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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The Torah surely is uncomfortable with slavery and leans firmly toward mitigating the slaves' lot, although from today's perspective we would want more. Unlike any other early code, it forbids returning runaway slaves to their masters. It holds a slave owner liable for the death penalty if he kills a slave, and if he injures a slave, the slave goes free. Many biblical laws also legislate great leniency toward Hebrew slaves, generally desperately poor people who had sold themselves into servitude as a means of support. "They are My servants," the text says, meaning that Jews owe fealty only to God and may not become slaves to one another. In fact, the first law the Israelites receive after the Ten Commandments concerns releasing Hebrew slaves in their seventh year of labor. That ban on Hebrew slavery lays the moral basis for the eventual abolition of all slavery.

The Sabbath command bolsters that moral basis. It applies to all slaves, both Hebrew and foreign (who may have been acquired as war captives), and makes no distinctions in providing all with Sabbath rest. The Torah stands alone among ancient law codes in concerning itself in this way with slaves' wellbeing. The Torah stands alone also in its deep concern about "strangers," outsiders who lived among the Israelites but were not of them. Without strong roots in the community, these people could easily have been abused or pressed into slavery, as the Israelites were in Egypt. Therefore, like slaves, they were singled out for consideration on the Sabbath.

Shabbat and Ethical Behavior

Throughout the Torah, reminders of the redemption from Egypt serve as touchstones for ethical behavior. (Someone has said that more than thirty biblical laws relate to the exodus from Egyptian bondage, and almost all of them deal with moral issues.) The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy fits into that pattern. Building on the same theme, the prophets never ceased to inform people of the ties between Shabbat and social justice. In one breath, Ezekiel condemns the wealthy who treat strangers badly, wrong orphans and widows, and also profane the Sabbath. And Isaiah equates observing "what is right" and "what is just" with the joy of observing the Sabbath. Classical Jewish thought associates Shabbat with compassion and liberation for all from oppression.

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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.