Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

“Hurry up and wait” describes a lot of life. Two weeks ago I was frantically getting ready to move my mother into assisted living. Now my effort to fulfill the Fifth Commandment and honor my mother is on hold until I get a moving date from the center—and wouldn’t you know it, she had another fall while she was alone in her house …

Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman, 1876-1943. What could be more absorbing?

I wish this period of waiting instead of doing labor were like the day of shabbat, the sabbath day of rest, but these days my soul is too heavy to rise to either refreshment or holiness. So this week I took my mind off my troubles by researching the commandment about shabbat. Here is a new post for this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil—and four other portions in the book of Exodus, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tisa, that include variations on the command to desist from labor on the seventh day.

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The first three of the Ten Commandments order us not to underestimate God.1 The last six are ethical precepts for human relations with other humans.2 In between, the fourth commandment combines holiness and ethics. It opens:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. (Exodus 20:8) 3

shabbat (שַׁבַּת) = sabbath, day of rest. (From the same root as shavat, שָׁבַת = cease, stop, desist; stop working.)

This command is followed by explanatory notes in the Torah portion Yitro. More details are added every time the observance of shabbat is commanded in the book of Exodus—from the first time, in the portion Beshallach, when the Israelites are collecting manna, to the sixth time, in this week’s portion, Vayakheil, after God has given Moses a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone.

1) Don’t move

Manna Raining from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Moses first mentions shabbat in the Torah portion Beshallach, when God provides manna for the hungry Israelites to gather up from the ground six, and only six, days a week. Moses says:

“See that God has given you the shabbat. Therefore on the sixth day [God] is giving you food for two days. Everyone in his place! No one go out from his spot on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:29—Beshallach)

This introduces shabbat as a day of rest, at least in terms of going out and gathering food.

2) Holy break

The next order regarding shabbat is the one in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. The full fourth commandment states:

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. Six days you may work and you may do all your labor. But the seventh day is a shabbat for God, your God; you must not do any labor, you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your immigrant within your gates. Because in six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and [God] took a break on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The emphasis in this commandment is on the holiness of shabbat. Since the day itself is holy, it must be set aside from mundane labor by all humans and animals in an Israelite’s household, and even by God.

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

Six days you may do your doings, but on the seventh day tishbot so that your ox and your donkey can take a break, veyinafeish, your slave and the immigrant. (Exodus 23:12)

tishbot (תּשְׁבֺּת) = you must cease, stop, stop working. (A form of the verb shavat.)

veyinafeish (וְיִנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh himself, reanimate himself, catch his breath. (From the same root as nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, breath, appetite, mood, animating soul.)

This time Moses, speaking for God, gives a reason why even slaves, immigrants, and beasts must be given a day off from work on shabbat: so that draft animals can rest their muscles, and human laborers can rest their souls, becoming refreshed and revitalized.

Providing a day of rest is an ethical mandate; the moral principle of kindness calls for helping others to have a better life, and the moral principle of fairness supports giving everyone a day off when the landowner has a day off. Shabbat is the opposite of Pharaoh’s unethical subjection of the Israelite slaves to unremitting labor.4

4) Be holy or die

The fourth command about shabbat appears in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, after God finishes telling Moses what the Israelites must make to set up the sanctuary and the priests of their new religion. God warns that all of this construction must pause on the day of shabbat.

Nevertheless, you must observe shabtotai, because it is a sign between me and you for your generations, for knowledge that I, God, have made you holy. And you must observe the shabbat because it is holy for you. Whoever profanes it must definitely be put to death, because whoever does labor on it, his life will be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:12-14)

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

This order not only reiterates that shabbat is holy, but adds that observing it is a reminder that the Israelite people themselves are holy, i.e. set aside for God.

In addition, profaning shabbat by doing labor on that day is such a serious transgression that God assigns it the death penalty.

This rule about observing shabbat is the source text for the Talmud’s list of 39 categories of labor forbidden on the seventh day. The rabbis assume that since God warns that the work of building the sanctuary and fabricating the priests’ clothing must cease on shabbat, the labors involved in doing those tasks are the labors forbidden on shabbat from then on.5

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

The Israelites must observe the shabbat, doing the shabbat throughout their generations as a covenant forever. Between me and the Israelites it will be a sign forever, because for six days God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day [God] shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and he refreshed himself, reanimated himself, caught his breath.   (A variant of veyinafeish.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses every seven “days” for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post,  Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, & 2 Samuel: Soul Recovery.)

5) No farming

Shabbat comes up again later in the portion Ki Tisa when God gives Moses additional instructions for the Israelites.

Six days you may work, but on the seventh day tishbot; at plowing and at grain-cutting tishbot. (Exodus 34:21)

The book of Exodus gives no reason why agricultural labor in particular is prohibited on shabbat. One possibility is that this sentence refers to the ethical law about shabbat in Mishpatim, since landowners used draft animals (oxen and donkeys) to plow, and teams of underlings including slaves and immigrants to scythe down ripe grain.

Sheaves of grain

On the other hand, the list in the Talmud of activities prohibited on shabbat includes farming chores that eventually lead to the bread that must be displayed on the gold-plated table in the sanctuary.6 The first eleven of the 39 prohibited labors in the Talmud are sowing grain, plowing, reaping, gathering sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting the edible kernels, grinding them into flour, sifting the flour, kneading dough, and baking bread. By this interpretation, the ban on plowing and reaping on shabbat is about the holiness of the day surpassing the holiness of the sanctuary.

6) Light no fires

The sixth and final shabbat instruction in the book of Exodus occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil. Again the seventh day is called holy, and doing labor on that day is punishable by death.

Six days you may do labor, but the seventh day must be holy for you, a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does labor on it must be put to death. You must not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of shabbat. (Exodus 35:2-3)

shabbaton (שַׁבָּתוֹן) = most solemn shabbat, feast day of shabbat, day of absolute stopping.

Here Moses repeats God’s commands that the day of shabbat must be treated as holy and that anyone who does not desist from labor on that day must be executed.

The new information in Vayakheil is that lighting a fire is prohibited on shabbat. Before this, the only specific examples of labor forbidden on shabbat are agricultural: gathering manna, using draft animals, sowing and reaping . Now, in Vayakheil, Moses gives another example of labor: lighting a fire.

The purpose of this prohibition cannot be ethical, since lighting a fire is not in itself a heavy labor, and it benefits other humans by giving them heat, light, and a way to cook food.

Since the previous verse reminds us that the seventh day must be holy, refraining from kindling a fire must be another religious rule associated with holiness.

Kindling a fire is number 37 in the Talmud’s list of 39 labors banned on shabbat, right after extinguishing a fire. It may allude to the fire on the altar. Although burnt offerings continue during shabbat according to the Torah, the fire is not rekindled. In fact, it must never go out.7 The altar fire is holy because it is dedicated to God, and because God kindled it.8

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Thus the book of Exodus presents the law against working on shabbat as a religious rule (guarding what is holy) three to five times.9 It presents the law as an ethical rule (promoting kindness and fairness) only twice.10

Yet when we observe the day of shabbat we can remember that it is not solely a religious requirement reminding us of holiness. We will not be put to death for doing forbidden work on shabbat, since that part of the order in this week’s Torah portion is no longer followed. But when we try to set aside mundane concerns in order to elevate our souls on the seventh day, we can also remember the ethical values in the last six commandments, which address kindness, fairness, and respect for other human beings.

And I can pray that soon I will be able to obey the fifth commandment, and treat my mother with kindness and respect by moving her into a safe place.

  1. See my upcoming post, Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods.
  2. See my posts Yitro, Mishpatin, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on the last six commandments.
  3. This is the opening in Exodus. When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment opens: Observe the day of the shabbat and treat it as holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  4. Exodus 5:1-9, 6:9.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 73a, Mishna.
  6. Exodus 25:23-30.
  7. Leviticus 6:5-6.
  8. Leviticus 9:24 for the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
  9. Exodus 16:29, 20:8 and 11, 31:12-13 at a minimum. According to the Talmud Exodus 34:21 and 35:2-3 are also rules for religious purposes.
  10. Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12.

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