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Learning About Shabbat

Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shemos, 35:1-2: “And Moshe gathered all the assembly of the Children of Israel, and he said to them, ‘these are the matters that Hashem commanded, to do them. Six days you will do work, and the seventh will be holy to you, a Shabbat Shabbaton to Hashem, whoever does work on it will die.”
Yalkut Shimoni, Vayakhel, 1: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moshe, ‘Make yourselves into groups, and teach them in public the law of Shabbat'…”

The Torah Portion begins with Moshe gathering together the Jewish people to command them about the Tabernacle. The word used to describe this gathering is, ‘Vayakhel’ which is barely used when describing Moshe’s addresses to the nation. The Torah then continues, before discussing the Tabernacle to briefly, with Moshe briefly mentioning the idea of Shabbos and the prohibition of creative activity. The Yalkut Shimoni1 addresses this juxtaposition of a gathering with Shabbat: It explains that God was instructing Moshe to teach the laws of Shabbat to the Jewish people in groups. The question arises why is it with regard to Shabbat in particular, that the Torah makes this juxtaposition?

One possible approach is that in many aspects, Shabbat is one of the areas of Torah where it is most important to encourage people to learn the laws, and an effective way of spreading these laws, is by teaching groups of people. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah2 cites this Midrash and stresses the importance of teaching these laws at the Third meal when people used to eat together. He notes, in a disapproving manner, that this was not the custom in his time.3 We will analyze a number of reasons why teaching about Shabbat, in particular was emphasized by the Torah.

In his introduction to the third section of the Mishnah Berurah which covers Shabbos, the Mishnah Berurah gives many reasons why one must learn the laws of Shabbos. He cites the Sages who speak extremely highly of one who observes Shabbat: the Gemara4 states that one who keeps Shabbat correctly, is forgiven for all of his sins. In addition, Shabbat is described as being equal to all the Commandments, to the extent that one who keeps Shabbat is viewed as if he kept the whole Torah.5

The Chofetz Chaim then goes on to explain that Shabbat is also a foundation of our belief in God, because it represents our recognition that God created the world. Hence, one who does not keep Shabbat is viewed as if he denied all the Torah, because it indicates that he does not truly believe in the Divine Creation.

He then addresses an attitude that it is enough to know the philosophical reasons behind Shabbos to be able to properly observe it, and he thoroughly dismantles this approach: He cites the verse in Mishlei: “To know wisdom and mussar”6, and the Midrash which derives from the verse that if a person has wisdom he can then learn mussar, but if he does not have wisdom, he cannot learn mussar (mussar refers to self-growth). In the same vein, this means that if a person understands all the beautiful ideas about Shabbat, he still will not be able to properly observe it because he does not know the myriad laws that one must know in order to avoid unwittingly performing forbidden activities on Shabbat.

If a person does not learn the laws of Shabbos, it is inconceivable that he will even know what all the situations where desecration of Shabbos may result. One example is that it is not uncommon that a person will perform as simple an action as dabbing some water on a stain on his or her clothing on Shabbat. This is forbidden by the Torah according to all opinions. Another common area where people often do not know there is even a question is asking non-Jews to perform forbidden activities for Jews on Shabbat. A person who has not learnt these laws may think that it is always permitted to ask a non-Jew to do forbidden activities but this is most definitively not the case. Moreover, as the Chofetz Chaim points out, if a person does know the details of the laws then he will be able to navigate difficult situations to do them in a permitted way. For example, if a person does not know the laws of kneading, he may be afraid to mix various foods together, but if he has learnt the laws, he will know that under certain conditions it is permitted.

How can a person begin to approach learning the numerous laws of Shabbat? The Mishnah Berurah itself was written to enable people to learn the basic laws in a clear fashion. However, due to a variety of factors, it is not easy for most people to know the practical halacha just from learning the Mishnah Berurah. There are a number of clear, easy to follow works in English and Hebrew that are very helpful to learn.7 Alternatively, there are numerous options for classes in various formats.

The exact way in which a person learns about Shabbat is not of the greatest significance, rather the main point is that everyone spends some time to learn the numerous laws of this pillar of Judaism.

  1. The Yalkut continues to expound that we learn from here, that the community should also be gathered to discuss other laws, in particular the laws of Pesach. See the Ksav Sofer for a fascinating explanation of why the Yalkut began with Shabbos and then also included other laws.
  2. A seminal work on Jewish law, authored by the famed Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim.
  3. Mishnah Berurah, Chelek 3, Simun 290, Sif kattan 6.
  4. Shabbos, 118b.
  5. See Shemos Rabbbah, 25:12.
  6. Mishlei 1:2.
  7. One fairly new sefer that is particularly useful is ‘Learn Hilchos Shabbos in Three Minutes a Day’ by Rav Daniel Braude shlit’a. If a person would like to learn the halachos in a deeper way, there are programs that go through Hilchos Shabbos in depth but presented in a very clear manner – for more information, be in touch with me on:

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