It’s Friday, I’ve had an exhausting week, and besides finally writing this blog and catching up on my work, I’m determined to clean the bathroom before sunset.
Any Jewish readers observe or try to observe Shabbat, Shabbes, the Sabbath, are smiling now. It sounds wonderful to make one day a week a holy day of rest. And the importance of keeping Shabbat comes up over and over again in the Torah, in the Talmud, and in the writings and talks of sages and rabbis for thousands of years, to this day. Yet observing Shabbat can be so hard … and not just because it takes some preparation every Friday. Even Jews committed to strict observance have to figure out how to carry out the letter of the law recorded in the Torah, which was written at a time when our lives today were unimaginable. Jews who want to carry out the spirit of the law of Shabbat observance, in addition or instead of the letter of the law, also have a lot of figuring out to do.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (When you lift up), begins with God’s final instructions to Moses before God hands over the first pair of stone tablets popularly known as the Ten Commandments. After God finishes telling Moses how to make the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will make God’s presence manifest, and all the sacred objects in it, God says:
And you, you speak to the children of Israel, saying: Nevertheless, guard my shabbatot, because that is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, in order to know that I, God, am making you holy. (Exodus/Shemot 31:13)
shabbatot (שַׁבָּתֹת) = sabbaths, stopping-days
In other words, Shabbat is even more important than creating the sanctuary. Every seventh day, the Israelites must stop doing the holy work God commanded, and do something different. And after the sanctuary is built, the descendants of the Israelites, every generation, including Jews in the 21st century, must stop and do something different on Shabbat. The Torah continues:
And you shall guard the shabbat because it is holy for you; whoever desecrates it will certainly die, for anyone who does melakhah on it, that soul shall be cut off from among its people. (Exodus 31:14)
melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.
What counts as melakhah? The Hebrew bible gives six concrete examples of activities forbidden on Shabbat: cooking manna (Exodus 16:23), lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering wood (Numbers 15:32), carrying burdens into Jerusalem or out of your house (Jeremiah 17:21-22), treading grapes for wine (Nehemiah 13:15), or buying and selling (Nehemiah 10:32).
From these examples, as well as from the multiple meanings of the word melakhah, and from lists of tasks necessary to build the sanctuary, Jewish commentary from the Talmud to today extrapolates so many different arguments about what you shouldn’t do on Shabbat that my head spins.
But desisting from certain kinds of work is not all it takes to observe Shabbat. This week’s Torah portion says that Shabbat is a sign that God is making us holy. When we stop and rest on the seventh day, what do we do to realize that holiness?
I found two good clues in the Torah. One comes from the book of Isaiah:
… turn back from stepping on Shabbat/ Doing whatever you want on My holy day/And instead call the Shabbat a delight/ The holy (day) of God an honor … (Isaiah 58:13)
Instead of stepping all over Shabbat by doing whatever you want, including melakhah, we should make Shabbat a delight and an honor to observe.
Another clue comes at the end of the warning about Shabbat in this week’s Torah portion:
Between Me and the children of Israel it is a sign forever, that for six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day It stopped and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash). (Exodus 31:17)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted. (From the same root as Shabbat)
vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself.
Here, God is refreshed by a day of rest. Earlier in the book of Exodus (Mishpatim, 23:12), Israelites are required to desist from work on Shabbat so that all of their dependents (by example, the son of a maidservant) and the strangers living among them could be refreshed.
So how can I observe Shabbat in a way that will result in my being refreshed, re-animated, re-ensouled? I confess that I am still trying to figure this out. (For example, singing prayers with my congregation re-animates my soul, but driving an hour to where we meet—and back—wears me out.)
I do know that my spirit is brighter when I don’t have to look at a dirty bathroom. So please excuse me now; Shabbat begins at sunset this evening, and Friday afternoon is all too short.