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The Essence of Shabbos

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May 13, 2011

The last chapter in this week’s Torah portion begins on a somewhat surprising note as the pesukim mention the prohibition of idolatry, the requirement to venerate the Beis Ha-Mikdash, and “ve’es Shabsosai tishmoru,” the obligation to observe Shabbos (Va’yikra 26:1-2). These are all important laws and values but, nevertheless, their presentation presents us with an obvious difficulty: why are they mentioned here? What connection do these ideas have with the rest of Parshas Behar? Moreover, compounding the difficulty, all of these laws have already been mentioned in the Torah, most recently in Parshas Kedsohim (ch. 19), so why repeat them now? 

Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that these pesukim actually refer to a specific situation that we read about in the preceding chapter, of a Jew who was compelled by financial difficulty to sell himself into the service of a non-Jew. Given the inevitable religious challenges that such a reality would present, the Torah now warns the servant – specifically – not to forsake his tradition despite his current residence in a foreign environment. Despite the temptations and despite the hardships, he must fastidiously avoid imitating the ritual and religious practices of his master. 

But, of course, this explanation just begs the question: why, according to Rashi, did the Torah specify these particular mitzvos when clearly the message of loyalty to Judaism is all embracing?  

The Seforno offers an important – albeit partial – explanation that focuses specifically on the example of Shabbos. He explains that a Jew in servitude might have thought that Shabbos is no longer relevant to him given that it is focused on rest and freedom from the shackles of the work week. The Jewish servant, under these circumstances, might conclude that Shabbos isn’t relevant when he is already denied his freedom. The Torah therefore reminds him that despite his rationalization he too must continue observing Shabbos to the best of his ability.  

The question is, however, why should this be so; isn’t the Jewish slave’s initial assumption correct? What meaning can Shabbos have for a person in this situation? Upon reflection it seems clear that the servant’s fundamental mistake lies in his associating Shabbos exclusively with menuchah, physical rest. In fact, many of us are prone to this same error when we translate Shabbos as the “Day of Rest.” It is that, of course, but it is also so much more.  

My teacher Rabbi Mayer Twersky has noted that the root of the Hebrew word for Shabbos (shin, bet, taf) is found in a number of other contexts (for example, Shemos 12:15 and Yehoshua 5:12) where it clearly doesn’t mean “rest.” Rather, a more precise translation, or explanation, is actually “cessation,” and the implication is that Shabbos is a day when we cease doing one thing – our mundane activities – and we commence with other, loftier, and more spiritual actions.  

It is therefore readily understandable that Shabbos remains obligatory even for a Jewish servant as it is the weekly nourishment for his soul which will, hopefully, keep him spiritually anchored and attuned. Despite his challenges – or perhaps because of them – the servant must try to connect with the deeper message of Shabbos, what the Seforno (Va’yikra 23:2) himself describes, in an earlier passage, as a charge that, “you should desist from your work and your preoccupation should be entirely for Hashem your God.”

The servant may not be able to commit his day “entirely” to Hashem but he must do as much as he can. 

The significance of the Seforno’s approach is that it goes beyond the specific, textual issue of understanding the pesukim about the servant and speaks to all of us about the broader and very relevant issue of the essence of Shabbos observance. Shabbos is intended to be a time when, freed from other distractions, we can focus on developing our relationship with Hashem. A good night’s sleep, delicious food, and quality family time are all wonderful benefits of the Shabbos, but they should not be confused with the essence of the day. As R. Twersky eloquently notes, “Too often we shortchange ourselves and view the Sabbath as a day of rest and relaxation rather than respite and redemption.” Shabbos affords us the opportunity of a 25 hour “island in time” where we can focus – without the Blackberry, Bluetooth, or other distractions – on matters of the spirit. It would be a real shame if we waste the chance. 

It has been more than one hundred years since Ahad Ha’am famously declared that, “more than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” He was right then and he remains correct now. And in light of the Seforno’s insight we can just add that the better we observe the Shabbos, embracing not only its rules but also its essence, the more the Shabbos will not only keep, but also inspire and uplift us.  

Have a wonderful Shabbos!


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