Shabbat as Preview of the Perfected World

Rabbinic literature and medieval Kabbalah describe the day as a foretaste of life in the perfected "world to come" that traditional Judaism anticipates.

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While Rabbi Friedman’s use of the masculine to represent all people may well strike today’s reader as antiquated, his exposition of this concept through the range of traditional Jewish sources, and its implications for our time, hopefully will not. Excerpted with permission from Judaism 16:4 (Fall 1967).

A Generative Principle Behind Shabbat Legislation

The laws of the Sabbath, according to the graphic description of the Mishnah, are like mountains suspended by a hair. By that description, the Mishnah intends the fact that the Sabbath halakhah [complex of laws], exceedingly extensive, complex, and detailed, stands on a very narrow, limited biblical base–actually, the merest handful of biblical verses. So paradoxical a situation can only be explained by the assumption that at work in the enormous proliferation of the Sabbath halakhah in the talmudic period was some general concept of the nature of the Sabbath which the [ancient] Rabbis sought to concretize in detailed halakhic terms.

shabbat as a perfect worldIn his classic essay, “Halakhah and Aggadah,” [the 19th-20th century Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman] Bialik lays down this sweeping generalization, “The halakhah is the final, inevitable concretization of the aggadah [the non-legal portions of Jewish writings].” No more striking and cogent illustration of the truth of this statement can be found than that offered by the halakhah of the Sabbath. What was that general concept?

While it finds a variety of expressions in talmudic literature, all of them, in the end, give voice to the idea that the Sabbath is the anticipation, the foretaste, the paradigm of life in the world-to-come. The very abundance of such statements is the surest evidence of how deep-rooted and widespread that notion was in the early rabbinic period. A few of the more typical statements may be quoted.

We meet the concept in the Mishnah [the earliest rabbinic law code, c. 200 C.E]. We find it in the Gemara [or Talmud, commenting and expanded on the Mishnah] and [in the classical works of rabbinic] Midrash, and we encounter it, again and again, in kabbalistic literature. At the end of [the mishnaic tractate] Tamid we read: ” ‘A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day’ [Psalms 92:1]–a song for the time-to-come (le’atid lavo), for the day that is all Sabbath rest in the eternal life.” The Sabbath, the Gemara asserts [in Berakhot 57b], is one-sixtieth of the world-to-come.

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Rabbi Theodore Friedman, Ph.D. (1908-1992), served for many years as rabbi of congregations in Jackson Heights, New York, and South Orange, New Jersey. He later lived in Jerusalem, where he taught Talmud to students from the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (Buenos Aires).

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