Reprinted from the entry “Rest” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, ©1986, Gale Group. Reprinted by permission of the Gale Group.
In the biblical traditions of the people Israel, there seem to be two strands of thought regarding shabbat–rest from work–in the sense not only of the seventh day, but also of social repose and renewal in the seventh month and the seventh year. One of these strands sees shabbat as a reflection and expression of cosmic rhythms of time embedded in creation. The other sees shabbat as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality. The biblical tradition regards these strands not as contradictory but as intertwined; indeed, the second is probably a midrash on the first, which arose in a period of Israelite history when social conflict between the rich and poor was intense and the desire to see shabbat as an affirmation of social justice was strong.
The first strand, that of cosmos and creation, dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus. Perhaps its focus on birth, creation, and nourishing emerges from the birth experience of the Jewish people. The second is more characteristic of the books of Deuteronomy and the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah, which are probably connected with a period of internal social conflict; and the two are most effectively intertwined and come closest to fusion in Leviticus 25, which is possibly from the same period of social upheaval.
Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and the prophets felt no contradiction between the theme of liberation and justice and the theme of cosmos and creation. Cosmic creation and social re-creation were seen as analogous, even in a sense isomorphic. Rest, or shabbat, was seen as the action (or inaction) that expressed both. And Shabbat was closely related to the concepts of shemitah and d’ror, release and liberation.
What are we moderns to make of so tight a connection between the cosmic-natural and the historical-political, two areas of life we usually hold separate? What moderns call social justice is, in this biblical outlook, treated as one form of rest, as social repose or social renewal. Institutional structures of domination and control are themselves seen as a kind of work, not only because of the economic work they do, but also because of the “work” they are–simply by existing, simply by dominating and controlling. The structures themselves, not only the economic work they do, must be periodically dissolved for shabbat; the social-political and the cosmic fuse.
To rest means to return to a state of nature, which is seen as loving, not “red in tooth and claw.” For nature is where the earth grows peacefully as it wishes, without economic coercion, and the human community grows peacefully in natural clans and families, without institutional coercion. In this state of repose, the land and the community are directly in touch with each other: the land freely feeds the people without intervention by owners, masters, employers, or creditors, and the people freely “feed” the land without sowers, dressers, cultivators, or harvesters.
This is shabbat. It recreates the Shabbat of the beginning, the shabbat that seals the creation, because at that shabbat all was free, loving, and in the state of plenitude, sharing, and repose. For human beings and the earth to act in this way is most fully to honor and imitate the creator. And indeed for the creator to act again in this way–as in the liberation from Egypt and from every slavery–is most fully to repeat the act of creation.
Shabbat emerges from its cosmic place to dwell among the people Israel as the first step in the redemption of the human race from the curse of endless toil that ends the delight of Eden: “In the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” says God to Adam; between Adam and adamah (literally, ground), between human and humus, “all the days of your life” there shall be agony and conflict (Gen. 3:17-19). But in the moment of liberation from slavery there rises up from its hidden cosmic place one day that will not be toil and agony: one day of rest, of Eden. To begin with, only one day–and only for one people. But it is because shabbat echoes the fullness of Eden that it also beckons us toward the messianic days when all days will be fully Shabbat for all peoples.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.