SHABBAT: HEAVEN ON EARTH
1. Introduction: The Centrality of Shabbos
Shabbos is the Jewish name for the seventh day of the week. The Torah
(Deut. 5:13) tells us,
"Sheshes yamim taavod -- six days you shall work -- u'vayom ha'shivii --
and the seventh day,
Shabbos l'Hashem Elokecha -- is Shabbos, for Hashem, your G-d."
The other days of the week, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc., don't
names of their own in Judaism, like Shabbos does. We refer to the weekdays
as "Yom Rishon
L'Shabbos -- Today is the first day toward Shabbos;" "Yom Shayni
L'Shabbos," "Today is the first,
second, third day to Shabbos." The name of each day represents its position
in time in relation to
Shabbos is at the very center of Jewish consciousness. Daily, we remind
ourselves of the centrality
of Shabbos and anticipate its arrival. We count towards it. We set aside
special foods and special
clothing for it. Shabbos is repeated more times than any other mitzvah in
the Torah, and it is the only
ritual observance which made its way into the Ten Commandments.
Most observant Jews will tell you that Shabbos is one of the greatest
sources of inspiration. And,
paradoxically, Shabbos is often the greatest hurdle to those testing the
waters of Judaism.
What is it about Shabbos that makes it so important, so powerful, and yet
so mystifying to people
who haven't experienced it?
2. Shabbos is a Taste of the World To Come
Let's begin with an interesting Medrash about Shabbos.
The Medrash tells us that when the Jewish people were gathered around Mt.
Sinai to receive the
Torah, G-d told them that Heaven would be their reward for keeping the
Jewish people asked G-d, "How do we know Heaven is so great? How about a
free sample to see
if it's worthwhile?" (Apparently, Jews have always been astute
businessmen.) G-d wasn't upset. He
was proud of His children. So He said, "No problem. I'll send you a
sample." And He gave them
the Shabbos. As the rabbis tell us, "Shabbos is 'Me'ein Olam Haba' -- it's
a taste of Heaven on
Earth." Heaven is where we enjoy the pleasure of a pure and unadulterated
experience of the
Infinite: G-d. Shabbos is a taste of that experience.
3. Refraining From Work on Shabbos Helps Us Recognize Our Creator
To understand more specifically what Shabbos is, let's begin with the two
that teach us how to observe Shabbos.
The first commandment is not to work on Shabbos. The Torah says, "Sheshes
yamim taavod," --
"Six days you shall work;" "Veyom Hashvii Shabbos L'Hashem Elokecha," --
"And the seventh day
is Shabbos to Hashem, your G-d." "Lo saaseh bo melacha," -- you shall not
do any melacha"
(melacha is a type of work which we will define a little later).
The second commandment is to rest on Shabbos. "Uvayom hashivii tishbos"
So we have one commandment not to do any melacha, and a second, positive
commandment to something called resting.
Before we examine the ramifications of each of these commandments, I would
like to draw your
attention to something interesting here. If the Torah tells us not to work,
obviously we're going to get
a lot of rest and relaxation. Why would we need a second, positive action
commandment telling us
to rest? That would be like saying, "Don't get your hands wet. Keep your
hands dry." Obviously if
you don't get your hands wet, they'll stay dry.
If the Torah has to give us two separate commandments, then clearly, one is
not the automatic,
instantaneous result of the other. The fact that refraining from work is
not sufficient to automatically
include rest, implies that the "resting" we do on Shabbos must be something
active and extra that
goes beyond the natural outcome of not working. Furthermore, it becomes
clear that the end goal of
Shabbos is not simply to create an environment where we put our feet up,
get a suntan and sip
So what is the real point of these commandments?
4. What Will Refraining From Work Accomplish?
In Breakfast of Champions, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, the main character of
the story is found one
evening nursing a drink in a bar. All of a sudden, he's consumed by
anxiety. Someone he very much
wants to meet, yet is somehow threatened by, has just walked into the bar
and is coming closer and
closer to his table. He turns around to hide his face. Suddenly, he feels a
tap on his shoulder. As he
turns around, he comes face to face with the author of the book in which he
is the main character.
His deepest fears have just become reality. Having cherished the hope that
he is master of his own
destiny, he now has to face the fact that he lives and dies by a stroke of
the author's pen.
Vonnegut's story depicts the conflict faced by every human being. On the
one hand, we all long to
make contact with the reality of G-d's existence, to be close to this
all-powerful Being who has
given us every aspect of existence that we have. On the other hand, we all
live with a nagging fear of
confronting the fact that we are not the captains of our ships; that we are
only second in command
of our lives. None of us openly wants to face the fact of our own
mortality; each of us has an ego
that would prefer to have ourselves at the center of the universe, in total
control of our own lives,
our own destiny, and the world.
In short, all of us would like to be Number One, if we could. So if we
could convince ourselves that
we are, we would try to get away with it as long as we can.
Shabbos is the Jewish people's tool to make sure we don't get too carried
away with the illusion of
our own power and misunderstand our place in the universe. The Torah's
instructions for Shabbos
provide a framework which helps us step out of the mundane world,
relinquish control of our
environment and return our focus from illusion to reality.
Refraining from work is the first step toward accomplishing this goal.
G-d gave mankind the power to manipulate and change the world. All of the
activities man is
involved in draw his attention toward his own power and make his awareness
of the reality of G-d
less obvious. Because of this, man is easily lulled into thinking that he
is in control of the world.
Once every seven days, we Jews step back from the world and make a
statement to ourselves and
humanity that we are not in charge of this world. We stop all creative work
and acknowledge that
"Ki sheshet yamim asa Hashem et ha'shamayim v'et ha'aretz." It is G-d who
is the primary Creator.
It is G-d's world, not ours. We can manipulate the world, but we don't own
it. It's not ours to do
with as we see fit all the time. We have a clear set of guidelines that
dictate the proper way in which
we may shape the world.
This is what the commandment of not working on Shabbos accomplishes for us;
we refrain from
melacha in order to regain clarity and understanding as to Who is the real
5. The Second Goal of Shabbos: Experiencing A Relationship With G-d
Once we've extracted ourselves from the illusions of our own power and
prominence, once we
realize we're not G-d, we free ourselves to reach out and experience the
primary goal of Shabbos:
getting in touch with G-d. This is what is referred to in the second
commandment as "resting."
As we mentioned at the outset, Shabbos is a special opportunity to
experience and enjoy the reality
of our Creator's existence. It's a taste of heaven on earth. While a person
can get in touch with G-d
and spirituality during the week, it only happens if he reaches out and
makes an effort to partake
of these experiences. He has to fight off the influences of the mundane
workday and break through
to the spiritual.
On Shabbos, however, the level of spirituality in the world is intensified.
G-d immerses us in a
spiritual environment or setting, and our perception of His closeness is
heightened. It's as if the static
blocking our reception during the week is removed. We refer to this
experience as "resting,"
because we rest from making the hard effort to get in touch with G-d; on
Shabbos it comes
naturally. The soul has no need to exert; it has what it's seeking -
closeness to G-d. It's at rest.
The dual commandments of Shabbos act together to help the soul come into
contact with G-d. As
we refrain from work, we free our attention from the pressures of the
workday and from the
delusion that we are the center of the universe. We are then able to take
advantage of the extra
spirituality infused in the Shabbos day to focus on our spiritual goals,
which we express through the
prayer service, the learning of Torah, the festive meals, and time spent
with family and friends.
6. On Shabbos We Don't Perform Any Activity Which Was Used To Build the
Now that we understand the purpose of not working, we can get more insight
into the concept of
Shabbos by examining the type of work that the Torah prohibits on Shabbos.
Not everything we
would view as work is prohibited on Shabbos, and many things which we would
think are not work
at all are forbidden on Shabbos. For example, lugging a 50-lb. sack of
potatoes from room to
room on Shabbos is technically permissible, while flicking on a light
switch is forbidden.
What is prohibited on Shabbos is melacha. This is a term used to describe
the 39 types of activities
which took place in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. These 39 activities
include, for example, planting,
cooking, writing, etc. and may not be done on Shabbos.
What is the connection between the Tabernacle and Shabbos?
The Tabernacle was established to be the physical place on earth through
which the Jews could
experience G-d's presence most directly; the experience of G-d is more
intense and tangible in the
Tabernacle than at any other place. Similarly, Shabbos is that time period
in which G-d's presence
is more intensely felt than at any other time of the week. In other words,
Shabbos is in time what the
Tabernacle is in space.
Therefore, on Shabbos, the activities used to build the Tabernacle are
since on Shabbos we already live, so to speak, in a Tabernacle in time. If
the goal of all of our
weekday activities is to create an awareness of G-d, then on Shabbos we've
already attained our
goal, and therefore it is precisely the activities used to build the
Tabernacle which have no relevance
to Shabbos. On Shabbos, G-d's presence is with us simply by virtue of the
This explains the reason behind a law that on Shabbos you are not supposed
to concern yourself
with any unfinished business you may have left from the weekday. Instead,
you are supposed to feel
that everything is complete.
Even if you haven't physically completed your projects, if you're working
all week toward the goal
creating an awareness of G-d, then you've achieved your goal on Shabbos.
Therefore you are able
to feel as though all your work is complete.
7. If Shabbos is Heaven on Earth, How Come I Don't Hear Angels Singing?
Now if Shabbos is such a powerful experience, why is it that many people
can go through it without
experiencing all that's available on Shabbos?
The following example illustrates the problem.
A lot of people come to Israel because they hear that Israel's a holy
country. They come to
Jerusalem because they hear it's a holy city. And they come to the Western
Wall, the site of the
Jewish Temple, because they hear it's a holy site, perhaps the holiest
place on earth.
Not infrequently, people will tell you that they came to Israel to
experience something holy and,
quite frankly, they didn't find it. It wasn't that much different than
What if we asked these people, "When you were at the Western Wall, did you
"What's a bafufstik?" they'll say.
"I didn't ask you what it is, I asked you if you experienced it!"
They'll say, "How do I know if I experienced it if I don't know what it
It's the same way with holiness. If you don't know what holiness is, you
won't even know if you
were in a holy country or a holy place. Similarly, with Shabbos, if you
don't know what you're trying
to experience and how to experience it, you're not likely to get the most
out of Shabbos.
8. What Shabbos Has To Offer Can't Be Seen Or Touched
So what is the experience of Shabbos, and how do you get in touch with it?
Imagine that you're in a room with someone and he says to you, "I want to
be able to tell if it's light
or dark in this room. How should I do that?" You say, "It's easy, just open
your eyes and see if it's
light or dark." He says, "You don't understand. Anyone can do that. I want
to be able to smell the
difference between light and darkness." You say, "You can't smell the
difference between light and
darkness." He says, "How about tasting it?" "You can't taste the
difference." If you want to be able
to tell the difference between light and dark, you have to use your eyes."
That's exactly people's problem with Shabbos. They are trying to experience
Shabbos with one of
their five senses. But you can't see Shabbos, you can't smell Shabbos, you
can't taste Shabbos. If
you want to connect with Shabbos, you have to get in touch with your sixth
sense. You have to get
in touch with your soul -- the real You.
There's a blessing we make at the end of Shabbos in which we thank G-d for
separating the holy
from the mundane, and light from darkness. This blessing is part of a
ceremony called "Havdallah,"
which literally means "separation." We compare the difference between that
which is holy (the
Shabbos) and that which is mundane (the weekday) to the difference between
light and darkness.
In making this comparison, our sages are telling us that the difference
between holiness and the
mundane is as clear as day and night, if you know how to look for it.
When you're in touch with your soul, when you tune out all the static and
distractions of your daily
activities, you'll realize that your soul is yearning for contact with the
ultimate, the Creator of the
Your soul doesn't want food or sleep - it's looking for spirituality, and
it will not feel fulfilled until it
comes in contact with it. The structure of Shabbos is designed to help the
soul come into contact
with G-d. The halacha, which guides our activity throughout Shabbos,
creates an environment that
allows us to transcend our physical selves and feel the special pleasure of
First, as we mentioned above, the special laws concerning not working
create an automatic
awareness of our own limitations and the presence of a Creator. Second, by
not working we free
our attention from the pressures of the workday and focus on our spiritual
goals, which are built into
the fabric of the day through the prayer services, the festive meals, the
learning of Torah, time spent
with family and friends.
9. More Than the Jew Has Kept Shabbos, Shabbos Has Kept the Jew
Shabbos is not only Judaism's best spiritual tool to help us cultivate a
real and tangible relationship
with G-d. The litmus test of whether an individual or family will remain a
vibrant part of the Jewish
people is their commitment to Shabbos. There is a famous maxim we Jews say,
"More than the Jew
has kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jew."
Bnei Brak is a city in Israel with a largely religious population. There
once was a fellow living there
who wasn't a religious man, but since he lived in the area, he sent his
daughter to a yeshiva. After
learning for a few years in yeshiva, the daughter decided she wanted to
observe the Shabbos. Since
the family did not want to observe Shabbos, fights broke out every week
between the parents and
One Friday afternoon, the daughter went to the local store to buy candles
for Shabbos. The
storeowner, who knew that the family did not observe the Shabbos, assumed
the girl wanted
yahrtzeit candles and gave her two of them. (Yahrtzeit candles are lit
annually in memory of a
deceased parent on the date of his or her death.)
That night, while her parents were downstairs, the girl went quietly up to
her room and lit the
candles. After calling her several times to join them downstairs for dinner
and getting no reply, her
parents went up to her room. As they opened the door, they saw the
Yahrtzeit candles burning.
Stunned, they asked her, "Who are these for?"
"Echad l'Abba," "One is for Dad," she said, unaware of the eery
significance of her words. "V'echad
l'Ima," "and one is for Mom."
The irony of their daughter's words hit home. Without the Shabbos, they
came to realize, it's only a
matter of time before their connection to Jewish continuity would be lost
forever. Slowly the parents
began to make their way back to a stronger, more vibrant Jewish lifestyle.
10. With a Little Effort, You Can Taste the Experience of Shabbos
I'd like to say in conclusion, that while Shabbos can appear to be a rather
daunting undertaking, in
Judaism, it's never all or nothing.
If at any time during the Shabbos you consciously make a decision to
refrain from doing melacha
because you want to get in touch with your real self and G-d, you could
experience the power of
I would suggest that if you want to taste the Shabbos, take 10 minutes
every Friday night or every
Saturday, and tell yourself that you're going to keep the Shabbos. Sit
yourself down, get in touch
with the real you and consciously make an effort to relinquish control of
the universe and get in
touch with our Father in Heaven.
Aish Discovery Rabbi