The curious verb nafash shows up only three times in the whole Hebrew Bible. The first occurrence comes in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Laws):
Six days you shall make your makings, and on the seventh day you shall shavat, in order that your ox and your donkey will rest in tranquility, veyinafeish, the son of your slave-woman and the resident foreigner. (Exodus 23:12)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = desist, cease, stop an activity. (From the same root as shabbat = day of stopping, not-doing.)
veyinafeish (וְיִּנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh his soul, recovered himself, and reanimate himself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)
Hebrew has several words for “soul”; nefesh means the soul at the level that animates the body. It also means an individual person, or an inclination or appetite. The corresponding verb nafash implies resting to recover one’s personal energy and self-direction.
This definition certainly applies to the only use of the verb nafash in the Hebrew Bible excluding the book of Exodus. In the second book of Samuel/Shmuel, King David and his men have endured a long march while Shimi, a member of Saul’s clan, walked beside them hurling insults, dirt clods, and stones. Finally they leave Shimi behind, and camp at the Jordan.
The king, and all the people who were with him, arrived exhausted; and he veyinafeish there. (2 Samuel 16:14)
King David and his men are used to marching; they are not exhausted physically, but their souls are exhausted by enduring the abuse. They rest to recover their animation and their inner selves.
The drudgery and daily misfortunes of life can wear down anyone’s soul at the nefesh level. So Mishpatim orders us to share our shabbat with humans less fortunate than we are—including those who work for us, or who are alienated in our society—get one day a week to refresh their energy and recover their individual selves.
The two elements in this shabbat process are desisting from productive work, and refreshing the spirit. The Hebrew Bible specifically prohibits lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering food or wood (Exodus 16:23-30, Numbers 16:32-36), carrying burdens outside (Jeremiah 17:21), treading in a winepress (Nehemiah 13:15), and selling or buying food (Nehemiah 13:15-18). Apparently the Israelites needed extra reminders not to do any work related to getting food to the table.
Other activities prohibited on shabbat can be inferred, but are not actually stated in the bible. Later, the Talmud multiplied rules about what a Jew cannot do on shabbat. The 312-page Talmud tractate Shabbat discusses every finicky prohibition the rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. could imagine. Although many orthodox Jews today observe shabbat according to strict and complex rules that evolved from the Talmud, I know that if I tried to imitate them, I would spend the whole day worrying. My anxiety and resentment would make shabbat a day to dread, and I would look forward to the six weekdays when I could relax and refresh my soul!
Fortunately, the Torah itself offers a more attractive and interesting view of Shabbat for unorthodox people like me. Desisting from creative work is connected with recovering the soul in a passage from the upcoming portion of Exodus called Ki Tisa. (It is also part of the Shabbat liturgy.)
The children of Israel shall observe the shabbat, to make the shabbat for their generations a covenant for all time. Between Me and the children of Israel it will be a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day (God) shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)
vayinafash וַיִּנָּפַשׁ)) = and he refreshed his soul, recovered himself, reanimated himself. (Also from the same root as nefesh.)
I am awed by this portrayal of a god that changes through time, breathing life into the universe and then stopping to catch its breath and recover the divine soul. That is how I experience life, the universe, and everything—not as a static abstraction, but as the changing rhythmic flow of heartbeats, breaths, lifespans, seasons.
The Torah says that in order to be holy to God, we humans must add another rhythm to our lives: a seven-day cycle of work and rest, creative production and cessation. For six days we may pour out our energy and creativity into productive work, but on the seventh day we desist from creative work to re-center and re-animate our inner selves.
But wait a minute! I used to need a day off from my bookkeeping job to recover my self. But a lot of the creative work I do now—including writing this blog—re-energizes me. When I finish writing an essay or a story, I feel joy, and a sense of purpose, and the re-centering that comes from returning to my own soul. Why should I deprive myself of creative work once a week?
One answer is that I cannot keep creating endlessly without pause. Even God, in the story of creation that opens the book of Genesis/Bereishit, divides the job into six separate days, completes each day of creation before starting the next, and then takes a break at the end. I need to finish a piece of work and then stop to pay attention to where I am and where God is. I can believe that I need not only those moments of stopping every day, but also a whole day of stoppage every week. a whole day to reconnect with myself and the holy.
Alas, I still have not developed a steady practice for spending the day of shabbat in tranquility, restoring my soul. Merely refraining from certain activities doesn’t do it for me. Joining my congregation in prayer is uplifting, and following or leading Shabbat services does remind me of what to focus on. Yet all too often, the long drive and the personal interactions disturb my ability to focus on anything.
Nevertheless, I have not given up on establishing a shabbat practice. Any suggestions, readers?