Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: The three dimensions of Shabbat
In the book of Nehemiah, it says " And You informed them of Your holy Shabbat " Why is the commandment of Shabbat singled out in the Book of Nehemiah more than the other commandments? The Midrash explains that the importance of Shabbat equals all the other commandments combined. Says the Chofetz Chaim, just like in the body of a person, some limbs are more vital than others, so too there are some commandments that are more vital than others. Every Friday night when we recite the Kiddush over a cup of wine, we give testimony to the creation of the world. The ten plagues were a manifestation that G'd is not just the Creator of all elements, but He is in constant control of how these elements function. The miraculous Manna taught the Jewish people that G'd can "turn the world upside down". Every Friday, the Jewish people would be provided with a double portion to sustain them for both Friday and Shabbat. When a Jew refrains from attending to his business on Shabbat, he acknowledges that G'd is his Provider Who is in control of his sustenance, and in this way shows that he understands the lesson G'd taught us at the time of the exodus from Egypt. The extra portions in the Grace after Meal (Bentchen) on Shabbat allude to the fact that Shabbat somewhat resembles the World to Come. On the one hand, anyone who starts to observe Shabbat will be forgiven all sins committed in the past; on the other hand, anyone who desecrates the Shabbat is considered a heretic and is compared to an idol worshipper. The Zohar explains that all blessings needed for a person's success in his business and other endeavors throughout the week stem from Shabbat.
In the book of Nehemiah (9:1-3) it is related how the Jewish people repented upon returning from the exile in Babylon to the land of Israel. They divorced their gentile wives and confessed their sins to G'd. Later, it mentions a prayer that they said, part of which we say every morning at the end of Pesukei D'zimrah before saying the Song at the Sea. In this prayer we find a very brief description of the history of the Jewish people beginning with the Creation. In the verses discussing the Revelation at Mount Sinai it says (ibid 13-14), "And You descended upon Mount Sinai and spoke to them from the Heavens and gave them righteous ordinances and Toros [the written law and the oral law] of truth, good statutes and commandments. And You informed them of Your holy Shabbat, and You commanded them commandments and statutes through Your servant Moses."
Shabbat singled out
As mentioned in this week's Parasha, G'd gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Our sages explain that the Jewish people were actually given to understand all 613 commandments on the basis of these Ten Commandments. If so, why is the commandment of Shabbat singled out in the Book of Nehemiah more than the other commandments? A further question arises from the Midrash Rabba (25:12, see also Rashi Bamidbar 16:41) in last week's Parasha. The Midrash quotes Nehemiah and explains that this is one of the sources from where we learn that the commandment of Shabbat equals all the other commandments combined. This seems strange since the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:1) says: "Be as careful with a minor commandment as with a major commandment for you do not know the reward for the various commandments." So why does the Midrash put Shabbat in a special league?
The Talmud (Makkos 23b) explains that the Torah contains 248 positive commandments that we are required to fulfill, corresponding to the 248 limbs in our bodies, and there are 365 negatives commandments that we are prohibited from doing, corresponding to the 365 days of the solar year. The Chofetz Chaim (Introduction to the Laws of Shabbos, Mishnah Berurah, Volume 3), explains in the name of the Kabbalists, that each commandment is a spiritual source of life for a particular limb. The fulfillment of that commandment will enable the corresponding limb to become alive at the time of resurrection. This is the deeper meaning of what the Torah says (Vayikra 18:5) "And you shall keep My statutes and My laws that man shall fulfill and live by them." The statutes and laws that we fulfill in this life will enable each of the corresponding limbs to be revived.
Says the Chofetz Chaim, in the body of a person, some limbs are more vital than others. A person can live without a hand or foot, but cannot live without a brain or heart. In the same way there are some commandments that are more important than others. Shabbat observance is one of the Torah's most vital commandments, as it reinforces our belief in G'd as the Creator of the universe and the Master who is in total control of everything happening in this world. In addition to this, Shabbat also reminds us of the World to Come, the world of reward and consequences for everything we have done in this world.
When we keep Shabbat it reminds us of the creation of the world. As it says in the Ten Commandments, (Shemos 20:8-11) "Six days you shall work and the seventh day is Sabbath to HASHEM your G'd. You shall not do any work for in six days G'd made the heavens and the earth and He rested on the seventh day." Every Friday night when we recite the Kiddush over a cup of wine, we give testimony to the creation of the world (see Mishnah Berurah 271:45). That is why we quote the last verses of the description of Creation (Bereishis 2:1-3) "And the Heaven and the Earth were finished and on the seventh day G'd finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day and G'd blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it." When we gather our family around the Shabbat table we transmit this testimony to our future generations.
As we continue the Kiddush, we further mention that besides being a remembrance of Creation, Shabbat also commemorates the exodus from Egypt. This corresponds to the repetition of the Ten Commandments in Parashas Va'Eschanan (Devarim 5:6-18) where is says (ibid 12-15): "Keep the day of Shabbat to sanctify it And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and HASHEM your G'd took you out from there therefore HASHEM your G'd commanded you to observe the day of Shabbat." The Ramban (ibid) explains that the exodus from Egypt was a manifestation of G'd's total power to override the laws of nature as He sees fit. The ten plagues that G'd inflicted upon the Egyptians clearly showed G'd's total control of every part of the universe: some plagues came down from the heaven; others were brought out from the earth and the water, or blown in by the wind. This was a lesson for mankind in general, and for the Jewish people in particular, that G'd is not just the Creator of all elements, but is in constant control of how all these elements function.
After the exodus, the Jewish people were taught an additional lesson in how G'd conducts the world. The meager provisions that they had taken along when they left Egypt miraculously lasted for thirty days (see Rashi, Shemos 16:1). For their continued sustenance, G'd provided them with a new source of food, bread not derived from the earth but that came down from heaven in the form of Manna. As it says, (Shemos 16:4) "G'd said to Moses, 'See I shall let bread rain down from heaven.'" This miraculous food was provided to the Jewish people throughout their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. It taught them that G'd controls the elements to the extent that when He so desires He will "turn the world upside down". What normally would grow from earth now came down from heaven.
However, there was one day during the week when the Manna did not fall. Every Friday, the Jewish people would be provided with a double portion to sustain them for both Friday and Shabbat. With this G'd taught the Jewish people a new lesson: that whatever effort they would do throughout the six days of the week would provide them with their needs for Shabbat as well. Even the minor effort of going out to pick up the Manna was not appropriate for the Shabbat, a day of spirituality and rest from physical work.
Double sustenance for every Shabbat observer
In the Shabbat song Ki Eshmerah Shabbat, the Ibn Ezra describes that just as G'd provided the Jewish people throughout the forty years in the wilderness with double portions on the sixth day, so G'd will double the sustenance for every Shabbat observer each Friday. I vividly remember how my late father, after a week travelling on business, returned on Thursday night to arrive in good time for the Shabbat. More than once did I hear him say that the few hours he spent in the office on Friday often brought him more business than his travels during the rest of the week. When a Jew refrains from attending to his business on Shabbat, he acknowledges that G'd is the Provider Who is in control of his sustenance, and in this way he shows that he understands the lesson G'd taught us at the time of the exodus from Egypt.
World to Come
On Shabbat, we add extra portions in the Grace after Meal (Bentchen).Towards the end of Bentchen we say, "The Merciful One, He shall let us inherit the day that is totally Shabbat and rest for eternal life." This alludes to the fact that Shabbat somewhat resembles the World to Come, a world of spirituality and peaceful rest. Our sages (Osiyos of Rabbi Akiva) relate that at the time of the Revelation, G'd said to the Jewish people, "My children, I have a precious item in the world and I am going tot give it to you for all eternity, if you will accept My Torah and keep My commandments." The Jewish people responded and said, "Master of the world, what is this special item that You will give us if we keep Your Torah?" When G'd answered that He was referring to the World to Come, they said, "Master of the word, could You show us a sample of the World to Come?" To this G'd answered and said, "The Shabbat! This day is one-sixtieth of the World to Come, a world that is totally Shabbat" (see also Talmud Berachos 57b).
Importance of Shabbat
We can now understand that the commandment of Shabbat is special. By observing Shabbat we first of all express our faith in G'd as the Creator of the world. We further show our trust in G'd as the Master Who is in total control of every aspect of this world, as well as our belief in the World to Come, the world of eternal rewards. This may be why Shabbat was singled out in Nehemiah and mentioned in the Midrash as being equal to all other commandments combined. For the observance of Shabbat has a special central place in the Torah way of life. With this we can further understand why, on the one hand, anyone who starts to observe Shabbat will be forgiven all sins committed in the past; and, on the other hand, someone who desecrates the Shabbat is considered a heretic and is compared to an idol worshipper. For example, just as if an idol worshipper touches an open bottle of wine, its use is prohibited, the same would apply if someone who desecrates Shabbat touches it (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 385:3) At the time of the Temple, if someone desecrated Shabbat, after being warned by two witnesses, this person would be eligible for the harshest death penalty, just like the idol worshipper.
Scrupulous observance and blessing
At the end of Creation it says (Bereishis 2:3), "And G'd blessed the seventh day and sanctified it." The Zohar (Shemos 88a) explains that all the success of a person in his business and other endeavors throughout the week stem from Shabbat. Once the Chofetz Chaim was asked for a blessing by an individual who was going through a very difficult time. The Chofetz Chaim answered, "Why do you come to me for a blessing. Go to the Shabbat, for that is the source of all blessing. Make sure that you and all your family are scrupulous in your Shabbat observance and you will be blessed." Many stories are told of people who felt that their most important day of business was Shabbat, and it was extremely difficult for them to give up that day as a day of work. However, when they overcame this difficult test and stopped working on the Shabbat, and instead spent the day in prayer and spiritual enhancement, they saw how they were richly rewarded from Above. They experienced an increase in their revenue during the six days they worked that exceeded any loss they had from not working on Shabbat. The Chofetz Chaim mentions (in the Introduction referred to above) that in order to keep Shabbat the proper way, it is most important that we constantly study the laws of Shabbat so that we should know all the details. And we can rest assured that every additional law of Shabbat that we observe opens up another gate in Heaven with an abundance of blessings and rewards both in this world and in the World to Come.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at email@example.com .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network