Shabbat as a Reminder of the Exodus

Connecting the commandment to observe the Sabbath with the Israelites' rescue from Egyptian slavery, the Torah makes Shabbat a symbol of compassion and humane treatment for those in need of liberation.

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parting the red seaGod began with the first commandment, "I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Moses turned to the angels and said, "Have you been down to Egypt? Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh? Why then should you have the Torah?" Moses continued to challenge the angels on each commandment. "Do you do any work that you need to rest?" he asked defiantly when God came to the Sabbath commandment.

After hearing Moses' responses, the angels admitted their error and showered him with gifts. He had shown them that from their heavenly perches they could not possibly understand the suffering below, and that is why humans both deserved the Torah and needed it to guide them in applying the experiences of slavery and hard work to their lives as free people. It could not remain in heaven.

In the Sabbath commandment, applying Israel's past history to its current life means giving slaves, servants, and resident aliens a day of rest and serenity each week equal to that enjoyed by the master and mistress of a household. To assure that equality the commandment in Deuteronomy spells out, "so that your male and female slave may rest as you do." There is no equivocating here. The Sabbath belongs to all members of the household. For those in charge, remembering Egypt transmutes into remembering how it feels to be mistreated and therefore into being vigilant about treating others humanely.

I often quote my father's description of how, in his early years of employment, a poor immigrant boy working in the men's clothing industry, workers labored seven days a week without a break. It wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s that the United States enacted labor laws to ease the workers' burdens, and such laws still don't exist in many parts of the world. Yet four thousand years ago, my father would say, the Bible established a day of rest a week for everyone, including the lowliest of servants and the animals they used in their work.

Why Does the Torah Still Permit Slavery?

But now another question crops up: Why does the Bible permit slavery altogether? It was a question raised with some passion in an informal Bible study group I lead for some friends. "How can you speak of slaves resting on the Sabbath like their masters as if that were such a terrific thing?" one member said angrily when we discussed the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy. "The whole institution of slavery was immoral. Why didn't the Bible abolish it?"

Yes, why didn't it? What virtue is there in giving slaves a day of rest when nobody should ever be enslaved? This is not the place to undertake a long investigation into the Bible's attitude towards slavery. But the short answer, relevant to the Sabbath law, is that in ancient times slavery was a fact of life, closely woven into the economic and social fabric of society. If, as the rabbis often said, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings, it would have been futile to try to abolish an institution so integral to that world. Unfortunately, today, when the world no longer accepts slavery, millions of people still suffer from it--women sold into prostitution by their families or tricked into it by men trafficking in female trade, starving children and their parents trapped in slavelike conditions to pay off debts--and none has the protection of Sabbath laws.

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Francine Klagsbrun

Francine Klagsbrun is a writer, editor and columnist. She has also devoted her energies to the Jewish Publication Society, the Jewish Museum, the JTS Library, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.