This week’s Torah reading is Vayak’hel, which is mostly a repetition of earlier passages regarding the construction of the Tabernacle. It begins by restating the command of keeping the Sabbath: “Six days shall you work, and the seventh day shall be for you a holy day of complete rest for Hashem…” (Exodus 35:2). The mitzvah of Shabbat is among the most commonly mentioned in the Torah. It is also among the most severe, with those who desecrate the Sabbath being “cut off” from among their people, and ultimately succumbing to death.
Although the Torah suggests a death penalty for those who desecrate the Sabbath, an accepted tradition is that no one was ever actually put to death for doing so, except the one case mentioned later in the Torah (though even that case is more complicated than it appears). Certainly, in the post-Biblical period no one was given the death penalty for Sabbath desecration. In most cases, the punishment of death is seen as more of a spiritual death, not a physical one.
In any case, Shabbat is unarguably of tremendous importance. It is so central to Judaism that when Jews inquire whether other Jews are religious, they often simply ask if they are “shomer Shabbos”. And, of course, the Torah itself begins with the creation narrative that lays down the blueprint for Shabbat, right from the very beginning. Before there is any mention of Israel or Hebrews, laws, commandments, Patriarchs, or prayers, there is a description of the Sabbath. What makes it so special?
The Simple Answer
In simple terms, everyone understands the inherent beauty of Shabbat. After all, the majority of people only get through their work week because of the promise of a weekend. Everyone needs a break; a time to recharge their batteries and relax. Shabbat takes the concept even further, offering a true day of rest by disconnecting from the wired world: no cellphones or computers, no bad news or annoying messages, no politics, no advertising, no finances, no celebrity gossip. An opportunity to restore some mental sanity and emotional peace, to actually spend time with family (instead of spending time with the television), and not have to worry about running errands, doing chores, or having to be somewhere. Scientific studies show that having a Sabbath-like day of rest (without work and worry, and with prayer and family involved) was one of the key factors in living a longer and happier life (see here).
Having said that, Shabbat is far more than just a day of rest. The Torah commands us not only to observe the Sabbath (shamor) but also to remember, or commemorate, it (zachor). What exactly are we supposed to be remembering?
Our Cosmic Purpose
When we recite Kiddush on Friday evenings, we say zecher l’maase beresheet, “a remembrance of the Work of Creation.” Shabbat is supposed to remind us of God’s creation of this universe. To remember His creation is really to remember why it was that He created it. Although the Torah does not explicitly say so, the purpose of creation is clear. God created the universe and then placed man, the pinnacle of creation, within it, in a Garden of Eden, to enjoy the delights of this amazing world. And God made man in His own image: a creative, intelligent being. He gave man the potential to further improve an already incredible place, and bring about even more pleasure, beauty, and comfort. Man’s role was to complete the creation started by God. This is what the Torah tells us, and what we read every Friday evening:
“And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for in it He rested from all of His work, which God had created to complete.” (Genesis 2:3)
Though often translated otherwise, this well-known verse ends with the words asher bara Elohim la’asot, literally “which God had created to complete.” God created it for us to complete it. This is why man is often described as “God’s partner in Creation”. And sure enough, this is what mankind has been doing since the earliest days. We have taken the raw material that this universe provides us and improved upon it. It is incredible to think that you are reading this right now on some sort of digital device that runs on a silicon chip – essentially made from melted and crystallized sand. Your device also has copper and gold, among other elements, taken out of the earth, purified and transformed into a wire that can carry information. You might be wearing clothes made of linen, cotton, or silk – extracted from plants or animals – or taking life-saving medications derived from trees or bacteria. God gave us the raw materials, together with a divine intellect to transform them into wonderful technologies that make our lives so much better.
Returning to Eden
All of this technology is slowly bringing us back to a perfect world, as God originally intended. What the Sages of past centuries described as miracles that will happen in the future Messianic world, we take for granted as everyday normalities. There are references to these technologies across Jewish texts.
In one place, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) describes the wheat in Messianic times as having grains the size of kidneys! This must have sounded far-fetched in those times, but today is quite possible with tools like genetic engineering. The same page of Talmud describes thirty kegs of perfect wine being produced effortlessly, without a person needing to tread upon the grapes, and without even needing to harvest them with back-breaking labour, as was normal in those days. Indeed, today’s wineries use machines to harvest the grapes, with an automated production process that has sensors to ensure the ideal levels of sugar, alcohol, and so on, resulting in the same perfectly-tasting wine year after year.
Jewish texts describe Messianic events being witnessed by the whole world, and Mashiach himself being recognized universally, leading the entire globe. This was hard to imagine before the era of modern communication, yet satellites, television, and the internet make it very simple for Mashiach to be recognized and heard internationally. These technologies also bridge together cultures, spread truth and understanding, and ultimately serve to break down barriers. It is no longer so difficult to envision a united, peaceful world working together.
Partners in Torah
In the same way that we are God’s partners in creation, fulfilling the physical realm, we are also His partners in the spiritual realm. Like the raw material of the Earth, God gave us the Torah in raw form. It was the Sages that then interpreted, explained, modified, enhanced, and continue to reinterpret the Torah, generation after generation, further improving God’s Word. What began as Moses’ five books turned into a Tanakh of 24 books, then a Mishnah of 63 tractates, followed by an even longer exposition on each tractate in the form of Talmud, and then even more texts of Midrash, Kabbalah, Halacha, Mussar, and so on.
Where once divine service consisted primarily of offering sacrifices, we have evolved to “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3), and instead serve God in prayer. Indeed, the Rambam writes (Moreh Nevuchim III:32) that God only permitted sacrifices temporarily in order to slowly wean people away from such bloody practices; prayer was always the ideal form of communing with God, and what He intended all along.
In the same way that we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting the physical world, we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting ourselves in the spiritual world.
The Psychology of Shabbat
Shabbat is meant to remind us of our purpose in God’s creation. We should never lose sight of why we are really here: to be His partners in completing the world, both physically and spiritually, and returning it to its intended state of Eden.
This is yet another reason why Shabbat is so important, and inscribed among the Ten Commandments, those ten that are most central of God’s many other commands. A person who does not observe the Sabbath is not only missing out on a day of proper rest and relaxation, but also forgetting their true purpose. And without purpose, life loses its meaning. This was the conclusion of the great neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl, who found that the real source of depression, anxiety, and mental pains is not the many troubles of life, but simply a lack of purpose:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
Smith explains purpose in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’
Beyond being a day of rest, Shabbat is a tool that gives our lives a grand sense of purpose. God commands us to work diligently towards the fulfilment of this purpose for six days. But on the seventh, we should take a break, and simply enjoy the fruits of that labour. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) reminds us that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the World to Come. We should spend Shabbat as if we have already completed our mission. And then, after recharging, and reminding ourselves why we are really here, we should go into a new work week, refreshed, to continue our special task as God’s partners in His universe.