HMS 5764-5; Shabbat I – The Origins of Shabbat

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

November 3, 2003

Number 5764-5 Shabbat I – The Origins of Shabbat

The oldest holiday on the Hebrew Calendar is Shabbat. The Torah dates it from the seventh day of creation. On that day, G-d ceased creating and rested. The name “Shabbat” is one of those words that seem to have no history. We don’t find any word or any concept in the ancient world that is comparable to the Jewish Shabbat. All attempts to find a source for Shabbat in ancient writings has been futile.
Shabbat is also the only holiday mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment insists upon a day of rest for every member of the family, including the hired help and any working animals in the household. Shabbat therefore is linked to one of the most important moments in Jewish history, the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.
Shabbat is also linked to the future. The Sages of the Talmud taught that to experience Shabbat was to experience 1/60 th of the “World to Come.” Our rest, therefore, is tied directly to future time, a time when the whole world, perhaps the whole universe will know the peace of Shabbat.
These three understandings of Shabbat are reflected in the three main services that we perform on Shabbat. Friday night is dedicated to Shabbat as the pinnacle of Creation. So we sing “Vayechulu HaShamaim, a quote directly from the creation story. On Shabbat morning, the service is dedicated to Revelation, and we sing, “V’Shamru B’nai Yisrael” that refers to Shabbat as a commandment of G-d. The Shabbat Mincha Service is dedicated to the end of days, When all the world will benefit from the rest we observe on Shabbat. Shabbat is the only day on the calendar where the Amida for Maariv, Shacharit and Mincha, are all different from each other. This too reflects the three themes, Creation, Revelation and the Final Redemption.
Shabbat has always been a difficult Mitzvah to perform. The Maccabees had to suspend Shabbat during their war with the Greek forces since the Greeks would wait to attack on Shabbat when the Jews would not fight. The Pagan Romans would laugh at the Jews who would not work seven days a week. To a pagan, work was the way one acquired power from the gods. The Roman’s could just not understand why the Jewish G-d would not have them work every day! Throughout the middle ages, Shabbat kept the Jewish people united. Achad HaAm, one of the great writers of the Emancipation noted, “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American philosopher, calls Shabbat a “Palace in Time” noting that all week long we work in the world of things, making things, changing things altering things, but on Shabbat we leave the world of space behind and choose to dwell in the realm of time.
In Judaism the whole week revolves around Shabbat. The days of the week do not have Hebrew names, they are only numbered as the first, second or third day before Shabbat. Some see Shabbat as the pinnacle of the week, with each day leading up to this highlight of our days. Others see Shabbat as a wave, with Wed, Thurs, and Friday as days leading up to Shabbat and Sun, Mon, and Tues as days that bring us down from Shabbat. The Psalm that is said on Wednesday is Psalm 94. We add to that Psalm on Wednesday the first few verses from Psalm 95, the Psalm that opens up the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, calling attention to the fact that Wednesday is the swing day that leads us back to the heightened spirituality of Shabbat
While Shabbat starts with a great feast and with grand pageantry, over the 25 hours of Shabbat the physical aspects of the holiday begin to wane. The meals become more meager and the music becomes simpler. At the same time, the harried and hurried pace we start Shabbat with, slowly, over the 25 hours of the day, becomes slower and slower. The spirituality that thrives on our rest and relaxation begins to grow stronger and stronger. By the end of Shabbat we have almost left the physical world and spiritually we are very strong. Unfortunately, Shabbat then comes to an end and we have a sort of “crash” as we begin to adjust to the real world again. The Havdala Service, four simple blessings, over wine, over spices, over the light of a special candle and over the transition from holy time to secular time, we cushion our fall and prepare to begin another week.

Next week: Shabbat II – Work and Shabbat

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