When Ya’ara’s grandmother prepared and cooked on Friday the cholent – the casserole dish for the main meal of Shabbos Day – she was making a dish that is rooted in the following sacred precepts regarding Shabbos:
1. The Torah – the Divine Teaching – prohibits us from cooking on Shabbos, as we shall discuss in this letter. The cholent is therefore basically cooked before Shabbos, and it simmers all night on a covered stove which was lit before Shabbos. Sephardic Jews call this hot casserole dish by the Hebrew term “chamin” – a word which is derived from “cham” (hot or warm).
2. The ingredients in the cholent or chamin often include a combination of all or some of the following ingredients: meat, vegetables, grains and beans. The chamin that I was served in Sephardic homes also had a few hard-boiled eggs. All these ingredients are cooked together, and it is the simmering of the ingredients all night which give the cholent or chamin its special flavor. This delicious dish enables our people to enjoy hot food on Shabbos Day and thereby fulfill the mitzvah to experience physical delight on Shabbos – a mitzvah which we discussed in the previous letter.
In this letter, I would like to share with you some insights which can give us a deeper understanding as to why we do not cook on Shabbos. Through these insights, we will gain a greater appreciation of the Divine service of Ya’ara’s grandmother, a priestess of Shabbos. We will begin by mentioning that the Torah prohibits various forms of creative work on Shabbos. A source for this mitzvah – Divine mandate – is in the following words from the Ten Commandments:
“And the seventh day is a Shabbos to Hashem, your God; you shall not perform any kind of melacha (Exodus 20:10).
What is the nature of the activity that the Torah refers to as melacha? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the above verse, explains that physical exertion is not one of the basic criteria of melacha. He writes:
“The term occurs almost 200 times in Scripture, and among these there is not one single instance of the word being used to denote strenuous activity. Likewise, the slave labor performed by the Children of Israel in Egypt is never described as melacha.”
According to the Torah, if I lift a heavy piece of furniture on Shabbos, I am not guilty of violating the prohibition against melacha, even though such strenuous activity on Shabbos, teach our sages, is to be avoided. If, however, I pluck a leaf off a tree or plant a seed in the earth, then I have violated the Divine mandate not to perform melacha on Shabbos. When we study the halacha – the detailed requirements of the Torah path – we discover that the definition of melacha is not physical exertion, but an activity whereby the human being demonstrates mastery over nature through constructive acts which can transform anything in the environment for his or her own use. According to our tradition, there are 39 categories of melacha which we are forbidden to do on Shabbos, and they include plowing, sowing, harvesting, baking, constructive uses of fire such as baking and cooking, dying, sewing, building, and catching or slaughtering an animal for food.
During the six days of the week, we demonstrate our control over nature; however, through keeping the halacha of Shabbos, we give up our control over nature on this sacred day. In this way, we, the People of the Torah, proclaim a weekly reminder that human beings are not the owners of the earth and its resources, for the true Owner is the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, as it is written, “To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness” (Psalm 24:1).
The word halacha is derived from the Hebrew word holech – walking. Halacha is therefore the way we are to walk on this earth. On Shabbos, we are to walk on the earth without asserting our mastery over the earth, in order to acknowledge the ownership of the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. It is written, “Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). According to tradition, this refers to honoring the Shabbos. For example, we bath before Shabbos, and on Friday night, we say the blessing of sanctification over wine or two loaves of bread. In addition, we honor the Shabbos through wearing fine clothes and eating fine foods.
2. It is also written, “Safeguard the Shabbos Day to sanctify it” (Deuteronomy 5:12). According to tradition, this refers to safeguarding the sanctity of the Shabbos by refraining from 39 forms of melacha.
3. The Torah indicates that the specific Divine mandate to safeguard the Shabbos through refraining from all the 39 categories of melacha is a mandate which was given only to the People of Israel, as it is written:
“The Children of Israel shall safeguard the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever…” (Exodus 31:16,17)
Safeguarding the Shabbos through refraining from all forms of melacha is one of the major ways in which our people, including the converts who join us, are to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Through safeguarding the Shabbos, we can cause the nations to become aware of the following universal message of Shabbos: “To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness” (Psalm 24:1).
4. During the main meal of Shabbos Day, we sing the following words from a Shabbos table song: “She is holy to you, the Shabbos Queen, within your homes to bestow blessing. In all your dwellings do no melacha.” (Baruch Kel Elyon)
5. Erich Fromm, a noted psychoanalyst and writer of the 20th century, discusses Shabbos in his book, “To Have Or To Be?” Using the Sephardic pronunciation – Shabbat – he shares with us the following insight regarding the prohibition against doing acts of melacha on Shabbat:
“It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally. It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: the Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world. Even tearing up a blade of grass is looked upon as a breach of this harmony, as is lighting a match.”
6. The insights in this letter were inspired by the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch regarding Shabbos and melacha. Some of these insights can be found in Horeb, his famous work on the Torah’s path of mitzvos.
7. A growing number of Jews are starting to observe the halacha of Shabbos, and many have chosen to engage in this process on a step-by-step basis. As a result, they begin to experience the special menuchah – contentment, rest and tranquility – of Shabbos. This menuchah is discussed in a book about the 39 major categories of melacha which we do not do on Shabbos. The book is titled, “The Sabbath,” and the author is the late Dayan Dr. I Grunfeld, a prominent Torah judge and educator. The explanations in this book are based on the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
The following are excerpts from an essay in this book which discusses the menuchah which we experience on Shabbos.
“This menuchah is something much more than physical rest. It is an attitude to the pressing demands of everyday life. Quite apart from the bondage of work, there are the insistent demands of our mechanical civilization – the bus, the car, the telephone; the demands, too, of our mechanical entertainment industry – radio, television, the cinema... Until we reflect, most of us are unaware of the toll which these things take of our vital energy; we do not realize the extent of our enslavement. To take only one example: how many of us can sit alone in a room together with a ringing telephone without answering it? The summons is irresistible: we know that sooner or later we must answer it. On Sabbath this ‘must’ does not exist. The realization, the relief of spirit, which a real Jewish Sabbath brings must be experienced to be believed.
The spirit of menuchah finds its positive expression in the Sabbath meals in which the happy companionship of family and friends, the enjoyment of good food, the table-songs in praise of God and the Sabbath, all combine to form an entirely unique experience.”
“The Sabbath” by Dayan Dr. I Grunfeld is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
Hazon – Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/