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The Seventh Day

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As the name of this Torah portion would indicate, the people gather around Moses to begin learning the Torah which he received at Sinai.

The first lesson consists of the laws of Shabbat.

This should come as no surprise; we know that Shabbat is among the most "important" of the commandments, a cornerstone of Judaism.

We know that Shabbat is among the most "important" of the commandments, a cornerstone of Judaism.

Some commentaries highlight the juxtaposition of this teaching with the sin of the golden calf. The golden calf was surely idolatry on some level. Shabbat, as testimony to God's having created the world in six days, serves as a spiritual antidote to idolatry in the future.

How so? If we say that the golden calf was an attempt to "know God," Shabbat is offered by Moses as the correct method to achieve this goal. If you seek God and wish to know Him, observe Shabbat. This is the proper way to experience the Divine.


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What is striking is that the Jews have already been commanded to keep Shabbat, the idea of Shabbat having been mentioned on four different occasions in the Book of Exodus [16:23, 20:7-10, 23:12,31:13-17] in addition to the teaching at Marah [15:25] where traditionally we learn that the Jews were also commanded to keep Shabbat. [See Sanhedrin 56a, Rashi 24:3.] Why would a fifth (or sixth) time be necessary?

A closer look at the specific teachings in this Torah portion may be enlightening:

"Six days do melacha (work) and the seventh day shall be for you holy, a Shabbat Shabbaton for God; whoever does melacha (work) shall be put to death. Do not burn fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day." [Exodus 35:2-3]

We may reduce these verses to two central ideas:


  1. a prohibition against a certain type of work, called melacha, and



  2. a prohibition against the use of fire.


Some questions arise immediately: What is "melacha"? Why is fire excluded from the category of "melacha" and mentioned separately?

These questions are treated extensively in the Talmud, and surely no laws of Shabbat may be understood without halacha -- that is, without specific definitions of work on the one hand, and the unique category of fire on the other.

No laws of Shabbat may be understood without halacha -- the specific types of work and the unique category of fire.

The general framework of this section is built upon placing it into the context of the building of the Miskhan, the Tabernacle. The word melacha is the key to the section describing the work for the Mishkan [for example 35:21, 35:31, 35:33, 35:35, 36:1, 36:2, 36:3,36:4,36:5,36:6, 36:7, 36:8], as well as the key to our Torah portion, where Moses teaches the laws of Shabbat observance.

Our Sages therefore deduce that the types of work described in the instructions for building the Mishkan are the same types of work prohibited where the Torah prohibits melacha on the Seventh Day. In a word, the melacha prohibited on Shabbat is the very same melacha used in constructing the Mishkan.

That said, a more basic question now replaces our previous questions: Why are the laws of Shabbat derived from the section dealing with the building of the Mishkan?


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In a literal and literary sense, one might say that we have already answered this question: The same word, melacha is utilized in both sections. But in a larger sense, this answer begs the question. Surely God is creative enough to have provided a "word play" in any section of the Torah that He so chose, which would have elicited any number of alternative definitions for the key word melacha. Why specifically here, in the section which describes the building of the Mishkan, are the laws of Shabbat derived? There must be some intrinsic relationship between Shabbat and the Mishkan.

Of the two concepts, the Mishkan seems more difficult for us to grasp. Why would God need an earthly "home"? This question was posed in the Midrash. (Note that the term Mishkan refers to the Tabernacle, the term Mikdash refers to the Sanctuary or Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle):

When the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses "Make for Me a Mikdash" [Exodus 25:8] Moses said in front of the Holy One Blessed be, "Master of the Universe, the heavens and beyond cannot contain You, and You say "Make for Me a Mikdash!" The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, "Moses, not as you think I think, rather twenty boards to the north, and twenty boards to the south, and eight to the west, and I will descend and mitzamtzem (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) among you below." [Pesikta D'rav Kahana Parsha 2:10, also see Shmot Rabbah 34:1]

The need is evidently not God's but man's. For God to allow His presence to dwell in this sanctuary, some type of contraction, as it were, is necessary on God's part.

This same question may be posed about Shabbat. Does God need a "day of rest" or does man?

In one sense, the idea of Shabbat seems simple -- God worked creating the world for six days, and rested on the seventh. But upon critical analysis it seems absurd -- as absurd as God having a "home."


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Let us reconsider the idea of Creation. There was nothing, and then God created heaven and earth. This creation process continued for six days; at its completion God "rested."

This description contains a number of deeply embedded anthropomorphisms: God's "rest" as well as God's "creation."

While our idea of work (melacha) is to effect change in existing material, this is the perspective of a finite being utilizing creativity within a finite scheme. God, however, is infinite. The very notion of creation includes time, space and matter, all concepts which God transcends. His creation is described as yesh me'ayin, "something (matter) from nothing."

At times Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation.

At times Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation as yesh m'ein -- ein referring to the Ein Sof, the "Infinite." That is, something finite emerging from the infinite.

Consider the problem mathematically: any value added to infinity necessarily yields a sum which is infinite. When God who is infinite creates a finite value -- i.e. the world -- the sum total of reality should remain infinite. How can something finite be added to infinite?

The Kabbalistic response to this question is a term known as tzimtzum, "contraction."

Creation is not the result of God adding something finite; rather, it is the result of God holding back infinity, as it were.

We may now see creation, and therefore Shabbat, from a different perspective.

On the first day, God holds back infinity; likewise on the second through sixth days. Finally, at the end of the sixth day, the world is complete and God rests. In other words, God reverts back to a non-contraction mode, back to infinity.

Shabbat is therefore the day that represents infinity, the one day which relates to and reflects God on His terms, not via the tzimtzum.


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This concept of tzimtzum may give us further insight into Shabbat.

As stated earlier, God exits outside of time; therefore creation marks the beginning of time. Shabbat alternatively represents the infinite. What time was it prior to creation? It was a time of "infinity" or, in other words, it was Shabbat!

This means that creation took place on "the first day," the day after Shabbat.

This means that creation took place on "the first day," the day after Shabbat.

Creation is in the evening: "It was evening, it was morning, one day." Therefore, it can be said that creation takes place the very moment that Shabbat is over. The moment prior to creation is infinity/Shabbat, and the moment after the six days of creation is Shabbat, our own avenue to infinity. Both points indicate the same moment from God's perspective, though separated by a world of difference from our perspective.

We have noted that man has the opportunity to touch infinity by partaking of Shabbat. This observation may help us understand the exclusion of fire from the other melachot.

When the Talmud takes up a question regarding certain details of Havdalah -- the ritual at the end of Shabbat which separates the sacred and the secular, during which a multi-wick candle is lit -- the verse brought as substantiation is taken from Genesis:

One should not bless the candles until they give proper light. This was expounded by Rebbi Zeira the son of Rebbi Abahu: "God saw that the light was good," and afterward it states, "God separated (vayavdil) between light and darkness." [Jerusalem Talmud, B'rachot, Ch. 8, p. 12b, Halacha 3]

When we appreciate that the first day is the moment after Shabbat, this teaching takes on more meaning. Our Havdalah mirrors this first, essential vayavdil made by God with the act of creation.

Rabbenu B'chaye, commenting on this week's Torah portion makes this connection very clear. He explains that fire is separated from the other melachot in Moses' teaching because, just as God began the creation with fire by saying "Let there be light," so man begins the week with the fire of Havdalah.


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Let us now return to the laws of Shabbat which are derived from the melachot of the Mishkan.

Being that we are finite beings, our creation is necessarily different from God's. Our creativity is made manifest when an existing object is changed or transformed or improved by our actions. In other words, our creativity involves making "something from something" while God's work involved "something from nothing."

While God "held back" in order to create, man must do the opposite -- go forward. While God went into His "infinite mode" on Shabbat, transcending the tzimtzum He employed in creating the world, man must again do the opposite -- hold back his creative energies.

What we have described is an inverse relationship, due to the fundamental difference between man and God.

Man is said to be made in the image of God -- we are, in fact, the mirror image of God, reversed, opposites.

One may describe the relationship in the following terms: Man is said to be made in the image of God; we are, in fact, the mirror image of God, reversed so to speak. We are opposites. Therefore on Shabbat we "hold back" while trying to be like God in the only way which we can -- by imitating God's tzimtzum. Perhaps that is what we mean when we describe our rest on Shabbat as "a commemoration of the act of creation." We do on Shabbat what God did in creation.

We may now understand the intrinsic relationship between the laws of Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan. Both represent the idea of God holding back.


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I once heard Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zatz"al, explain that for a Jew, philosophical understanding leads to moral imperative. The Jew must emulate God, and practice tzimtzum in various relationships. This is the idea of gevurah, "strength," as the Mishna states:

Who is strong? The person who practices self control. [Avot 4:1]

This idea arguably stands at the core of all Jewish ethics, and marks a radical departure in the way man sees his responsibilities vis a vis his fellow man.

It is noteworthy that the Torah begins with Breishit bara Elohim -- the name Elokim being associated with the mystical realm of gevurah.

God practices "self -control" by limiting the infinite in the process of creation. Therefore we may view Shabbat as a one-day adventure in self-control often involving even the most mundane, arguably trivial activities, only because they are defined as creative activity, melacha.

It is hoped that such self-control will "spill over" into the week, elevating all our actions and thoughts.

Both Shabbat and the Mishkan are about God dwelling in this world. By virtue of our incorporating Godliness into our lives we redeem the world -- and establish a channel to the Infinite God.

This was the great message imparted to the Children of Israel by Moses upon his descent from Sinai.


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