Shabbat: Imitating Creation

May 9, 2009

11 min read


Understanding why God rested on the seventh day, and what it means for me.

Exodus chapter 35 begins with Moses gathering the people, ostensibly to teach them the Torah which he received at Sinai. He begins with the laws of Shabbat. This should come as no surprise; we know that Shabbat is among the most "important" of mitzvot, 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 for idolatry in the future.

Another connection between the sin of the Golden Calf and the choice of Shabbat as the first lesson lies in the very nature of the sin: 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.

What is striking is that the Jews had already been commanded to keep Shabbat, the idea of Shabbat having been mentioned on four different occasions in Exodus (16:23, 20:7-10, 23:12, 31:13-17) aside from the teaching at Marah (15:25) where traditionally we learn that the Jews were commanded to keep Shabbat (Talmud - Sanhedrin 56a; Rashi - Exodus 24:3). Why would a fifth repetition be necessary?

A closer look at the specific teachings in this section 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 melacha, and 2) a prohibition against the use of fire. But what is "melacha," and 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 definitions of work on the one hand, and the category of fire on the other.

The general framework of this section is built upon its context within the laws surrounding the building of the Mishkan. 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 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? 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, a priori, Mishkan seems more difficult for us to grasp. Why would God need an earthly "home"? This question was posed in the Midrash:

When the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: "Make for Me a Mikdash" (25:8), Moses said in front of the Holy One Blessed be, "Master of the Universe, the heavens and beyond can not 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 20 boards to the north, and 20 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)

The need is evidently not God's, but man's. For God to allow His Presence to dwell in this Mikdash, some type of contraction, as it were, is necessary on God's part. This same question may be posed about Shabbat. Why does God need a "day of rest"? In one sense we are comfortable with the idea of Shabbat; God created for six days, and rested on the seventh. But upon critical analysis it seems absurd -- as absurd as God having a "home."

* * *

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 athropomorphisms: 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," matter from nothingness, ex nihilo creation.

Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation as "Yesh m'ein," something from the Ein Sof -- 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 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, He "holds 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 which represents infinity, the one day which relates to and reflects God on His terms, not via the Tzimtzum.

* * *

This concept of Tzimtzum may give us further insight into Shabbat. As stated earlier, God exits outside of time; 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! In Jewish thought, creation takes 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 Havdala, 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 distinguished (Vayavdil) between light and darkness" (Jerusalem Talmud - Brachot 8:3)

When we appreciate that the First Day is the moment after Shabbat, this teaching takes on more meaning. Our Havdala mirrors this first, essential Havdala made by God with the act of creation. Rabbenu B'chaye 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 Havdala.

* * *

Let us return to the laws of Shabbat which are derived from the melachot of the Mishkan. Creativity is manifest when the object is "improved," but this type of work is fundamentally different from the work which God performed in Creation. God's work was "something from nothing," while our work is "something from something." Being that we are finite beings, our creation is necessarily different from God's. While God "held back" in order to create, man goes forward; while God goes into His "infinite mode" on Shabbat, transcending the Tzimtzum He employed in creating the world, man must hold back his creative energies. What we have described is an inverse relationship, due to the fundamental difference between man and God.

One may describe the relationship in the following terms: Man is said to be in the image of God; we are, in fact, the mirror image of God. We are opposites. Therefore on Shabbat we "hold back" while trying to be like God in the only way which we can -- by imitating the means of God's Creation, 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 this idea of God "holding back." And just as God answered in the Midrash --

"Moses, not as you think I think, rather 20 boards to the north, and 20 boards to the south, and eight to the west, and I will descend and 'Mitzamtzem' (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) among you below."

-- so, too, must God hold himself back in order to make possible the very creation of the world.

* * *

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained these concepts as follows: For Jews, 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 in the Mishnah: "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 Elokim," 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. This idea may be illustrated by an apparent contradiction. The Babylonian Talmud states:

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: "If all the Jews were to observe just two Shabbatot properly, Redemption would come immediately." (Shabbat 118b)

The Jerusalem Talmud states:

If all the Jews were to observe just one Shabbat properly, the Son of David would come. (Ta'anit 1:1)

We may say that the sources are not actually contradictory. In truth, we must observe only one Shabbat, as stated in the Jerusalem Talmud, but the one we must observe is the second Shabbat, as stated in the Babylonian Talmud. There is, after all, a significant difference between the first Shabbat and the second. A Shabbat observed in a spiritual vacuum would surely be spiritually uplifting, but this is not the type of Shabbat which would lead to Redemption. This first Shabbat should serve a different purpose, optimally influencing the ensuing week, effecting Sunday, Monday, etc. The spiritual value of that first Shabbat observed gives a different hue to the rest of the week.

The second Shabbat, approached after a week so influenced, is completely different. It marks a spiritual apex, not a spiritual island. This is the type of Shabbat whose observance will bring about Redemption. It is the Shabbat of a week, and a world, uplifted. (see "Pri Tzaddik," Rabbi Zaddok HaCohen)

Both Shabbat and Mishkan are about God dwelling in this world. By virtue of our incorporating Godliness into our lives, we redeem the world. This was the great message imparted to the Jewish people by Moses upon his descent from Sinai. This teaching gave them a channel to the Infinite God they sought.

Excerpted from "Explorations," by Rabbi Ari Kahn (Targum Press)

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