Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 19
February 27, 2006
Mitzvah 20: Resting on Shabbat
Mitzvah 20 – It is a positive commandment to rest from work on Shabbat.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “but on the seventh day you shall rest” (Ex. 23:12) By this commandment we are also ordered and enjoined about our domestic animals, that they should rest from work. To tell a non-Jew to do some work is forbidden by the Sages. ( it is in the category of Shevut) It is in force everywhere and at every time for both men and women.
One of the drives that all human beings must deal with is the drive for power. We need to feel that we are in control of our lives. We like to feel that the world is not random, and we are being buffeted by a thousand winds that blow, but that we have made ourselves strong, we have build strong houses, we have stored up food and supplies. We have made fur coats and down blankets to keep us warm and waterproof jackets to keep the rain off of our backs and heads. We do all of this with money, the fruit of our labor. Sometimes we actually make something we need, but usually we purchase it from others with the money we have earned. Judaism is very clear that work is an important value and earning a living is an important part of life. Money is neither good or bad in Judaism. It is a fact of our lives (Judaism says a lot about how we make money and how we spend money, but not about the morality of having it) Judaism does insist, however, that the drive to have money not take over our lives. We control the drives, the drive does not control us. We control our drive for power with Shabbat.
Ancient Romans thought that the Jews were the laziest people they had ever met. In the pagan world, the more you worked, the more money you made and the more power you had. Power was a gift from the gods. It showed that the gods favored you. The very idea of taking one day out of seven off from work was absurd to the pagan mind. Jews understood that the quest for money and things could consume a life and make it shallow and empty, so we set this Shabbat time apart to remember that there are some very important things that are not found in what we make and what we earn.
Shabbat rest is about having time with our family without the distractions of a job that must be done. Shabbat rest is about having fun without having to worry about how we will pay for it. Shabbat rest is about being a part of nature and not just rushing by on our way to the next important meeting. To be sure, there are laws about rest. Some seem to make a lot of sense; you should not carry money, ride in a car, cook food, write or do laundry. These are everyday activities and not in keeping with the holiness of Shabbat. But taking a long hike, carrying a handkerchief outside or watching TV seem to be activities that don’t require breaking a sweat. Why are they forbidden?
The Torah tells us that we must not do “melachah” on Shabbat, but it never defines what “melachah” is. The only way the Sages had to determine what “melachah” is all about was to notice that the commandment to refrain from it was written just before they began to construct the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. The Sages determined that there were 39 different activities that were involved with building the Mishkan, so they declared these 39 activities forbidden. Over the centuries, other activities, that were connected with these 39 also became forbidden as Shevut, not part of the command but close enough to be included in the prohibition of work. A third category, involves things that we don’t do because they may lead to a prohibited activity. For example, we don’t carry a pen on Shabbat because we may forget ourselves and stop to write something down.
Resting on Shabbat is an art form. It is not just a series of laws. We have to find our own way to balance the holiness of the day and the prohibition against work One can not take on the “mountain” of laws of Shabbat overnight. We grow in our observance of Shabbat as we discover how it makes our lives better. Herman Wolk, the famous playwright notes that after Shabbat is over, and he returns to the daily panic of a Broadway play, that, after his Shabbat rest, he is able to step back from the pressure, and often makes his best contributions on Saturday night.
Shabbat is not just about making one day in seven holy, it is also about making the other six days more productive and richer.
Next week: Mitzvah 21: Rejoicing on the Festivals.