Shaya Cohen -


Explaining Shabbos

Sometimes ideas do not “sell” because they are not very good. But sometimes they do not sell because they are poorly marketed. I would go so far as to suggest that even the foundational text of Western Civilization, the Torah, has not been broadly persuasive. As I have written elsewhere, G-d seems to delegate to mankind, as His junior partners, the task of making sense of the text.

Take the Shabbos (Sabbath). Observing the Shabbos is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us to keep it, “because G-d rested on the seventh day,” but to most people, “Do it because G-d did it, and He commands you to do it as well,” has been, based on the breadth and depth of Shabbos observance, a failure.

So it is not surprising that most people do not observe a Shabbos Day, at least not in the sense of careful observation like Orthodox Jews do. Indeed, the day appears to most people to be a nice idea, perhaps the day when one goes to church, but otherwise not truly a day of rest as the Torah describes, a day with specific prohibitions that lock out so much that we are commanded to do the rest of the week (“six days you shall work”).

I would argue that the Shabbos is generally observed only in the breach (even by most Jews) because the Shabbos has not been effectively explained.

So: why does the Shabbos matter? What is it really about? Is there deeper value than merely “G-d told us to?” or the more pragmatic (albeit accurate) observations that the Shabbos day recharges our proverbial batteries, is good for our families, reduces our burnout rate, etc?

I think there is. And I think the text shows us the way to this understanding. To see it, we have to read the words carefully. Here is an example of the word for Shabbos used:

So long as the earth endures / Seedtime and harvest / Cold and heat / Summer and winter / Day and night / Shall not rest [Shabbos]. (Gen. 8:22)

Nature runs on its own periodic systems, unchanging, with no concessions to anything else. Nature does not stop. Nature simply is. Shabbos is antithetical to nature!

Perhaps the Torah tells us that the world will never have a Shabbos so that we had better understand what the Shabbos means: it means stepping away from the physical world, from the world that, by itself, never rests. We are commanded to keep the Shabbos so that we realize that we are only partially in the world, only partially animals. We should never be confused enough to think that our person, our body, is the sum of who we are in life.

Similarly, we are told that G-d kept the Shabbos because we need to know that G-d is also not defined by the sum of His works. G-d created nature, just as we may write an essay or make dinner, but we are not defined solely by our works. On the seventh day, G-d rested from his work. And in so doing, He invested that Shabbos day with the absence of the physical; spirituality pours in to fill what would otherwise be a void.

Shabbos, then, is time carved out of time. The world goes on, but we pause our work, our labor frozen in amber while nature carries on without us. And while we are paused, we have an opportunity to value all the things that are not physically measurable: we think of love, and Torah; we sing songs and consider the nature of ideas and what it means to choose to connect with G-d, to seek relationships instead of merely transactions.

So keeping the Shabbos, the Torah tells us, is another way of injecting holiness into the world, building a bridge between the physical world upon which our bodies subsist, and the spiritual world that feeds our souls, because “man does not live on bread alone.” (Deut. 8:3)

This understanding in turn helps explain the Sabbatical year for the land. This year is the year where, in Israel, no active working of the land is allowed. The Torah tells us that taking the year off is a Shabbos for G-d, and it makes and keeps the land holy. We rest the land to make it holy to remind us that there is more to the world than the things we can perceive and measure, there is more than mere matter and energy. Remembering to rest every seven years when working the land, is a way to remember to look up instead of down, to remember that just because we labor away at the earth, there is always something above us, something that, if we strive, is just close enough to grasp with our minds and hearts.

The text similarly suggests that when we observe the Sabbatical year for agriculture, then we are also reminding the earth that it, too, is more than its physical sum. The land of Israel is meant to be holy, but it is our Sabbatical inaction that helps make it so! Holiness, ever since G-d made that first sabbath holy, has to have time set aside for extra-physical existence. Our job as Jews is to remind the world that there is always something higher, of greater purpose and meaning for each and every one of us, a lofty goal even for the natural world. There is a world beyond what we can see and touch and feel.

Sabbath: opportunity to connect to the world that is above nature.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. In the text, “Shabbos of Shabboses” is more important than that first Shabbos, when G-d rested (it is linguistically similar to “the Holy of Holies”). (Shabbos of Shabboses is rare in the text: it twice describes a regular Shabbos, twice for Yom Kippur, and once for the Sabbatical year, the year we do not work the earth.) When we observe the Shabbos, it makes the day even more holy than G-d can make it by Himself. Which, obviously, is saying something.

Comments are welcome!

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