Shabbat Rest and Renewal

Two elements that are the essence of Shabbat.


In the Torah it is written, “On the seventh day God finished the work… and ceased from all the work … and God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation…” (Genesis 2:2-3). Most people reading that passage find it a bit of a shock. “On the seventh day God finished the work. . . ” But what did God create on the seventh day? Didn’t God “cease. . . from all the work of creation” on the seventh day? What God created on the seventh day, the ancient rabbis tell us, was rest.

rest and renewal on shabbatThe Hebrew word used here is menuchah, and “rest” is an inadequate translation. To say that Shabbat menuchah means a “Sabbath of rest” only tells half the story. In the Shabbat liturgy we are given a more complete, many-layered understanding of the word. It is, the Minchah (afternoon) service tells us, “a rest of love freely given, a rest of truth and sincerity, a rest in peace and tranquility, in quietude and safety.” Yet, at the same time, it is a rest yoked in the same breath to “holiness.” And inextricably linked to that concept is the fact that this rest comes from the Almighty and exists so that we might glorify God’s name, to bring holiness to God.

The Sabbath is the only day of observance mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In the first version of the Decalogue we are enjoined to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8); in the second version, we are told to “observe” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12). What more compelling evidence can one find for the paramount importance of this day?

But not to work? An enforced rest? The rabbis who began to codify Jewish law (halakhah) during the time of the Second Temple, specified  39 categories of prohibited activities– based on the activities that were involved in the building of the Tabernacle as described in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. One should not handle a hammer or money. One should not rearrange the books on a shelf. What sort of holiday is this?

We are commanded in the Torah, “Six days shall you labor and do all your  work.” To abstain from labor on the seventh day is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says in his magnificent little book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), “not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity.” We are suddenly lifted out of the process of time, removed from the world of natural and social change. Instead of creating the world anew, we are at one with the world created.

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George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.

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