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Shabbat and Torah Learning

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, with Moshe briefly mentioning the idea of Shabbat and the prohibition of Melacha. 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 Berurah cites this Yalkut and stresses the importance of teaching these laws at the Third Meal of Shabbat, when people used to eat together. He notes, in a disapproving manner, that this was not the custom in his time.2 We will analyze a number of reasons why teaching about Shabbat, in particular was emphasized by the Torah.

In his introduction to third Section of the Mishnah Berurah which covers the laws of Shabbat, the Mishnah Berurah gives many reasons why one must learn the laws of Shabbat. Firstly, he outlines different aspects in which flagrantly breaking Shabbat is treated with the utmost severity.

In the positive sense, the Sages speak extremely highly of one who observes Shabbat: The Gemara3 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 Mitzvot to the extent that one who keeps Shabbat is viewed as if he kept the whole Torah.4

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 that philosophical reasons behind Shabbat to be able to properly observe it, but he thoroughly dismantles this approach: He cites the verse in Proverbs: “To know wisdom and mussar”5, 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. 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 transgressing forbidden activity on Shabbat.

If a person does not learn the laws of Shabbat, it is inconceivable that he will even know what all the situations where desecration of Shabbat 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 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 what is known as ‘Amira L’Akum’ – 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 a forbidden activity, 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 (losh) 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 myriad 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 law 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.6

  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.
  2. Mishnah Berurah, Volume 3, Simun 290, Sif kattan 6.
  3. Shabbat, 118b.
  4. See Shemot Rabbah, 25:12.
  5. Proverbs, 1:2. Mussar is the term used to describe learning that is geared at self-growth.
  6. One fairly new book that is particularly useful is ‘Learn Hilchos Shabbos in Three Minutes a Day’ by Rabbi Daniel Braude. If a person would like to learn the laws in a deeper way, there are programs that go through the laws of Shabbat in depth but presented in a very clear manner – for more information, be in touch with me on: Gefen123@smile.net.il.


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