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:

Vë’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.

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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:

… an expression of desecration, to call the name of man and the idols by the name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, to make them gods and call them divinity.

The Rambam explains more precisely what happened (Hilchoth ‘Avoda Zara I, 1):

In the days of Enosh the human race made a great mistake … And Enosh himself was among the erring ones … They said, Since G-d created stars … to run the world, and placed them on high and granted them honor, and it is G-d’s will, may He be blessed, that we exalt and honor those whom He has exalted and honored … since the notion entered their hearts, they began building temples and offering sacrifices to [the stars] in order to gain the Creator’s approval, in their incorrect opinion.

The origins of ‘avoda zara, then, lay not in the rejection of the unique, unitary Creator of the Universe, but in the notion of a shittuf, the idea that He, like some human imperial personage, considered Himself too mighty and exalted to consort with His humble creatures, and left the handling of their day-to-day affairs to minions and intermediaries, who, because of their exalted positions, must be propitiated to achieve a good result.

That something of this sort indeed underlay the idolatrous cults of antiquity may be gleaned from what we know of them. The various gods of (for instance) the Greco-Roman pantheon were associated with the planets, which to this day bear their names in Western languages, and were conceived to be immortal and vastly more powerful and capable than mere mortals, but were themselves subject to the inexorable workings of Fate (apparently all that remained in the classical consciousness of the “cold and remote” Creator), against which there was no appeal.

In light of what we have learned, consider the following:

The Rabbis taught: Man was created on the sabbath eve, and for what reason? So that the heretics would not say, He was a partner of the Holy One, Blessed is He, in the act of Creation. [Hence, all of Creation preceded him]. Another opinion: So that he would enter immediately into the mitzva [of the sabbath] (Sanhedrin 38a, with help from Rashi and the Maharsha).

It is usual in Talmudic logic that the latter of two possible answers to a question is preferred. Applying that principle here, we may conclude that the Divine purpose in creating man shortly before the sabbath was to benefit him by allowing him immediately to begin accruing merit by entering straightaway into the observance of the precious mitzva called shabbath.

If so, it follows that such an opportunity should be taken up with enthusiasm, that man should be not merely shomér shabbath, but should observe it lovingly and precisely, as implied by the intensive, factitive form of the verb, mëshammér, used in the quotation from Shabbath cited supra. One who enters into the spirit of the sabbath with such wholehearted intensity can be forgiven many things, even so grave a sin as imagining a “partner” for the Creator.

But if such a person’s observance is not of such white-hot intensity, with total involvement, then his error will be treated with all the seriousness it deserves, since the fall-back reason for man’s creation on the sabbath eve was (as we see) precisely to give the lie to such notions as the shittuf which had been taken up in Enosh’s day.

What we can learn from the above is a sense of how very precious shabbath is to our Creator, and therefore how precious it ought to be to us. As is well-known, the center of Judaism is sabbath-observance, so much so that being informed that a Jew is shomér shabbath colloquially answers all questions. One does not need to ask if he also keeps, e.g. kosher; of course he is an observant Jew, he is shomér shabbath.

The Talmudic passage suggests for us a much higher order to aim for: to be not merely shomér shabbath but, more intensively, mëshammér shabbath, to show through the joyous intensity and precision of the observance how very precious the mitzva is to us.