Parashat Vayakhel

Ecology & Shabbat

Shabbat gives us an opportunity to stop trying to control the world.

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What Is Melakhah?

But it is not only living creatures that are freed from human control on Shabbat; it is the whole world. On Shabbat we stop working, stop traveling, stop creating. The Ten Commandments state about Shabbat that "You shall not perform any kind of melakhah (Exodus 20:10)."

In biblical Hebrew, the term melakhah refers to skilled or creative work. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, explains that physical exertion is not one of the basic criteria of the word melakhah. According to the Torah, if one lifts a heavy piece of furniture on Shabbat, he or she is not guilty of violating the prohibition against melakhah, even though such an activity is not necessarily in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat.

If, however, one plucks a leaf off a tree or plants a seed in the earth, then he or she has violated the mandate not to perform melakhah on Shabbat. A study of halakhah (Jewish law) reveals that the definition of work on Shabbat is an activity in which a person transforms anything in the environment for his or her own use, such as for food, clothing, or shelter.

Against Human Dominion

Observance of Shabbat--taking a day each week on which we do not transform nature at all--has the potential to alter a person's feeling of holding creative and technological control over nature. 

Rabbi Hirsch continues in his explanation of Shabbat by exclaiming "Sabbath in our time! To cease for a whole day from all business, from all work, in the frenzied hurry-scurry of our time! To close the exchanges, the workshops and factories, to stop all railway services--great heavens! How would it be possible? The pulse of life would stop beating and the world perish! The world perish? On the contrary, it would be saved ("The Jewish Sabbath," in Judaism Eternal 30)."

What is it about the observance of Shabbat that causes Rabbi Hirsch to see the day as a panacea for the world's problems?

He explains that Shabbat was given to the Jewish people "in order that [they] should not grow overweening in [their] dominion" of God's creation… a Jew "should refrain on this day from exercising [their] human sway over the things of [the] earth, should not place his hand upon any object for the purpose of human dominion, that is, to employ it for any human end; he must, as it were, return the borrowed world to its Divine Owner in order to realize that it is but lent to him (Ben Uziel 30)."

Hirsch continues, "On Shabbat you strip yourself of your glorious mastery over the matter of the world, and lay yourself and your world acknowledgingly at the feet of the Eternal your God (commentary to Exodus 20:10)."

The Concept of Tzimtzum

In this vein, Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, currently Rosh Yeshiva of Jerusalem's Yeshivat Darche Noam, comments that "During the six days of the week, God's presence takes on the dimension of tzimtzum, a limited manifestation of power, as He allows and even encourages man to exert human control over the world. This creative domination of the natural world, in all its dimensions, creates barriers between man and God. But every week, the Jewish people 'let go,' replicating God's tzimtzum by relinquishing their human control over the world. This enables man to forge an intimate connection with the Creator…"

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.