Jewish Law, Shabbat, and the World to Come

The rabbinic school of Shammai constructed its version of the Sabbath laws on the basis of the notion that Shabbat is a foretaste of life in the perfect world, yet to come.

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In view of the future material abundance, there will obviously be no poor and hence no need for charity. There will be total harmony between man and man, hence the prohibition of patching up quarrels between husband and wife. There will be no illness, hence one should not pray for the sick on the Sabbath. In the latter instance, Beth Shammai goes even further and forbids visiting the sick on the Sabbath.

Though Beth Hillel rejects the Shammaite view in these matters, it is an undisputed principle of the Sabbath halakhah that there is no mourning on the Sabbath. With rigorous consistency, Beth Shammai prohibits the consolation of mourners on the Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 12a).

Tools of War May Not Be Carried

No halakhah illustrates more clearly the tie between the Sabbath and the world-to-come than the following mishnaic statement (Mishnah Shabbat 3:4), "A man should not go out on (the Sabbath) carrying a sword, a bow, a cudgel, a stick, or a spear…. Rabbi Eliezer says, 'These things may be considered adornments' (and hence their carrying is permitted). The Sages say, 'They are a disgrace, as it is written, "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."'" The expressed association between the Sabbath and the future time underscored in this Mishnah makes interpretation superfluous.

No Deceit in the World to Come

The halakhah states that "he who during the course of the week has bought produce from an am ha'aretz [a common person, not schooled in rabbinic doctrine] suspected of not giving the required tithe, and the purchaser forgot to set aside the tithe, the latter may ask the vendor on the Sabbath if the tithe has already been given and accept his word." (During the week, the am ha'aretz's word would not be accepted.) Why may he be believed on the Sabbath? The [Palestinian] Talmud (Shabbat 4:1) replies, "Because the reverence for the Sabbath is upon him" and, presumably, he would not lie. One is prompted to ask the obvious question: What relationship is there between the Sabbath and truth telling? I suggest that here, too, the association of Sabbath to the-world-to-come is at work. For has not the Prophet declared (Zephaniah 3:13), "The remnant of Israel shall do no iniquity; they shall not speak falsehood, and no deceitful tongue shall be found in their mouth." (En passant, I have found no other source for the notion that a Jew does not lie on the Sabbath, though I am mindful, of course, of the Yiddish proverb to the effect that one must not tell a falsehood on the Sabbath.) In any event, if in the end of time all falsehood will vanish, then even now, on the Sabbath, a man should speak but the truth.

Light, the Sabbath, and the World to Come

The aggadic-mythological concept of the Sabbath finds its reflection in one of the most ancient of all Sabbath observances, the kindling of the Sabbath lights. The Mishnah (Shabbat 2:1) already presumes the practice and merely asks, "With what may the Sabbath lamp be kindled?" Various scholars have sought the source of the custom in ancient rabbinic literature, but all that the search has revealed is a number of midrashim that merely indicate the antiquity of the practice without revealing its origin. Indeed, the Midrash clearly states (Lekah Tov, Vayakhel 8), "Israel had an ancient tradition harking back to our teacher Moses to kindle the Sabbath lights." When the [Babylonian] Talmud declares the kindling of the Sabbath lights to be a mitzvah (in the technical meaning of the term ["commandment"]) (Shabbat 25b), its intent is correctly grasped by Maimonides when he writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 5:1), "This is neither a permissive matter (reshut)…nor a commandment (mitzvah), but rather a duty (chovah)." All of which is to say that the practice is, strictly speaking, neither biblically nor rabbinically ordained.

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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).