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Week of March 1

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35

Shabbat: Positives and Negatives

D'var Torah by Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus

The last instruction that Moses receives on Mount Sinai, before God gives him the inscribed tablets, before the incident of the Golden Calf, is the reminder about the importance of the sabbath. Like the story of Creation, which culminates in the day of rest, so the blueprint for the creation of the Tabernacle, with all its equipment and personnel and procedures, culminates in the instruction that no work should be done on the sabbath day. The Tabernacle is to be a mini-universe, so its creation, too, must cease on the seventh day.

Just in case someone might think that the sacred work of creating the Tabernacle, a place for God to dwell, would override the prohibition of work on Shabbat, this passage is very clear, and placed in context to dispel such a misconception. We read:

And the Eternal One said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Eternal have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:12-15)

This is not a warm and fuzzy picture of Shabbat as an uplifting experience. This is a direct order to cease labor, with dire consequences indicated for those who disobey. In the modern Jewish world, we tend to stress the positive aspects of Shabbat observance and ignore the Torah's presentation of profaning the sabbath as a capital crime. But even for liberal Jews, the juxtaposition of the construction of the Tabernacle with the instructions for Shabbat reminds us that, for example, fundraising for our synagogues is not an appropriate Shabbat activity.

The more familiar passage about Shabbat is found in the following verses:

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)

We know this passage by the first word: v'shamru. We sing or recite it in our Shabbat services and as a preface to the Shabbat morning Kiddush. The first sentence is somewhat redundant: it tells us both to keep (v'shamru) and to observe (la-asot) the sabbath. Rabbi S. A. Taub of Modzhitz(1) taught:

Why is it stated twice? One possible answer is found in the Gemara (Shabbat 118b), which reads, "If only Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to their laws, they would be redeemed in an instant." Why, specifically, two Shabbatot? Perhaps because there are two dimensions to Shabbat. One mode is sitting still and not doing anything, keeping the word, the conduct, and the like. The other mode is getting up and doing something, enjoying Shabbat, learning Torah and the like. . . . For this reason we read in Exodus: "And they shall keep the Shabbat," which implies sitting still and not doing anything; and "to do the Shabbat," which implies getting up and doing something. Only then will the Shabbat they attain be "throughout their generations, an eternal covenant." For at last the children of Israel, having earned a time of unending Shabbat, will be "redeemed in an instant."

Again we see the vocabulary of the Torah being carefully analyzed to harvest meaning from every single word. The Rabbi of Modzhitz interprets la-asot, "to make," as indicative of the positive "mode" or aspects of Shabbat, the actions that one should do to make Shabbat different and meaningful. Another interpretation sees the opposite. Commenting on the fact that Moses himself is to tell the people about Shabbat (Exodus 31:12-13, "And the Eternal One said to Moses: [You!] Speak to the Israelite people . . . "), Nehama Leibowitz(2) writes:

Now the text states ve-atta dabber: you--yourself--who was the one to convey to the Israelites the command to bring contributions to the Tabernacle and build it, you yourself who kept on instructing to "make" this and to "make" that, you are the one to tell them restrict that "making" and stop work when the Sabbath comes along. . . .

One "making" overrides all the other makings involved in the construction of the Tabernacle (80 in all, in the form of ve-'asita orta'aseh) beginning with "let them make me a sanctuary" (25:8). The threefold mention of "doing work" (ha-'oseh vah melakhah, ya'aseh melakhah, ha-'oseh melakhah) (31:14-15) is immediately followed by the contrastive la'asot et ha-shabbat "to make the Sabbath." This "making" transcends all these other kinds of "making."

We learn here that "making Shabbat" is the opposite of making anything else. It is a cessation from creative labor that allows us to stop and, like God after six days of Creation, to be refreshed. This is best expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his beautiful book, The Sabbath (3):

The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

1. Cited in Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky, Sparks Beneath the Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104

2. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot [Jerusalem,The World Zionist Organization Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1981], pp. 538-539

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1951], 1996), p. 10; quoted in the Shabbat Morning Service II in Mishkan T'filah, p. 329

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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