Tag Archives: Shabbat

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.

Khnum

Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!

Why is a Week 7 Days?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with the command to keep Shabbat, “six days shall you work, and on the seventh day will be for you a holy day of complete rest…” (Exodus 35:2) While Shabbat is mentioned numerous times in the Torah, it is this particular instance which served as the basis for our Sages to extrapolate the specific laws of Shabbat. Here, the Torah explicitly mentions only the prohibitions of working and lighting a fire. However, the Sages derived a list of 39 categories of prohibitions from the fact that God commanded the Sabbath, and right after juxtaposed it with the command to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan was not constructed on Shabbat, so all those actions that were required for the construction and operation of the Mishkan were forbidden on Shabbat.

There is a linguistic proof for this in the parasha because the type of work forbidden on Shabbat is specifically called melakhah, loosely translated as “creative labour”. The Sages note that this same term is used when speaking of the work required in building the Mishkan. In fact, they enumerate that this word is used 39 times in relation to the Mishkan (Shabbat 49b), hence 39 forms of labour. The Yerushalmi Talmud (Shabbat 44a) adds to this that the Shabbat mitzvah is introduced with the words eleh hadevarim, “these are the things”, implying there are multiple things that are forbidden on Shabbat. How many? The word eleh (אלה) has a numerical value of 36, while hadevarim (הדברים) implies three more things, since the plural devarim is a minimum of 2, and the definite hei at the start of the word suggests one more. Altogether, hadevarim is 3, and adding to eleh we get a total of 39 prohibitions! So, we rest on Shabbat from 39 major categories of activity.

A “Periodic Table” of the 39 Melakhot, by Anshie Kagan

Another big question that is often overlooked is this: why is Shabbat specifically the seventh day? Why did God create a week of 7 days to begin with? Why not 5 days, or 10 days? Why must we rest on the seventh day and not any other? What’s amazing is that there is no actual astronomical basis for keeping a week of 7 days. A year is a year because that’s how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun, and a month is a month originally based on the amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the Earth. A week, however, is not related to any orbits or astronomical phenomena. This is why ancient cultures from around the world had weeks of varying lengths—and some had no concept of a “week” at all.

Ancient Rome once had an 8-day week, and ancient China followed a 10-day week. Today, the entire planet keeps a week of 7 days only because the Torah said so! Jews kept it first, of course, and then Christians and Muslims got the idea from the Torah, spreading it around the world. In fact, in their attempts to expunge religion for good, the Soviet Union introduced a 5-day week in 1929. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They probably got the idea from anti-religious French revolutionaries who introduced the “Republican calendar” in 1793 with a 10-day week. That one didn’t last long either.

The Meaning of 7

What is special about seven? We live in a universe that is 3 dimensional, resulting in six axes or directions (up, down, left, right, forward, backward), meaning that everything will inevitably have six outer faces. Six is therefore the number that represents the external and superficial. Seven is what is inside, representing the inner and the spiritual. In fact, the Hebrew word “seven”, sheva (שבע), is spelled the same way as sova or savea, to be “fulfilled”. All things spiritual or “internal” tend to be associated with the number seven. Light, when split to reveal its inner components, gives seven visible colours. Music is composed of a scale of seven distinct notes. The Heavens have seven levels (Chagigah 12b). The holiest month of the Hebrew calendar (and, somewhat paradoxically, the first of the new year) is the seventh month, Tishrei. For the same reasons, Shabbat is the seventh day of the week, being a day devoted to spirituality and holiness. The first six days of the week represent the physical realm, and we are required to work and be materially productive. Shabbat, the seventh day, is for the soul.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

Shabbat is the day when God’s Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, is most revealed and accessible. The Shekhinah itself is associated with the seventh of the lower Sefirot, called Malkhut. On that note, the seven days of the week actually correspond to the seven lower Sefirot (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Behar). Sunday is Chessed, Monday is Gevurah, Tuesday is Tiferet, and so on. These also correspond to the seven visible luminaries in the sky above us: sun and moon, and the five planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (the other planets are not visible to the naked eye and were only discovered after the invention of the telescope). In his Discourse on Rosh HaShanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) explains that pagans named their days of the week after these luminaries (and their corresponding deities). In English: Saturday after Saturn, Sunday after the sun, Monday after the moon, and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday after the Norse gods Tiw, Odin, Thor, and Frigga. In French: Lundi for Luna (the moon), Mardi for Mars, Mercredi for Mercury, Jeudi for Jupiter, Vendredi for Venus. Contrary to them, the Ramban points out that Jews call the days of the week numerically in relation to the holy Shabbat: yom rishon, yom sheni, etc.

The Sages do admit that the luminaries have a spiritual influence on the events and people of this planet (Shabbat 156a). However, Israel is able to break free from this astrological influence and determine their own fate. (For more, see ‘Astrology and Astronomy in Judaism’.) The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) interestingly notes how in olden days the Jewish court would convene on Thursdays because the Torah says b’tzedek tishpot (Leviticus 19:15), “you shall rule justly”, and tzedek also happens to be the Hebrew name of the planet Jupiter, which “rules” over Thursday! (The beit din would also convene on Mondays which, Kabbalistically, is the day of Gevurah and Din, “judgement”.) Saturn, with its beautiful rings and record-number of moons, is associated with Shabbat, and in fact it is called Shabbatai in Hebrew. Historically, the pagans always held Saturn as the greatest of their “gods”, while in Judaism it simply corresponds to the greatest day of the week.

Saturn

Finally, the Arizal notes (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) that on each day of the week a different one of the four mystical olamot, parallel “worlds” or “universes”, is revealed and made more accessible. We inhabit and see all around us the world of Asiyah, which has its greatest expression on Tuesday and Wednesday. Above that is the world of Yetzirah, more accessible and visible on Monday and Thursday (the days when the Torah is read publicly in the synagogue). Higher still is Beriah, revealed on Sunday and Friday, the days immediately before and after the Sabbath, into which some of the Shabbat holiness “spills” over. It is only on Shabbat that we can more easily access the highest of the worlds, Atzilut, and get a true sense of God’s infinite emanation.

Mind-Blowing Gematriot

In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Moses cautions the people in his final song to carefully fulfil “all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments here that, on a deeper level, the words “for it is not an empty thing for you” are referring to gematriot, the numerical calculations and mathematical codes embedded in the Torah, that emanate from the divinity and precision of the Hebrew language. The general public often disparages gematria as being unreal or artificial in some way, a soup where anyone can find anything they are looking for. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While some have certainly abused gematria in unnatural ways, there is a legitimate foundation and system to it. Continue reading