By Rabbi Haim Shalom, rabbi of Menorah Synagogue, Cheshire Reform Congregation, Manchester, England – a community eager to welcome all
Looking at Parashat Bereishit, there are so many themes which could jump out at us to look at. One could choose to look at the Theological meaning of the creation story. One could choose to look at the first case of murder in the bible. Or we could focus on the “sin” of Adam and Eve and their exile from the Garden of Eden. But if we were to focus on the particularly Jewish concepts that come out of this reading, then it is the concept of Shabbat which is most uniquely Jewish.
Shabbat is, after all, a concept brought to the world by the Jews. In the ancient world, there is little evidence to suggest that other cultures had a weekly day of rest (while the Babylonian calendar does have specific days in which temple officials do not officiate, it appears that “rest days” are only once a month.) What makes the concept of Shabbat even more unique is that it defines a completely non-natural period of time. All other commemorations of the passing of time are determined by nature – a day is the time it takes for the earth to revolve. A month is the time it takes for the moon to orbit the earth. And a year is the time it takes the earth to move round the sun. There is no natural link to seven days – this is the invention of either God or Humankind. As such it is worthwhile looking at what our tradition says is special about this day.
While we think of Shabbat as a day of rest, nowhere in the Torah is Shabbat referred to as such. The term “מנוחה” (Hebrew for rest) does appear a couple of times in the Torah, but never in relation to the Sabbath day. What is said? The Shabbat is introduced at the end of the first creation story from parashat Bereishit, which we recite as part of our Kiddush on Friday nights:
“Now the heavens and the earth were completed and all their host. And God completed (וַיְכַל) on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained (went on strike) (וַיִּשְׁבּת) on the seventh day from all His work that He did. And God blessed (וַיְבָרֶךְ ) the seventh day and He sanctified (ַויְקַדֵּשׁ) it, for thereon He abstained שָׁבַת)) from all His work that God created to do.” (Genesis 2:1-3)
The translation is my own and I have chosen to emphasise certain parts, but it is a true translation.
This paragraph starts by saying that the heavens and earth were completed (presumably within the first six days). But it then goes on to talk about what God did next. And it clearly states that the act of completion took place on the seventh day. Moreover – what we usually regard as a cessation of work, should rightly be seen not as a passive lack, but rather as an active strike. The Hebrew verb “לשבות” which is the source of the word Shabbat does in fact mean in modern Hebrew, “to strike”. God’s choice not to continue creating is not because God was tired, but rather was an active act which was followed by two more active acts – blessing and sanctifying. So on the seventh day – God actually did plenty.
He completed the works of creation:
– He went on strike
– He blessed
– He sanctified
What is happening in this passage is that we are being shown that the essence of Shabbat is not rest, but rather another activity – actively resisting the impulse to create, to mould the world around us.
If we look at the other canonical texts of the Shabbat, we see this theme repeated. While the Sabbath is brought to our attention as part of the creation story, the Kiddush for Erev Shabbat does not link it to the act of creation, but to a completely different historical moment. The Friday night Kiddush calls Shabbat: “זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם” – a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. Why? What does Shabbat have to do with our Exodus from Egypt? Just as our Exodus from Egypt is the supreme historical example of freedom from the bondage of physical labour, so Shabbat is our symbol today of our freedom from the material world of creating and making, and moulding the world to our own physical needs.
In the Kiddush for Shabbat Day, in a passage taken from the book of Shmot (Exodus 31:17), the Shabbat is referred to as a covenant between the people of Israel and God. And we are told this is because God “שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ” – abstained and “restored His soul” – vayinafash is often translated (wrongly) as rested. But it is really connected to the Hebrew word for soul. God restores His soul – not by rest but by reconnecting with a world which is not about doing.
The symbols of Shabbat add to this understanding of the day as one of active engagement with the world – the weekly festival is brought in and concluded by the lighting of candles – a symbol of light, of freedom, of goodness. Shabbat is not about rest – it is about activity – it is about bringing light to the world by being able to resist the material world’s hold on us, by being able to restore our souls.
The Hebrew poet Zelda writes in her poem, “To light candles – להדליק נרות”:
להדליק נרות בכל העולמות, זוהי שבת.
To light candles throughout the entire world, that is Shabbat.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it in his book on Shabbat, Shabbat is, “to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” (A J Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 1951.)
May we all find our own way to make this Shabbat a day of action, of bringing light to the world and of bringing a little more freedom to all humankind.