How Shabbat Changes Us

March 8, 2020

6 min read


Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

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We are influenced by the company that we keep. Friends have an especially profound influence on how we feel, think and behave - even how we identify.

A 2013 study published in Psychological Science, and a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, show that friends greatly influence the choices we make. Another recent study shows that people with close friends are likely to live longer, and that friendships reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.

But, in this week's parsha, we read about a friend of a different kind - though one no less influential.


"The Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for their generations." (Shemot 31:16)

The Midrash describes Shabbos as the eternal companion of the Jewish people. And the relationship between the Jewish people and Shabbos has indeed endured for thousands of years. It has spanned continents and historical eras. Wherever we have gone, Shabbos has accompanied us every step of the journey - and, like a good friend, it has positively impacted us. It helped us discover, and become, our best selves. It has defined our very identity.

How has Shabbos sustained generations of Jews through every imaginable circumstance? What is the secret power of this God-given gift, and how has it been able to exert such influence on us?

When we keep Shabbos, we proclaim some of the most important principles of our faith. Every Friday night, as we gather around our Shabbos tables and recite the ancient words of the Kiddush prayer, we declare that God created the world, and bear witness to the fact that the beauty and sheer engineering brilliance of the universe is His work; we declare that God took us out of Egypt and bear witness to the fact that He is interested in human affairs and that He guides history; and that He wants us to live in accordance with the moral and spiritual principles which He revealed to us.

These basic tenets of Jewish faith are deeply transformative. They are the pillars that guide us as communities, and as individuals, in our daily lives. They frame our worldview as Jews and give us comfort and conviction. They make us who we are.

The Ramban explains that this connection between Shabbos and faith in God is also the connection between Shabbos - the fourth of the Ten Commandments - and the first three commandments, which detail our relationship with our Creator in more explicit terms. The first commandment is about the existence of God. The second commandment is about not worshipping other gods, and the third commandment is about giving appropriate respect to God. Shabbos, which declares God as the Creator of the world, says the Ramban, is their logical extension.

Practically speaking, how does Shabbos connect us to faith? The Ramban explains the twofold process alluded to in the two words the Torah references to observing Shabbos. We are commanded to "remember" Shabbos (zachor), and to "observe" Shabbos (shamor).

He says, based on the Talmud, that "remembering" Shabbos means being cognisant of Shabbos even during the days of the week, as well as on Shabbos itself, when we verbally declare the abovementioned foundational tenets of the Jewish faith.

"Observing" Shabbos, on the other hand, is about desisting from the acts of creative work prohibited on Shabbos. The irony is that this seemingly endless list of regulations and prohibitions is amazingly liberating, because it's the things we can't do on Shabbos that free us up to do the things we can. Says the Ramban, "observing" Shabbos allows us the opportunity to fully engage ourselves in spiritual pursuits - learning Torah, connecting to God through deep, heartfelt prayer, and deepening our faith in our Creator.

There is another way in which Shabbos is spiritually transformative: it reaffirms our role as God's partner in creation. The Midrash makes this explicit, stating that whoever recites the paragraph Vayechulu - which refers to God's completion of the world on the very first Shabbos of creation, and which we say in the first part of the Kiddush on Friday night - "it's as if he has become a partner with the Holy One, blessed is He, in creation".

Conceptually, Shabbos is a mitzvah that actively demonstrates that we are God's partners in creation. The Torah explains that we work for six days and rest on the seventh because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. By mirroring our own existence in our Creator's, the Torah is signalling to us that we are essentially creators, like Him, moving through the very same seven-day cycle of creation and rest.

But, we are not just God's partners in creating the world out there. We are very much partners in creating ourselves. And Shabbos is a crucial element of this process of inner transformation.

The Talmud identifies 39 categories of work that are prohibited on Shabbos. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says the common denominator is that all 39 are expressions of human creativity. All 39 melachot (acts of work) - whether it be harvesting, baking, cooking, carrying or lighting a fire - are about imposing human will on the world to achieve creative and constructive objectives. Rabbi Hirsch explains that God gave us powers of creativity to exercise freely. This we do during the week. But on Shabbos, we "give back" these powers to God. We acknowledge the Divine source of our creativity. We acknowledge the One who created us, who gave us these creative powers, as the ultimate Creator.

Shabbos, then, becomes about a different kind of creativity. Shabbos teaches that creativity is not just about tangible things. We do the work of becoming better people. During the week, we are involved in creativity which has a tangible, measurable impact on the world. On Shabbos, the focus switches. We transfer our creative energies into creating ourselves. We do this by acknowledging God as the Creator of the universe, which, as we have discussed, has a deep impact on our faith and sense of identity. But, on Shabbos, we also transform ourselves through the time and mental space we are afforded to work on our characters, to reflect on our lives, to build and enrich our relationships with others and with God. Their impact may not be directly observable or tangible in a traditional sense, but these are all intensely creative endeavours. On Shabbos, we learn to appreciate the idea of internal creativity that emerges from ceasing external creativity.

We learn this from God Himself. The Torah says: "God completed His work on the seventh day." (Bereishit 2:2) Rashi, referring to the Midrash, says the verse implies that God did actually perform creative "work" on the seventh day; that rest itself was a creation. The Torah is reinforcing the idea that there is a creative aspect to desisting from work on Shabbos - that rest on Shabbos isn't about doing nothing, and creativity is not just about what we produce physically. People tend to measure themselves by their tangible productivity. Unless they are creating something that can be touched, measured or charged for, they believe they are not being productive. But, sometimes, we need to stop our frenzied activity so we can focus our attention inwards. When we cease external creativity and focus on developing ourselves and improving our relationships with our families and community, when we invest in our spirituality and our connection to God, and in the relationship with ourselves, we are being no less productive and creative. The laws of Shabbos are structured in such a way as to facilitate this form of productivity and creativity.

Ultimately, we see that becoming a partner with God in creation is not just building the external world, it's about building our own inner world, transforming ourselves into the best version of us we can be. And Shabbos, in many ways, aids us in this task - it's a day on which we withdraw from the world in a certain sense and replenish our inner reserves; it's deep, spiritual "quiet time" that refreshes and reinvigorates us, that refines and redefines us.

By making the declaration of Vayechulu, that God created heaven and earth, we become a partner with God in creation in this full sense. Of course, God does not need our affirmation. As the Ramban explains, Shabbos, like any other mitzvah, is for our benefit, not God's. And, like any other mitzvah, like any good friend, Shabbos helps us become better people. It transforms us.

There endures a deep and loving friendship between the Jewish people and Shabbos, a friendship that is deeply embedded in our national psyche. This emotional connection to Shabbos is reflected in the words of an ancient song traditionally sung on Friday night. "Mah yedidut menuchatech - How beloved a friend is your rest".

It is this friendship with Shabbos, this enriching relationship, that has truly transformed and uplifted the Jewish people for thousands of years, and will continue to do so forever.

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