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Shabbat: The Eternal Covenant

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

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shemos, 31:12: “And the Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbat (v’Shamru), to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for their generations…”
Bereishit, 37:11: “And his father anticipated (shamar) the matter.”
Rashi, Bereishit, 37:11, Dh: Shamar: “He was waiting and anticipating when it would come…”

The Torah instructs the Jewish people to keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant with God. The word used is ‘veshamru’ – the traditional understanding of the word ‘shomer’ is to guard or observe, and in this vein, the Torah is commanding us to not do forbidden activity. However, the word ‘shomer’ is also used in the sense of anticipating, as in the verse that “Yaakov shamur et hadvar” – Rashi explains that Yaakov was anticipating the future. In this sense, the Torah is commanding us to anticipate the Shabbat. The importance of these two aspects of Shabbat is underlined by the following incredible story involving the Chofetz Chaim and its interpretation by Rabbi Mannis Mandel.1

Rabbi Simcha Kaplan relates that a woman who lived in the city of Mir told him this story: She explained that she and her husband were childless for many years. Eventually, they had one child, but he was very sickly. He did not grow, he did not eat, he was weak, he did not walk until he was much older. The parents consulted with the many doctors but they could not help so they send them to a specialist in Vilna who told them that the child had a heart problem. The specialist said that there was nothing he could do to help the child. He affirmed that the child would only live for another couple of years and there was no hope of a recovery.

The couple were understandably heart-broken, but they refused to give up hope. Someone advised them that on the way back from Vilna to Mir, they should stop in Radin and ask the Chofetz Chaim for a blessing. They managed to arrange a meeting with the Chofetz Chaim through his granddaughter’s husband. They told him their tale of woe and begged him to do something for them. The Chofetz Chaim apologetically told them that there was nothing he could do to help them. The grandson who had accompanied them to see his wife’s grandfather then yelled out, “but it is their only child!” The Chofetz Chaim said”, “It is an only child? Then I will tell you what to do!” He spoke to the mother and said “I want you to accept upon yourself from this day on that every Erev Shabbos by noon you will have the table already set for Shabbos and have the candles ready to be lit. I want that from the time you light Shabbos candles, nobody in the house will do any melacha (forbidden activity).”2 The woman readily accepted this proposal.

By the time they arrived back in Mir two days later, the child was already showing signs of improvement. He started eating, he started gaining weight, and generally improving in all areas. They brought the child back to the doctor in Mir and he was astounded by the improvement. He insisted they go back to the specialist in Vilna to show him the child and paid for their journey. The specialist saw the child’s improvement and refused to believe that it was the same child.

This is a wonderful story, but it is somewhat perplexing. Why is it that the Chofetz Chaim only seemed to think there was hope for the child when he heard that it was an only child? Furthermore, why did the Chofetz Chaim give the advice relating to Shabbos in particular more than any other important Mitzva? And finally, why did he emphasize the two aspects of being ready for Shabbos hours before the halachic time, and not doing forbidden activity when it was allowed?

Rabbi Mandel said the Chofetz Chaim was basing his advice on the verse in this week’s Parsha to shomer the Shabbos and to make it an eternal covenant for the generations. In the words of Rabbi Yissachar Frand:

The Chofetz Chaim interpreted: You want “l’dorotam” – the preservation of your generations (through this only child). If this child will not live, then you will not have future generations. But the Torah says that if veshamru, there will be l’dorotam – future generations. Therefore, fulfill “veshamru” according to both meanings. The simple interpretation of v’shamru is observing it. When you light candles, no one in your house should do any more melacha. But beyond that, v’shamru also means to anticipate it. From noon on, I want you to expect and anticipate the Shabbos. Therefore, the table must be set and the candles need to be ready.

Now we can understand the entire story – once the Chofetz Chaim heard that the boy was an only child, he realized that by being ‘shomer’ the Shabbos, they would, so to speak, force HaShem to ensure that they would have future generations who could do so, in order to fulfil the ‘l’dorotam’ of the verse. Therefore, he advised them to be extra strict in both aspects of ‘v’shamru’ – not doing forbidden activity even when it was technically allowed, and anticipating the Shabbos hours before it was necessary.

These two aspects of Shabbat are essential to every person’s observance of Shabbat. One way this is manifest is how long one refrains from forbidden activity before the obligatory time. The earlier one brings in Shabbat3 the better. With regard to anticipating Shabbat, one common pitfall is that one does not pace himself correctly on Erev Shabbat and has to rush to be ready for Shabbat, entering the day of rest and calm in a state not conducive to such calm! Accordingly, it is advisable to work out beforehand how to be ready in good time for Shabbat so one can focus on spiritually preparing himself for the oncoming Shabbat.

  1. Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  2. According to the strict letter of the law, when a woman lights candles 18 minutes before sunset, other members of the household can still do melacha until sunset
  3. From the time that this is possible – Plag hamincha.

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