Saturday and Shabbat

There are two warring ways of looking at Saturdays. The secular way uses the power of "diversion". The religious way uses the power of "amplification". That does not mean that religious Jews crank up the loudspeakers. And it does not mean that secular people make wrong turns. Both of these approaches are an attempt to achieve the most elusive goal, human happiness. Let's look at them one by one.

Diversion, simply put, keeps someone in a state of relative calm by diverting their attention from more distressing things. Most of the week, we are diverted from our existential questions by the practical necessities of daily life. We go to work, we go to school, we run errands and so forth. We don't have time to think about things of a deeper nature. We don't walk around asking ourselves, "what is the meaning of our lives?". We simply don't have time, since we get diverted from those questions.

Comes Saturday, and there is less to divert us. So we find other pleasant things, usually more pleasant than work and errands, to do the job. It could be those Saturday morning cartoons, or a hiking trip, or a concert or trip to the beach. All of these things are pleasant, and they divert our attention from the quiet gnawing questions about our lives.

Sometimes, diversion is extremely healthy and necessary. Too much stress, too little enjoyment, are extremely unhealthy. Everybody requires a vacation, everybody requires time to refuel, to laugh and enjoy. Sometimes, though, it is an avoidance technique to keep us from doing things that are very important for us. At an extreme, substance addictions are a form of unhealthy diversion. A person can't ask themselves hard questions if they are completely blasted. And by not asking those questions, their lives are not improved.

The religious approach of the Sabbath, amplification, starts inside the person. Instead of running away from meaning of life issues, we amplify them. Diversions are, by and large, forbidden on the Sabbath. No television, no trips to the beach. Instead, it is a synagogue service where the focus is a reading from the Bible. It is a Friday night meal where the whole family eats together and talks together. It is taking a walk with your spouse on a Saturday afternoon. It is meditating, it is singing, it is feeling at one with the world.

I tend to work a lot. I work until very late at night. I hate going to sleep without having finished what I had planned for the day. As a result, I do feel more stress at times. I can tell you that without Shabbat, I am sure my health would suffer. Shabbat forbids me to do all that work, it forces me to rejoice in my own existence. It forces me to rejoice in God's world. It forces me to amplify the important things in life, such as tradition, family, spirituality.

A couple of years ago I was preparing my first musical theater production. I had never imagined how much work and stress would go into it. I literally worked until a few minutes before Shabbat, and started again as soon as it was over. If not for those 25 hours of sanity, I really feel my health could have been compromised. Not only that, it was during those 25 hours that I was able to stop and enjoy life.

I guess that's the difference in approach. The approach of diversion is the approach of enjoying the Saturday morning cartoon. The approach of amplification is the approach of enjoying life.

Judaism wants us to make the Sabbath day holy, protected from all diversions, and discover the deep joy and peace of the Shabbat.

Judging and Voting "Present"

It seems that the Torah is simply prohibiting lighting a fire on the Sabbath. The question is, though, why is that necessary? All of the 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat are learned out from the 39 categories of labor required to construct the Sanctuary. The use of fire in cooking the dyes that would be used is one of those 39 categories. There does not seem to be an additional need for this verse, since we already know that it is forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath.

In truth, there are some reasons why a special verse is required for fire. On holidays, for example, fire is permitted in the service of cooking. So the Torah must specifically prohibit it. Secondly, the creation of fire was the first work done by Adam at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Therefore lighting a fire has a special significance.

But the sages extract a surprising law from this verse. A court is not allowed to impose a corporal punishment on the Sabbath. The explanation is that one of the methods available to the court of capital punishment is Burning. This, therefore, is explicitly prohibited. I might think it should be allowed, because by carrying out such a punishment we are removing an evildoer from the world. Nonetheless, the verse tells us that Burning, and by extension, all other forms of capital or corporal punishment which cause physical injury, are prohibited on the Sabbath.

The commentary Minchat Hinuch, written by Rabbi Joseph Babad who lived about 200 years ago, raises an interesting question. If the Torah's intention was simply to counteract a mistaken idea that capital punishments may be carried out on the Sabbath, why does it create a separate commandment to that effect? We have many examples of limitations on commandments that are learned from Biblical verses that do not rise to the level of a special commandment. Why is this one different?

I would like to add an even more basic question. If the intent was to teach us that capital punishments may not be carried out on the Sabbath, let the Torah say it explicitly. Why phrase it in the context of burning a fire – one of the capital punishments – and then having us extrapolate from there to the other types of capital punishment?

And, of course, why is this located at the beginning of the section describing the construction of the Sanctuary?

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, of blessed memory, often said that the "true fire of Sinai sheds warmth and sheds light and does not destroy anybody." He was referring to the burning bush which "was not consumed."

Many rabbis see a hint in this prohibition of fire to a warning to avoid fighting and arguing on the Sabbath. "Do not fan the flames of argument on the Sabbath day!" I believe that judgment and argument are intrinsically connected. When people begin to judge each other, the flames of discord are not far away.

A Mishna in the tractate of Negaim (leprosies) : "A person can see all of the cases of leprosy except for his own." Technically, this means that a person cannot decide if their own leprosy is pure or impure. It must be seen by someone else, even if he is a scholar himself. But this Mishna has been expanded by the ethical teachers to mean that a person is quick to spot the deficiencies in the other, but not his own deficiencies. The Vilna Gaon explain this in a clever way. A person's right side is considered the side of his merits, where his left side represents his flaws. Further, it is the nature of the right hand to pull things close and of the left hand to push things away. Thus, when a person stands opposite another person, they are right side is opposite the other's left. Thus, they will pull into themselves the other's flaws. Conversely, they will push away the other one's merits with their left.

But put the same person in front of a mirror, and then his right side is opposite his right side and his left is opposite his left. He will pull close his own merits, and push away his own flaws. When one does this, one judges the other. And, as we see, that judgment will in all likelihood be condemnatory.

Perhaps this is why the Torah uses the imagery of fire to prohibit condemnatory judgment. It is not the ideal fire of Sinai, but it is a necessary phase through which the world must pass. There do have to be judges, and there do have to be judgments. Just not on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath represents the ideal state of the world where there is no judgment. The Sabbath is evocative of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Indeed, our prayer service, which puts the focus on the Torah reading, is constructed as a reenactment of the revelation. Thus, the Sabbath and the Torah are united. As Rabbi Soloveitchik said, "The true fire of Sinai sheds warmth and sheds light and does not destroy anybody."

If there is no judgment on the Sabbath, then what is there? Simply being present. If a person stands in front of another person without pulling their flaws to them and pushing their merits away, they are just being present to that other person. This is very holy. It creates an identification, a bond. The Sanctuary served this purpose. It was a place of the Divine Presence. All human beings, wherever they were in life, could go to the sanctuary and be present to God and each other.

So, perhaps, the lesson to learn for us is to make the Sabbath a day of being present. Being present to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. We do not judge, we do not condemn, we do not fight. We just open ourselves up to all of God's creation.

The Sabbath Is a Life Changer

In the section of Vayakhel, the commandment of observing the Sabbath precedes the recounting of the construction of the Tabernacle. The Talmud deduces from this order that the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. One may not say that building a Tabernacle is such an important task that it should supersede the Sabbath, and be performed even on that holy day. No, quite the opposite. All 39 labors that were required to construct the Tabernacle become the 39 labors that are specifically forbidden on the Sabbath.

In the book of Leviticus, however, there is the following verse: "A man shall fear his mother and father, and you (in the plural tense) shall observe my Sabbath, I am the Lord." The sages of the Talmud use this verse to teach us another lesson of priorities. If your parent tells you to violate the Sabbath, you may not listen to them.

The commentaries ask that this seems to contradict the lesson of Vayakhel, that the sequence indicates precedence. There, the Sabbath preceded the Tabernacle, so the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. Why, then, in Leviticus, where the order is reversed, don't we say the same thing? We should say that fearing one's parents takes precedence over the Sabbath, because it precedes it in the verse!

What they don't mention is that in the 10 Commandments, Sabbath comes before "Honor thy father and my mother." Let's take a closer look at the way a person must relate to their parents, because this will lead us to the Sabbath and to the Tabernacle beyond.

Children must relate to parents in a special way, for two main reasons. First of all, gratitude for all of the kindness that our parents have done for us is the character trait behind the commandment to honor them. Honoring one's parents is performed by doing things for them. In the words of the Talmud, "take them out, take them in, feed them and clothe them..." This is the element of gratitude, of doing for them what they have done for us. For that reason, incidentally, the father is mentioned first, because it is less intuitive. A person naturally will love and wish to serve their mother, because she took more care of them during their infancy. So the Torah stresses that the father must also be respected and honored, equally to the mother.

The second reason children must relate to their parents in a special way relates to the child. It is because the parents are the link to tradition, and they pass on the mission of God to their children. This, I believe, is at the core of the commandment to fear one's parents. Fear does not mean trepidation that they will cause physical harm. The Talmud tells us what fear means: Do not sit in their place, do not contradict your parents, do not shame them. In other words, recognize that they are your teachers, and they are giving you your mission as part of the people of Israel.

The difference between the two reasons is huge. Gratitude is simply saying thank you, and doing kindness for them in return for the kindness they did for you. Fear -- respecting them as bearers of the mission -- tells the children how they must live their lives. It informs their purpose in life, and goes to the core of their identity. Our parents must become part of us, guiding us to continue the mission, to grow it and fulfill it.

Enter the Sabbath. At its core, the Sabbath is a day of acknowledgment of our divine mission. The Torah uses an interesting phraseology in introducing the Sabbath: "For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day it shall be a day of rest... whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die." It does not say we need to work for six days, it says "six days work shall be done". The emphasis is on the work, not on the doer. The doer is mentioned in the next verse, "Whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die."

When soldiers go out on a mission, they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the mission. That is the emphasis, not the actions they must take as part of that mission. The mission of the Jewish people is to build the Tabernacle, to bring God's presence into the world. Lest we begin to think that we are bigger than the mission, and that the mission is simply a means for our own aggrandizement, we are told to cease and desist on the day when God ceased creation.

I remember the year I produced my musical, and was fortunate to have an extremely devoted director working on it. He is a Sabbath observer, and the week before the show opened, he was put to the test. He had a lot of things that needed to be done, and needed to be ready for the Saturday night rehearsal. But Friday was ending, the sun was setting, and the Sabbath would start in a couple of minutes. He knew he would not finish in time, and would come to the rehearsal without full preparation, resulting in possible embarrassment and big problems for the production. He kept on working, and at one minute before sunset, he had to make a choice.

He chose the Sabbath. As he told me afterwards, when he put down all those papers and his pen, the most beautiful peace descended upon him and his home. He had never experienced such a wonderful Sabbath before. In that one choice, he affirmed that the mission is more important than the doer, and the mission is not the play. It's the Tabernacle, it's bringing God into the world. Nothing is more fulfilling than being a part of that.

And so, the order of these verses is perfect. A person should fear their parents, recognizing their sense of mission. That will lead them to observing the Sabbath, the day when we acknowledge that the mission is more important than the doer. And what is that mission? To build the Tabernacle, bringing God's presence into the world.

In other words, "You do not need to complete the work, but you are not at liberty to stop working at it." A person who works with the belief that they must complete the mission has put themselves above the mission. They will not learn from the Sabbath. A person who works because the mission needs to be done, recognizes that it is not their personal mission, but, rather, it is God's, will properly rest on the Sabbath, and lead a fulfilled life.