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This Week's Torah Portion: The Importance of Shabbat

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Ki Thissa’ (Exodus XXX, 11-XXXIV, 35)

One of the principal reasons given for sabbath observance is the preservation of the distinction between Israel and the nations of the world, in order that those self-same nations will be able to recognize in Israel the mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy qadosh -- the “kingdom of kohanim and holy nation” ( XIX, 6) -- from whom they are to learn fundamental morality:

V ë’atta dabbér el bënei Yisra’él lémor, Ach eth shabbëthothai rishmoru, ki oth hi’ beini uveineichem lëdorotheichem lada‘ath ki Ani Ha-Shem mëqaddishchem.

And you [Moshe], speak to the bënei Yisra’él to say, Just you should keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations to know that I, Ha-Shem, sanctify you (XXXI, 13).

Rashi elucidates:

It is a great sign between us that I have chosen you by granting you My day of rest for repose, so that the nations should know thereby that I, Ha-Shem sanctify you.

The other (not unrelated) reason is summarized in the Decalogue, where we find:

Ki shésheth yamim ‘asa Ha-Shem eth hashamayim vë’eth ha’aretz, eth hayam vë’eth kol asher bam, vayanach bayom hashëvi‘i, ‘al kén bérach Ha-Shem eth yom habshabbath vayëqaddëshéhu.

For [in] six days Ha-Shem made the heavens and the Earth, the sea and everything in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore Ha-Shem blessed the sabbath day and sanctified it (ibid., XX, 11).

In other words, our observance proclaims the existence of the Creator, Who created the entire universe.

In light of this dual purpose in observing the sabbath, it is a little startling to encounter the following in the Talmud:

Kol hamëshammér shabbath këhilchatho, afilu ‘avad ‘avoda zara këdor Enosh, machul lo, shene’emar Ashrei enosh ya‘ase zoth ... shomér shabbath méchalëlo; al tiqrei “méchalëlo” ella “machul lo”

Anyone who preserves the sabbath according to its laws, even if he worships idols like the generation of Enosh, it is forgiven him, as it is said, "Happy is the man who does this ... keeping the sabbath from it desecration [Isaiah LV,2]; read not 'from its desecration' but rather 'forgiven him'" (Shabbath 118b).

The source of the interpretation is in the pun inherent in the name Enosh (which means “human being,” as we see in the quotation from Isaiah) and in the similarity in spelling in Hebrew between méchalëlo and machul lo.

Nevertheless, the mind reels at this apparent glorification of mechanical observance over primary faith in the uniqueness of the Creator! What is going on?

Enosh, of course, was the leading personage of the third generation after the first adam. The Torah tells us concerning that generation: “az huchal liqro’ bëshém Ha-Shem,” “then calling in the name of Ha-Shem was desecrated” (Genesis IV, 26). Rashi explains that the verb huchal is: