by Rav Doniel Schreiber

SHIUR #1: Introduction

I. How is Shabbat special?

After a full week of mundane, hopefully satisfying, hard, oft tension filled, work we look forward to the arrival of a day of rest, the Shabbat. Our anticipation aside, a question arises: is Shabbat really unique and special, or is it simply a day off?

The importance and significance of Shabbat is noted extensively throughout Jewish literature. In tefilla on Friday night we say, "You have sanctified the seventh day in Your name; it (the Shabbat) is the purpose of creation," a quote that is reminiscent of the story of creation (Bereishit 2:3) and the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:11). In the Shabbat mincha service we recite: "You gave Your nation a day of rest and of holiness." Furthermore, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 3:9) states that keeping Shabbat is equivalent to performing all the mitzvot, a statement that is also echoed in the Zohar. Berakhot 40b says that experiencing Shabbat is like enjoying one sixtieth of Olam Ha-ba (the world to come). Beitza 16b and the Zohar speak of a person having an additional or elevated soul on Shabbat. All these characteristics certainly seem to highlight Shabbat as an exceptional, sublime day and an extraordinary experience.

II. Shabbat: A day on, not a day off

How can we call Shabbat "special?" In fact, what do we really accomplish on Shabbat? After all, one might claim, we mostly seem to refrain from activities on the seventh day. Shabbat is merely a day of rest, a day off from hard work.

This claim, however, is clearly false. Firstly, many of the melakhot (acts which are forbidden on Shabbat) apply even where there is little or no physical exertion involved. For example, it is forbidden to add a small stick to a fire or to pluck a blade of grass. It appears to be that melakha is not synonymous with physical strain. Therefore, one cannot fulfill Shabbat by merely refraining from physical exertion. Additionally, it would be incorrect to assume that a person who sleeps through the entire Shabbat has "kept" the Shabbat. On one hand, he certainly did not perform any forbidden work. On the other hand, he just as assuredly did not do anything to actively achieve the objectives of Shabbat.

What are the goals of Shabbat observance? In part, the answer is that one who actively observes Shabbat is acting as a witness attesting to the creation of the world by God, (see Bereishit 2:2-3 and Shemot 20:11). By imitating God and resting on Shabbat, we proclaim to the world that it was God "Who rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had made."

The observance of Shabbat is also supposed to recall yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus from Egypt (see Devarim 5:15). In the same manner as during the creation of the world, God demonstrated through our Exodus that He was the creator. We were the vehicle by which God broadcast to the world that He created it (see Devarim 4:34). The choosing of Am Yisrael was integral to the world realizing that God is the creator. Consequently, it is on Shabbat that we ought to remember that God chose us as His nation and redeemed us from servitude in Egypt. Thus, beyond the universal message of the creation of the world, Shabbat is suffused with national import - the creation of our nation.

Finally, on Shabbat we are commanded "shamor ve-zakhor," observe and remember (see Shemot 20:8 and Devarim 5:12; and Shevuot 20b and Berakhot 20b). The Torah also informs us that Shabbat is a day of "shabbaton" (a solemn day of rest - Shemot 17:23). We are also enjoined to observe "kavod ve-oneg Shabbat" (the honor and delight of Shabbat); commentators debate whether this is a biblical or rabbinic command. (See Rambam, Laws of Shabbat, chap. 30, Ramban Shemot 20:8 and Vayikra 23:2.)

While "shamor" refers to issur melakha, forbidden work, "zakhor" (see Ramban Shemot 20:8) and "shabbaton" (see Ramban Vayikra 23:24; gemara Shabbat 114b; however, see also Rambam Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment 157) refer to the positive mitzvot associated with the sanctity of Shabbat. For example, "zakhor" demands that one sanctify Shabbat through kiddush, while "shabbaton" requires one to maintain the Shabbat as a day of rest, even from non-melakha actions such as business or strenuous activities. On another level, we are commanded to observe kavod ve-oneg Shabbat. They include not only spiritual, but also earthly delights: eating well and often,in fine attire and in a bright and sparkling atmosphere. To fulfill this we clean our homes, dress well, light Shabbat candles and eat three festive meals. [Halakhic decisors debate whether there is an additional dimension to Shabbat - simcha (rejoicing); see Yalkut Yosef, vol. 4, pp. 6-7, note 4.]

III. The Shabbat Experience

We have mentioned three objectives that should be accomplished on Shabbat: to testify that God is the creator of the world, to remember our Exodus, and to remember and keep Shabbat. There is, however, a very important fourth dimension to observing Shabbat. Shabbat gives us the chance to renew our relationship with God; to, "recharge our spiritual batteries." It has been said: "More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people" (see also Kuzari 2:34 and 3:10). How is this accomplished?

A fascinating idea, developed by Moreinu HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a, sheds light onto our understanding of the Shabbat experience. The Torah forbids melakha (lit. work) on Shabbat in the parashot of Yitro (Shemot 20:10) and Mishpatim (Shemot 23:12), but does not cite the punishments of karet (the cutting off of one's soul) and sekila (lit. stoning) for its violation until later on in Sefer Shemot, parashat Ki Tisa (31:12-17). Moreover, many characteristics of Shabbat are revealed in parashat Ki Tisa, not in the earlier parashot. It is in Ki Tisa that Shabbat is referred to as an ot (lit. a sign) and a brit (lit. a covenant) between God and the Jewish people. Why were these themes first mentioned here in Ki Tisa, and not in the earlier presentations of Shabbat in Yitro and Mishpatim?

The parasha of Ki Tisa introduces the idea of hashra'at ha-Shekhina (the settling of Divine Presence amongst the Jewish people) in the context of building the mishkan (the Tabernacle) (see Teruma, Tetzaveh, and Ki Tisa). Building the mishkan allows the settling of the Divine Presence amongst the Jewish people in the dimension of space. It is appropriate, then, that in the context of this new idea, God chooses to add that hashra'at ha-Shekhina can take place not only in the dimension of space (mishkan), but also in the realm of time (Shabbat).

We now understand why the Torah waits until Ki Tisa to teach us that Shabbat is a sign and covenant. Only when we understand that God is dwelling among us in a special way on Shabbat can we appreciate that Shabbat is a sign and covenant between us and Hashem. Only in this context can we understand that one who violates Shabbat has not merely performed a forbidden act, but, as Ki Tisa states, he has been mechallel (profaned) the Shabbat (Shemot 31:14). At this point the Torah informs us that one who performs melakha on Shabbat incurs the punishments of karet and sekila. This harsh punishment is not due to violating a prohibition, but to the degradation of the kedushat ha-yom of Shabbat, as stated explicitly in the pasuk (Shemot 31:14) "Mechalleleha mot yumat."

While hashra'at ha-Shekhina places a great onus upon the Jewish people in that we must take care to avoid issur melakha, it also provides us with unique opportunity to cleave to God. Shabbat is a time when Hashem and B'nei Yisrael "rush into each others arms." It is a time to blend spiritual and earthly pleasures. We use this opportunity to increase our Torah study (our primary bridge to Hashem), to enjoy and strengthen our families (the primary source of our mesora, tradition), and to realize the depths of our spiritual capacities in our earthly bodies. Shabbat, indeed, nourishes the Jewish people and bonds us ever more closely to the Shekhina. It is not surprising, then, that sensitive Jews rejoice at the onset of Shabbat, and despair at it's conclusion.

May our dedication to learning the laws of Shabbat improve not only our shemirat Shabbat, but also our living of Shabbat.

I would like to take the opportunity to wish all the participants in this shiur a gemar chatima tova and a shana tova. May this be a year of health, happiness and success for us all.


Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433