: “He who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kinR30;whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death (31:14-15).”

The sanction described here is confusing. First, we are led to understand that desecrating Shabbat (whatever that exactly entails), is a capital offense, while working on the seventh day only merits exile. Then, we are told that working is a capital offense as well. Is “cut off from among one’s kin,” actually an expression that means execution? Are we reading a passage that combines two textual traditions? We might add a more troubling question: Was there really a time in Israel’s history when people were executed for working on Shabbat? I do not want to attempt to untangle these verses, either in terms of classic rabbinic thought or contemporary biblical scholarship. Let me suggest that, at very least, working on Shabbat represents a death of the spirit, a form of isolation not only from the people Israel and their traditions, but also from God. The passage wants to make it unmistakably clear that Shabbat must be taken very seriously.

The passage repeats from the Decalogue that Shabbat is derived from the six days of Creation. It adds, however, two new concepts. The first, indicated already, is that Shabbat is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel: “The Israelite people shall keep shabbat, observing shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time (31:16).” Shabbat is therefore a mark of distinction, one of the identifiers of the Jews among all peoples.

The second addition is more subtle, yet more telling in terms of the evolving understanding of this day of rest. Exodus 31:15 begins with the statement: “Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete restR30;” Compare with the Decalogue cited above: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is the sabbath of the Eternal your God.” The text has moved the emphasis from the worker to the work.

“Six days you shall labor.” Six days of the week are set aside for you to work, and you can do your work on any or all of them. You, the toiler, may choose or be compelled to work, but you must not work on the seventh day. “Six days may work be done,” however, shifts the focus to the work itself. Is the work ever done? When you finish plowing, you must sow. When you complete sowing, you must tend, water and weed. When the crops are ready, you must harvest. When the harvest is complete, you prepare, store and ship the produce, and then you must tend to the land, preparing and restoring it until you are prepared to plow again. When you think about it, the work is continuous and unceasing. When you sleep, eat, spend time with the family, and otherwise get away from the labor, the work is still there. There is always something pressing; there is always more to do.

In the Decalogue, Shabbat is an obligation. In this communication to Moses on the mountain, Shabbat becomes a form of permission: go ahead, take the time off; the work will wait.

There are two subsequent and closely related references to Shabbat in the book of Exodus. Following the incident of the golden calf and the smashing of the first tablets of stone, God calls upon Moses to prepare new tablets, and begins once more to dictate the commandments to be inscribed on them. Included among them: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing and harvest time (34:21).” The language reverts to emphasis on the worker, but the principal focus is on reinforcing that Shabbat takes precedence over any pressing responsibilities, such as plowing and harvesting.

Finally, Moses returns from the mountain, and gathers the people in order to explain the project of building the mishkan. While God had placed concern about Shabbat at the end of the description, Moses leads with it: “These are the things the Eternal has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you have a shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death (35:1-2).” The Israelites are about to engage in constructing the place in which God’s presence can dwell among them. It is holy work, activity performed solely for the sake of honoring God; no element of the effort directly benefits the people. Yet, the labor will stop every seventh day. Note once more that the focus is on the work, not the workers.

In promulgating the commandment regarding Shabbat, Moses makes no mention of the works of Creation. There appears, however, an indirect reference, as Moses added: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (35:3).” What could be a more fundamental act of creation than to produce light!

The rest demanded on Shabbat not only pertains to obedience, but also to faith in God and God’s prospects for the people. Covenant is two-way, and thus God also assures the people that no harm will occur by a cessation of the work.

The Incident in the Wilderness (a Detour)

We should add one last related passage, found in the Book of Numbers (15:32-36), even though it breaks the order. A person is found gathering wood on Shabbat. He is taken into custody, but no one knows what to do next. God is consulted and the directive is given that he should be stoned to death. The people gather and carry out the execution.

Perhaps not too much should be made of the setting, but the incident follows a discussion of inadvertent and intentional transgressions. The question is apparently raised, what should be done with this wood-gatherer? Is this because there is an issue regarding whether the transgression is inadvertent? The traditional commentary does not jump to this conclusion, and neither should we. We should have no doubt that the only reason a person is gathering wood on Shabbat is in order to build a fire. There can be no mistake about his intentions.

The section immediately preceding the relating of the incident cites that a person’s intentional sin must be borne as the person’s own. (Num 15:31: “R30;that person shall be cut off-he bears his own guilt.”) The guilty man preparing a fire for Shabbat, we might imagine, was not doing this solely for himself. His family is cold, or is clamoring for a hot meal, or wishes to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, and thus have urged him to start a fire. He is taken into custody and insists that he is only acting on behalf of the wishes or needs of others. The injunction is now made clear, a cardinal transgression cannot be mitigated because it has been done on behalf of others, “he bears his own guilt.”

The traditional commentaries suggest the issue that delayed punishment was not determining whether a transgression occurred, but rather which sort of execution ought to be applied. Stoning is chosen, thus the community is necessarily involved in carrying out the sentence; the transgressor is truly cut off from his kin, as the kin (the community) is obligated in participating in cutting him off.

Did the incident-or something similar-actually happen? I think not. Although violations of Shabbat observance are catalogued in the later books of the Bible, there is no indication that capital punishment was exercised. I believe that the authors of the text before us rather present a romantic memory of the experience in the wilderness, where the upholding of community values, especially the value of Shabbat, engaged the entire people. “So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death-as the Eternal commanded Moses (15:36).”

The very fabric of society is deeply impacted by the observance or violation of Shabbat.

The Festival

The most extensive reference to Shabbat in Torah is found in the Book of Exodus. With the exception of the passage just discussed, the Books of Leviticus and Numbers represent a subtle shift in focus.

Both books cite Shabbat in the context of a listing of all the festivals. The section in Leviticus (Chapter 23) begins: “These are My fixed times [mo’ed], the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions [mikra’ei kodesh] (23:2).” The Torah then commences with a listing of the ‘fixed times,’ commencing with Shabbat, then Pesach (called here ‘the feast of Matzah’), Shavuot (unnamed), Rosh Hashanah (also unnamed), Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. There is a subtle and telling distinction made in the text between Shabbat and the rest of the Festivals: the difference between the artificial seven-day cycle and the natural cycle of lunar months. We already know, however, that Shabbat is computed differently, and therefore let us focus on the entire list.

Certain familiar activities are described with respect to each of the festivals: avoiding leavened bread during Pesach, blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashana, ‘afflicting the soul’ (later understood to be fasting) on Yom Kippur, etc. Of particular interest, however, each festival involves a ‘shabbat,’ a cessation from work. We may note that the directive to rest on Shabbat follows the rhetoric we encountered in Exodus: “Six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be a sabbath of complete rest (23:3).” The festivals have one other element in common; they are occasion for special sacrifices to God. “These are the set times of the Eternal, which you shall celebrate as sacred occasions by bringing offerings by fire to the EternalR30;on each day what is proper to it (23:37).”

Some of the offerings are described here, but the detailed list is given in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 28 & 29). This section begins with the components of the offering that must be presented every day (“two yearling lambs without blemishR30;a tenth of an ephah of flour with a quarter of a hin of oil mixed inR30;”). The text then lays out the additional offering to be given on certain special days through the year. These days include: Shabbat, the new moon (first day of a Hebrew month), and each of the annual festivals listed in Leviticus.

The primary focus of the section is the details of the proper offering to be given on each day of the year. The passage, however, also repeats the commandments found in Leviticus regarding ceasing from work on the festival days. The command does not extend to new moons, and curiously, it is not mentioned with respect to Shabbat either. Perhaps by the Book of Numbers, the identification of the weekly Shabbat with rest has been well established. From Leviticus we learn there is a little bit of Shabbat in every festival, and from Numbers, that Shabbat (along with the new moon) is indeed a festival.

Shabbat is not a restriction but rather an opportunity to connect with God.

The Decalogue Again

Shabbat is mentioned one more time, in Moses’ retelling of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy (Chapter 5). For the most part, the words of the Ten Commandments are identical in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The most significant changes, however, occur in the presentation of the statement on Shabbat. I will interlace the two versions: The passage from Exodus (20:8-11) is in bold print; changes in Deuteronomy (5:12-15) will be shown in italics and in parentheses, and the words that are common to both will be in normal font.

Remember (Observe) the sabbath day and keep it holy (as the Eternal your God has commanded you.) Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle (your ox, your ass or any of your cattle), or the stranger in your settlements, (so that your male and female slave may rest as you do). For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.)

In the Decalogue of Deuteronomy, delivered by Moses as Israel stood on the bank of the Jordan River, we are no longer required to remember God’s Shabbat through our cessation from work, but rather to remember the days in which, by virtue of our servitude in Egypt, rest was an impossible dream. With this restatement of the commandment, the Torah concludes its discussion of Shabbat.

God’s wishes that the people rest on Shabbat is not merely for God’s sake alone, but it is also for the sake of human liberation and fulfillment.


I. Seven Days. As you can see, Shabbat unfolds in the Torah. Its incremental development, I suggest, is a response to the real challenge posed for anyone in keeping Shabbat. What is that challenge? You can probably answer as well as I, but let me lay out the issues specifically in the context of the passages both presented in the Torah and highlighted in the subsequent biblical material.

So, what is the problem? I would identify two basic concerns. One is the restriction of rest which actually encompasses a manifold of problems. The first problem, however, is idea of the week.

While, as already noted, many ancient cultures around the world adhered to a regular cycle of days, we recognize that there is nothing natural about it. The significance of the number seven is completely wrapped in mystery. If, as good anthropologists and paleohistorians, we attempt to come up with a reason for creating the notion of a seven-day week, looking for sociological, psychological or political factors that would determine the phenomenon, we are at a loss. For this reason, the arch-rationalist Maimonides concluded that Shabbat could not have any source other than as a revelation from God.

This is exactly the nub of the problem. A seven-day cycle is something that can be important to God, but it hardly follows that it should also be important to humankind. The Torah responds by first indicating to us, the readers, that a seventh day is indeed important to God. It is so important that it is worthy of God’s blessing. We can construct a rationale for God’s concern for this day-both classic rabbinic midrash and contemporary philosophical inquiry do so-but in the final analysis it is immaterial. God chose to create the world in six days and to valorize the seventh.

The Torah then informs Israel of God’s will regarding a seven-day cycle. Nothing is expected of the people except to respect God’s wishes and set aside half of the double portion of manna given on the sixth day for eating on the seventh. All that is required is that they realize that every seventh day is significant to the God Who just freed them from Egyptian bondage. No other inference is made or expected.

II. Rest. The seven-day cycle is thus established; we now move on to the problem of work. The challenge here exists on many levels, as it does to this day. Set the issue of Shabbat aside in your mind. What do you think about work? Do you enjoy it? Do you look forward to it being over? Do you savor a life of leisure, or only think of yourself as alive, fulfilled or human when you are working? And what do we mean by work in the first place? All of these concerns are encompassed in the concept of Shabbat. The Torah does not tackle the problems immediately. It simply demands that the people not work on the seventh day.

We should read two subtexts into the Decalogue of Exodus, where we are first commanded regarding Shabbat rest. First, the ‘divine’ Pharaoh has been replaced by the divine Eternal God of Israel. The enslaving taskmaster has been replaced by a Master who does not require constant work. We do not want to work all the time, but sometimes we do not have control over this circumstance. External forces, particularly a boss, or a master or a client, will place an irrepressible demand on our time. We work whether we want to or not. In calling upon the people to rest every seventh day, Israel learns that it has a master who will not always compel them to work.

While the Master does not demand constant labor, however, God instead compels rest. Refuse to refrain from work, even as minor a task as gathering wood, and you are liable for death! We need to read a second subtext as well. To a great extent, we are what we do. We are defined in society, in our communities and to ourselves by our jobs. Not working does not come easily, and thus it is often hard to grasp any reason behind a demand that we stop. The explanation therefore is left out; it adds nothing. God says do not work, we do not work.

Why? Because God says so! The circumstance parallels the demands a parent makes upon young children: Do not cross the street! Eat your vegetables before having dessert! Finish your homework in long division! Why? Because I am your mother! At heart here is not that there are no good reasons for engaging or refraining from the activities as commanded. It is rather that the children are too young to be reasoned with. Any explanation operates outside of their experience, and thus outside any context that would make an explanation compelling. Do as I say now, because I am your parent. When you are older, you will understand and appreciate what I am telling you to do right now.

III. Work. Israel does get older, and needs to understand. What we need to grasp, however, is not the concept of rest, but rather of work! There is an old saying that work is the activity you are engaged in when you would rather be doing something else. There are therefore at least two types of work: that which is ultimately oppressive (when you would really rather be doing something else), and that which is ultimately fulfilling (and to think they actually pay me to do this!). The two often intermix. We alternately-and sometimes concurrently-feel oppressed and fulfilled by the tasks that define our work.

For the most part, work is oppressive. Throughout history, labor has been arduous, physically demanding, highly repetitive and mind-numbing. Nothing could be more pleasurable, more liberating, than to be relieved of such work.

At the same time, this work can oppress in other ways. It can consume us, becoming the very definition of our existence. We are what we do! It can become insistent. The work must be done. The cows have to be milked. The inventory must be finished. Sure, you can walk away, relieved from the physical effort and mental anguish that you are put through by your tasks, but like a siren the tasks keep calling: You cannot walk away! I need you! And it feels so good, through the pain and the drudgery, to be needed!

In order to be liberated from the oppression of work, it is not enough merely to be permitted to refrain from work; we must also be assured that it is all right-that the world as we know it will not disintegrate-if we actually turn our back on the tasks that call out to us. In the former, the Master is relieving us of the external compulsion, the whip of the taskmaster. In the latter, we are also being cured of an internal compulsion, the addiction to the task itself. Six days the work will be done, but on the seventh is a Shabbat of complete restR30;

To find relief from physically demanding and/or spiritually draining toil is easy. Shabbat is not only a relief but also a release. To find relief from one’s own demons is much harder. We should note once again that the later biblical material-Amos, Jeremiah and Nehemiah in particular-do not challenge the people regarding physical work on Shabbat. It is well within our rights to imagine that they did not need to do so. They rather called into question commercial activity: buying and selling. We can imagine here that the people did not even think of it as ‘work.’ It was not leisure, either.

Let us picture an argument between Jeremiah and a merchant. Jeremiah declares: “do not bring in wares through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day and do no work on it.” The merchant protests: “Why do you claim that God makes such a demand. God commands that I refrain from work on Shabbat, and I am not working. I am not plowing, sowing or harvesting. I am not building or molding. I am not engaged in any labor, but I do have to make a living!”

“This is precisely the point I am making,” Jeremiah replies. “You are so deeply immersed in your work, that when you cease from the physical toil, you think that you are engaged in rest! Nothing good will come of you or the people if you do not free yourself from this illusion.”

The conversation might continue, but I think the discussion has ended. Maybe the merchant sees Jeremiah’s point, but probably not. The merchant’s position is fundamentally analogous to our situation today. Virtually all of us are engaged in work that is neither physically exhausting nor intellectually numbing. We are not out on the farm or in a factory assembly line, or hunched over a table sewing clothing or mending shoes. Although our jobs are occasionally monotonous, dull, anxiety-provoking, or even somewhat oppressive, they generally reflect just what we would like to do. The commandment to refrain from work on Shabbat no longer appears to us to be a release, but rather has become a restriction, a form of oppression in and of itself. We simply cannot feel-either in our minds or our souls-the liberation of Shabbat.

From Slavery to Freedom

Shabbat is first mentioned in the Creation story of Genesis, but it is not revealed to Israel until they are in the wilderness and are harvesting the manna. As a ritual observance, Shabbat is therefore preceded by Pesach, the preparations the Israelites had to undergo in order to withstand the final plague. The ritual is an elaborate ceremony of selecting a lamb on one particular date, segregating it from the flock for a few days, then slaughtering it, placing blood on the lintel of the house, roasting-but not boiling!-the meat, eating, and then burying the remains.

We read about the ritual today with detached bemusement. If someone came up to you or me and said you must engage in this procedure (or something similar), we would probably laugh them off. Somehow, we think that ancient people were more accepting of being placed under such demands. Let me suggest that this is not the case. (I will concede that I do not know for sure, but if the sacred literature has a timeless quality, as I have been contending all along, then it is very valuable to imagine that the ancient Israelites had pretty much the same attitude toward inexplicable demands as we do.) So, thinking about ourselves today, is there any reasonable circumstance that might make us engage in this ritual?

How about if our condition was so desperate and oppressive, and we had been given evidence that there is indeed a force out there that has the power to alleviate our pain, but wants us to do this ‘mumbo-jumbo’ first? I would guess that most of us might conclude, what have we got to lose? Such was the case. The Israelites were reeling from the pain of slavery. They had seen evidence in the plagues that had already occurred-plagues that did not affect them as much as the Egyptians-that something was out there that could free them. What did they have to lose?

The text and the tradition suggest that the Israelites endured many hundred of years of slavery before they were liberated. Why did God delay so long in coming to their rescue? The text hints, and the rabbis explain, that for a long time the Israelites simply became inured to their servitude. They did not see the oppressiveness of their situation. They were so deeply embedded in their labor, they were not even aware of the possibility of liberation. The pressure then grew too great. They cried out in their pain. God took note, and then opened their awareness even further to the idea of freedom. The ritual of the slaughtering of the lamb, for all its strangeness, came easily when there was a chance (How good? How slight? Does it make a difference?) for liberation.

All of this is given us in the narrative of the exodus from Egypt, before we are introduced to the practice of Shabbat. The parallel should not be lost. Shabbat is a form of liberation. This, after all, is the way the Torah ultimately presents its observance to us in its deuteronomic restatement of the Decalogue. Liberation, however, makes no sense if you are not aware that you are being oppressed. The blessing of Shabbat rest is thoroughly lost when one is not aware of the curse of work.

The Torah’s presentation of Shabbat attempts to deal with this problem. Just as we eat the matzah, so that we should know the taste of freedom, before we eat the maror of slavery, we need to know the liberation brought about by Shabbat rest before we recognize the oppression of work. Thus, the text begins with the commandment to observe Shabbat as something enjoined by God: just do it! The Torah then hopes that we will understand that Shabbat is kept not merely for the sake of God, but also for our own sake.

Shabbat Kodesh

The Torah’s message, I think, is clear. Shabbat begins in obedience and ends in liberation. Liberation, further, is connected to celebration. Shabbat as an occasion for festivity is indicated in the passages in Leviticus and Numbers, where the focus is not specifically on rest but rather on the offerings made to God. The prophet known as the second Isaiah specifically connects liberation and celebration. In an oft-quoted passage from Chapter 58 (verses 13-14), we read the liberation theme: “If you refrain from trampling shabbat, from pursuing your affairs on My holy dayR30;and not go your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains.” In the midst, there is the celebration: “If you call shabbath ‘delight,’ if you call the Eternal’s holy day ‘honored,’R30; Then you can seek the favor of the Eternal. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father JacobR30;”

This, I believe is the lesson of the Torah, as explicated in its passages and amplified by the prophets. I want to raise the question of how we may absorb this lesson today, but before doing so, we should take a look at the post-biblical sources. After all, when we think about Shabbat observance in its most traditional sense, it is not the Torah or Bible that is brought to bear. We know longer offer sacrifices, but light candles, raise a cup of wine in a kiddush, and break Hallah. Further, our sense of what is and is not work is drawn from the post-biblical sources.

The tractate Shabbat is one of the longer segments of the Mishna (the early third-century C.E. compilation of the Oral Torah), and forms a comprehensive rabbinic vision on the day. Here (in Chapter 2), one finds the pharisaic innovation of kindling lights for Shabbat. Here, as well, one finds a detailed list of prohibited work. Curiously, this list (described in the text as “forty minus one principal categories”) does not appear until Chapter 7.

The list is intriguing, and provides the foundation for all subsequent rabbinic discussion as to what is or is not ‘work’ on Shabbat. One insightful student of rabbinic literature takes issue with the conventional contention, as elaborated in the Talmud, that the list was generated by those tasks required to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary carried by the Israelites through the wilderness. He noted that the prohibitions have to do with activities concerned with food, clothing and shelter: the basic material elements of living. He concludes that the rabbis wanted Jews to refrain, not from holy work as implied by the mishkan, but rather from mundane work on Shabbat.

I think this is a key element about the Sages’ attitude toward Shabbat. The tractate on Shabbat, and its companion tractate, ‘Eruvim, which deals with Shabbat and festival boundaries, are filled with the minutiae of permitted and prohibited tasks, and yet virtually none of it has anything to do with what could reasonably be called ‘work.’ Shabbat in rabbinic eyes is not so much about avoiding work as it is about avoiding the mundane. The critical and overriding issue is that Shabbat is holy!

Most of the dictates in the Mishna are obscure. One scholar has suggested that many of its regulations arise from the Sages’ prayer and hope for the imminent rebuilding of the Temple, and therefore reflect a particular image of a restored normative Jewish life in the land of Israel, with Jerusalem at the center. As one moves from Mishna to Talmud, a more recognizable practice emerges, but the overriding emphasis on the holiness of Shabbat is preserved. Let me give two examples from the beginning and the end of the day.

Shabbat Candles. A central point of contention between the Pharisees and Sadducees in the century before the Christian Era, had been over the lighting of lights in order to usher in the Shabbat. Sadducees opposed the use of fire under any circumstance. Pharisees agreed that a fire could not be lit, but insisted that lights be kindled at the onset of the seventh day-just before sunset-and permitted to remain lit into the evening. They even reinforced the practice by pronouncing a blessing that said the lighting was a response to God’s own commandment.

One might assume that this insistence on providing light for the eve of Shabbat was born out of practicality. Why should Shabbat, of all days, be the only one that had to be entered in cold and darkness, the principal purposes for which a fire is lit? Yet, the Sages had also argued that a fire in a stove or fireplace lit before sundown on Friday, may continue to burn. The lights that are blessed at the beginning of the day were not for light and heat. They are solely and exclusively the light of Shabbat itself. Warmth and illumination are transformed into mitzvah and blessing.

The Third Meal. Jews are supposed to have three meals on Shabbat: one on Friday night (usually after the evening service), a second midday on Saturday, following the morning worship, and a final meal as the sun sets on the day. We contemporary middle-class Jews might take three meals-a-day for granted, but throughout most of Jewish history, food was not necessarily so plentiful or available. One might literally have to fast during the week in order to make sure that one could fulfill the obligation of three meals on Shabbat.

Tradition mandates that the Friday evening and Saturday midday meals be feasts. Jews should eat their fill, and no one should rise from the table hungry. The practical result is that, by the time one sits down for the third meal, you no longer feel much need to eat. Food usually two serves two related purposes: it slakes hunger and provides vital sustenance. At the Shabbat’s third meal [se’udat shlishit], food itself loses its normal function, and eating is solely for the sake of God. Sustenance and freedom from hunger are transformed into mitzvah and blessing.

The Shabbat of the Torah meditates on liberation from work. The Shabbat of the rabbis is an entry into holiness. What is the Shabbat of the modern Jew?

What Do We Want?

The best known effort of articulating a compelling understanding of Shabbat for the modern individual is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Shabbat, which he subtitled “Its Meaning for Modern Man.” In the first chapter, Heschel set out his thesis expressed in the title, A Palace in Time. Shabbat, Heschel argued, forms a divine palace, not of stones and walls, but rather carved out of time itself. From sundown on the seventh day until sundown the next night, one is in a ‘place’ of special, direct and holy relationship to God.

You can see that Heschel has brought the rabbis’ message into modern terms. The Mishna might have imagined a time in which the Temple in Jerusalem would be restored, but the later Sages recognized that the rebuilding of God’s palace in a holy location in Zion had been indefinitely delayed. That feeling of being in the divine presence was therefore transferred from place to time. The holiness of Shabbat needed to be protected and preserved every bit as much as the holy objects of the Temple required utmost care. In the days of the Temple, every Jewish heart and soul pointed toward Jerusalem. In these days, every soul points toward Shabbat. Thus Heschel noted right from the onset that the seventh day did not so much serve as a release from the labors of the first six days, as the six days served as a prologue to the spiritual tranquility of the seventh.

What was Heschel trying to do? We can see that he was moving the focus of Shabbat away from the issue of work and rest, and toward using the day to reinforce a relationship with God. Not only is this part and parcel of his overall approach to Jewish life and thought, but it also reflects what he considered necessary to preserve Shabbat practice. Modernity had radically altered the nature of work. Technological development, particularly the widespread availability of the automobile and electric devises, has thoroughly blurred the distinctions between the traditional prohibitions on Shabbat and modern leisure activity. How could a family drive in the country on a Saturday afternoon be a violation of Shabbat?

It is undeniable that Shabbat can and ought to represent an opportunity to reach out for holiness in a God-starved world. Emotionally and practically, however, the concept of the ‘palace in time’ tends to fail. Imagine for a moment actually having the chance to enter Solomon’s Temple. I know I, and I believe you would too, find it to be a powerful spiritual experience; we would quite literally feel as if we were standing before God. I have no doubt of it, as the occasion would combine both our expectations and the reinforcing reality of a physical structure for which every stone, every curtain, every object points to the divine presence. Our attitude and the place would create the holiness of the moment-but for how long? I sense that it would not be indefinitely. My spirituality is reasonably acute, but my stamina is not all that great. At some point in time, the kodesh would turn to hol [the holiness would become profane], and lest I disturb the sanctity of the space, I would leave.

Note that you and I can leave a space. We cannot however leave a portion of time. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, not only are we in the holy palace that is Shabbat, we are imprisoned in it! Of course, as long as we maintain the attitude of being in God’s presence, as long as we feel the awe and splendor of the divine palace, we will not feel the restraint of time. Quite the opposite! We will wish that the time be extended. This expectation might be laudable, and it is possible with sufficient practice (with ‘spiritual calisthenics’), we could develop an ability to remain in the ‘palace in time’ without a feeling of restraint for the entire Shabbat. It is nice, but is it necessary?

Shabbat is holy, yes, but I do not think it is all about holiness. Holiness was, after all, the focus primarily for the classic Sages. The Bible, as we have seen, is more concerned about liberation. Shabbat is the time when we are given permission-give ourselves permission!-to withdraw from the demands of work. This element is the aspect of Shabbat where we are not drawn up, or outward, toward the divine, but rather inward toward ourselves.

What do we want from Shabbat? I maintain that there are three interrelated wishes. I have already mentioned all of them. First, we want an opportunity to feel closer to the divine. Shabbat Kodesh. The grammar of this expression is instructive. Kodesh is not the adjective (‘holy’) modifying Shabbat, but rather another noun (‘holiness’). Shabbat is not ‘holy,’ but rather contains ‘holiness.’ By entering into the day of Shabbat, we do truly enter into a palace. We are given an opportunity to feel closer to God. Perhaps, we cannot sustain it for the whole day, but if there is any time during the week in which our spiritual needs can be filled, it is Shabbat.

Second, we need to get away from work. As I have noted, this is easier said than done. Our work has penetrated into us. It is not simply a matter of going to the office. Even when we are at home, watching television, playing with the kids, going out with friends, some piece of the work-what has been left undone, what there is left to do-sticks with us, weighs down upon us. Shabbat gives us a chance to wriggle free. It is the opportunity presented to us once each week to be something other than a worker, to be a cog in the machinery of Creation. Shabbat Shalom. The expression is parallel to Shabbat Kodesh. Shalom is also a noun, a quality contained with Shabbat. Its multilevel meaning connotes ‘wholeness,’ the personal integrity of being completely oneself and not ‘owned’ by another person or institution; of ‘well-being,’ the satisfaction that is drawn from achieving such wholeness; and therefore ‘peace.’

The third wish is that we continue to be Jews. This brings us back to the beginning: As Israel has kept Shabbat, so has Shabbat preserved Israel. The idea of Shabbat is paradoxical. Its themes are holiness and liberation, both universal concepts that could and should be the objects of desire of all humanity. And yet, Shabbat is uniquely Jewish! Consider the institution of the shabbos goy. A non-Jew can be employed to perform activities on Shabbat, particularly maintain fires for heating, that Jews are constrained from doing. Inherent in this notion is that it is perfectly all right for non-Jews to ignore Shabbat. But if Shabbat is a creation of God that embodies qualities beneficial to all humankind, why should Gentiles be exempt from its observance? Why is it not part of the Noahide Laws that Jewish thought considered as extending to everyone?

Let me suggest that holiness and liberation are indeed qualities desired by all peoples, but only Israel strives for them through the idea of Shabbat. Holiness, liberation and many other universal values can be achieved through a variety of means. Shabbat contains them for Jews specifically and uniquely because they are presented to Israel within the context of its own history and experience. That experience is having been slaves in Egypt, and having been set free.

Return to the Torah. Rest and holiness are there from the beginning: GodR30; ceased from work on the seventh day, and blessed the day. These values, residing in the divine will, are then introduced to Israel immediately following their liberation from Egyptian bondage. The people have known slavery and oppression, and now know what it means to be free. First, it is the ‘negative’ freedom, the sheer release from servitude. In time-the first step is Sinai-they will also understand ‘positive’ freedom, the opportunity to be more than who they are, to reach for transcendence, to become holy.

I cannot emphasize this point more. Values are fragile, and are made all the more fragile when they remain in the abstract. They are only platitudes; pious hopes easily expressed but rarely actually acted upon. So, we crave liberation, but liberation from what? We desire holiness, but holiness in what? (In this case, the ‘we’ is not just Jews, but humanity. Clearly, it is not just Israel that seeks holiness and freedom.) The abstract, in order to achieve some level of practical reality, must be rooted in the concrete. The value must be more than merely repeated; it must be experienced so that it does indeed become real! Shabbat is therefore Israel’s exclusive vehicle for achieving these values, because the Exodus is Israel’s exclusive experience.

Let me return to Christianity again. Christian Scripture includes the Hebrew Bible, and therefore the narrative of the Exodus and of the revelation of Sinai are every bit as much part of their tradition. For Christians, however, these are stories to be pondered and taught. For Jews, they are our stories to be relived. Liberation from Egypt is a Christian parable, but not a Christian experience. Shabbat, for Christians, is not, nor can it be, a day that expresses such liberation. Thus, in the story of gathering grain on the seventh day, repeated in the Books of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Christianity effectively eliminates Shabbat. Liberation and holiness are certainly fundamental values in Christianity. They simply must be acquired through some means other than Shabbat.

Jews observe Shabbat in order to experience a little bit of holiness, in order to get away from the work that so defines and dominates our lives, and, perhaps at the root of it all, to a Jew.

Making Shabbat

The analysis is over; we have meditated long enough. It is all right to think about Shabbat, but now we must also do something about it. In the language of our Eastern European grandparents, we must talk about making Shabbos.

Making! This is actually a corruption of the Yiddish-German machen, ‘to do.’ One “does Shabbat.” Whether we ‘make’ or ‘do,’ however, we are not quite talking about ‘keeping’ or ‘observing.’ The language is constructive, rather than responsive. Shabbat is an activity of our own making, as long we understand that the word ‘our’ refers to the historic Jewish community reaching back to biblical Israel. We do not-in another traditional expression-“make Shabbos for ourselves.”

So, how do we construct the activity we call Shabbat? All the materials are at our disposal. There are the rituals: candles, wine, hallah [bread], blessing the children, worship, study, and havdala-the ceremony of concluding Shabbat-at the end of the day. And there is rest, the cessation from everyday work. These are the ingredients. Making Shabbat is the amounts and the ways we combine them together, and this effort comes, I believe, from just what sort of Shabbat we wish to make.

A rabbinic colleague once told me that if you have a particular vision, creating the program to approach that vision pretty much automatically follows. In the case of Shabbat, I would suggest that the vision is created by how you answer these questions:

1. What does it mean to you to be a Jew? How deeply are you engaged in an identity that not only carries an association with a certain people (who may or may not engage in certain ‘Jewish’ acts) today, but also with a history and heritage that goes back to our origins.

Think about it this way. If you are American, you have little trouble considering George Washington as ‘the father of our country,’ or of forming an opinion over why the Civil War was fought, and whether your side won. This is, after all, your country and your history, even though it is quite probable that your family was nowhere near these shores at the time of the American Revolution or the Civil War. Being an American makes the arguments of Jefferson and Hamilton over the meaning and purpose of the U.S. Constitution a matter of personal importance.

And so it is with being a Jew, whether you think you can track your ancestry back to Abraham, or whether you are a more recent arrival into the fold of the people. The Nazi Holocaust and expulsion from Spain, the writing of the Talmud and the Bar Kokhba revolt, Solomon’s Temple, standing at the base of Sinai and suffering under the Egyptian taskmaster’s whip; they are all your history.

2. How much do you want to rest? Really rest! That is, not just giving one’s fingers a rest from the keyboard, or putting down the phone, or staying away from the office, classroom, clinic, or wherever it is that you get paid to be! How much do you actually want to get away from that which you call work?

3. Finally, how close do wish to be to God? This is probably the most elusive question, and I do not want to elaborate too much beyond asking you to ask this question for yourself. For me, the question mostly has to do with how far I wish to go to get away from ‘business as usual.’ This is not just the business in which I engage as a career, but also the business of everyday, banal life. How much do I want to transcend the ordinary.

Work through answers to these questions, and you will know how to make the Shabbat you wish (need) to keep.

Final Word: Shabbat and Discontent

Let us return for a moment, once more, to the first commandment in Torah requiring us to observe Shabbat. It is the one found in the Decalogue: “Remember the sabbath day in order to keep it holy.” When I first discussed it above, I suggested that we were expected to acquire God’s memory. We can see at this point, however, that ‘remember’ also refers to our memory, or more specifically, our Jewish memory.

Shabbat comes down to the three interrelated themes of Liberation, Holiness, and Jewish identity. I think I have made the connections among the three reasonably clear. Interrelated, yes, but not without tension! The elements each move you in different directions. Jewish identity pushes you into a community; holiness toward God; and liberation toward yourself.

If we take Shabbat seriously-truly seriously-we discover that we want to move in three directions at once. Of course, we can solve the problem by simply ignoring, or at least repressing, one these fundamental themes. We can strive for holiness in Shabbat by creating a highly restrictive and programmed form of observance upon ourselves; an approach to God through greater denial of liberation to ourselves. Or we can enjoy the fruits of our personal freedom by choosing to do whatever we wish on Friday night and Saturday, substantially independent from either God or the Jewish people. There are many strategies that Jews employ, usually involving denial of one of the gifts that Shabbat offers. We want to move in three directions at once, and we cannot. Shabbat has its discontents because Shabbat-the ideal of Shabbat-is discontent itself.

Must this be the case? I do not think it is necessarily so. The movements toward God, community and oneself are not mutually contradictory. One can think of them as being the x, y and z-axes on a three-dimensional graph.

Can the true fundamental purpose of Shabbat be fulfilled? Perhaps, but hardly easily, and made all the more difficult by a world that challenges us at every step: We find it hard to assert our Jewishness in a society that treats Jews with either hostility or indifference. We struggle with reaching out to a God who is so elusive in our overwhelmingly secular culture. We struggle even more with the concept of liberation in lives that seem so free, and yet weighed down so heavily with responsibility at the same time.

It is all found in our Shabbat: connection and separation, possibility and stark reality, God’s presence and our all-too prosaic lives. Sweetness and discontent. Just as we somehow perceive a God who remains tantalizingly just beyond the borders of our conscious perception, Shabbat presents us with visions that are tantalizingly just beyond our practical existence. Shabbat is both Shalom and discontent.

The possibility of a real Shabbat remains, and hence the prayer, one of the most poignant in all our liturgy, recited following each meal on that day: May the Merciful One bless (us) with a Shabbat that never ends, and with it the soul-satisfying rest for all time.