Tzedakah and Shabbos

The Journey to Unity - 68

The Hebrew names of the first six days of the week remind us that the spiritual goal of the week is "Shabbos" - the sacred day of unity and wholeness. For example, the full Hebrew name for the first day of the week is "Yom Rishon B'Shabbos" - the first weekday of the approaching Shabbos. The second day of the week is "Yom Sheni B'Shabbos" - the second weekday of the approaching Shabbos. The names of the other weekdays follow this pattern. Each weekday, we are to remember that we are preparing for the shalom - unity and wholeness - of Shabbos. In this spirit, we will begin this week with the following letter:

Tzedakah and Shabbos:

"Thus said the Compassionate One: Guard justice and do tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come, and My tzedakah to be revealed. Happy is the person who does this and the human being who grasps it tightly; who guards the Shabbos against desecrating it, and guards his hand against doing any evil." (Isaiah 56:1,2)

Dear Friends,

In the above prophecy, explain the commentators, the Prophet Isaiah is telling us what we can do to merit the final redemption. Yet out of all the 613 mitzvos, the Prophet only specifically mentions two mitzvos: the mitzvah of giving tzedakah and the mitzvah to guard the Shabbos - to keep the laws of the Sacred Seventh Day. Why does he emphasize these two mitzvos? Are they connected in some way?

The Compassionate One has placed some of the earth's resources in our possession, and through the mitzvah of tzedakah, we share those resources with those in need. In order to properly fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah, however, we must first remember that we are just the custodians, and not the owners of the earth and its resources. Shabbos serves as a weekly reminder of this truth, and through fulfilling the Shabbos laws, this truth is instilled into our consciousness. To understand the central message of the Shabbos laws, we shall begin to discuss the following verse:

"And the seventh day is a Shabbos to the Compassionate One, your God; you shall not perform any kind of melacha..." (Exodus 20:10)

In biblical Hebrew, the term "melacha" refers to skilled or creative work. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this 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 an activity, say the sages, is not in keeping with the Shabbos spirit. But if I pluck a leaf off a tree or plant a seed in the earth, then I have violated the commandment not to perform melacha on Shabbos. For a study of halacha - Torah law - reveals that the definition of work on Shabbos is not physical exertion, but an activity whereby the human being transforms anything in the environment for his or her own use such as for food, clothing, and shelter. Examples of such activities are plowing, sowing, harvesting, baking and other constructive uses of fire, dying, sewing, building, and catching or slaughtering an animal for food. Through keeping the halacha of Shabbos, we give up our technological control of the world around us - a reminder that we are not the masters and owners of the earth and its resources.

The word "halacha" refers to Torah law; however, it 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 publicly acknowledge that the earth and its resources belong to the Creator. With this consciousness, we can rededicate ourselves to the mitzvah of tzedakah and share the earth's resources with those in need. In this spirit, we chant a verse about tzedakah towards the end of the Shabbos afternoon service, and this verse reminds us that tzedekah is an expression of "tzedek" - the Divine plan whereby each creature is entitled to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within creation:

"Your tzedakah is eternal tzedek, and Your Torah is true." (Psalm 119:142)

According to Rabbi Hirsch, this verse is praising the tzedakah that the Compassionate One has taught us to do through the Torah - the Teaching of Truth. Rabbi Hirsch explains that we chant this verse towards the close of Shabbos - before we begin our weekday activities - in order to rededicate ourselves to "the wondrous ways of the loving tzedakah of God in which He trains humankind" (Hirsch Siddur).

May our weekday activities prepare us for Shabbos. And may these activities remind us that all the blessings we have - both material and spiritual - are meant to be shared. In this way, we will help to bring light into a darkened world where people cannot see the needs of the other. An allusion to this deep idea is found in the following words from a Shabbos song, where we pray that the light of the People of Israel will be renewed:

"May their tzedakah shine forth like the original light of the seven days of creation! (Kol Mekadesh)

Light and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Seven Related Teachings and Comments:

1.We light the Shabbos candles before sunset on Friday, and it is customary to give tzedakah before lighting the Shabbos candles. Many people have a tzedakah jar or can known as a "pushka," and they deposit some money in the pushka before the arrival of Shabbos.

2. As we shall discuss in future letters, the refraining from melacha on Shabbos, when done in the proper spirit, can bring us physical, emotional, and spiritual blessings. An allusion to this idea can be found in the following words from a song which we sing at the Shabbos table: "She is holy to you, the Shabbos Queen, within your homes to bestow blessing. In all your dwellings, do no melacha - your sons and daughters, manservant and also maidservant"(Baruch Kel Elyon).

3. A growing number of spiritually-searching Jewish men and women are undertaking to observe the "halacha" of Shabbos, and they are proceeding on a "step-by-step" basis. For example, there are some individuals who begin this spiritual journey by observing the halacha on Shabbos evening, with the hope of later extending this observance to Shabbos day. On Friday night, they will not use the telephone, television, or computer; instead, they will sit with family members and/or friends and enjoy a traditional Shabbos meal with good food, Torah discussion, storytelling, and singing. Others may begin their observance in a different way. For example, some may decide that on Shabbos they will not do anything related to their livelihood. I know a number of individuals who now fully keep the Shabbos, but who began on a step-by-step basis.

4. Many people get their first introduction to Shabbos through being invited to a traditional Shabbos meal. Some synagogues sponsor community Shabbos meals, and some synagogues will help to arrange home hospitality for a Shabbos meal or for an entire Shabbos. The following website lists rabbis, synagogues, and groups all over the world which can help you to find hospitality for Shabbos:

5. The Compassionate One told the People of Israel at Mount Sinai, "Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). According to tradition, this refers to honoring the Shabbos through various ways. For example, we bath before Shabbos, and on Friday night, we say the blessing of sanctification over wine or two loaves of bread. And we honor the Shabbos through wearing fine clothes and eating fine foods. The People of Israel were also told at Mount Sinai, "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 all forms of "melacha."

6. The Torah indicates that the mandate to safeguard the Shabbos through refraining from the 39 categories of melacha is a mandate which was given specifically 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 the People of Israel - including the converts who join them - are to become a "kingdom of ministers and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Through safeguarding the Shabbos, this "kingdom of ministers" is to proclaim to all the nations that everyone and everything in creation belongs to the Creator. This is the universal message of Shabbos, and Rabbi Hirsch teaches that at the dawn of human history, the Creator desired that all human beings remember this message. Rabbi Hirsch finds support for this idea in the rabbinic work known as "Pesikta Rabasi D'Rabbi Kahana" (parsha 23), where it states in the name of Rabbi Yudan that the mandate "Remember the Shabbos" is for all the nations, but the mandate, "Safeguard the Shabbos" - through refraining from all forms of "melacha"- was only given to Israel (Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Exodus 20:8). Through this safeguarding of the Shabbos, we, the People of Israel, are to remind all humankind of the universal message of Shabbos. In this way, we will merit the fulfillment of the following messianic prophecy: "It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Shabbos all humankind will come to bow before Me, says the Compassionate One" (Isaiah 66:23).

7. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the principles underlying the laws of Shabbos in his classical work on the mitzvos known as "Horeb," and these ideas also appear in his biblical commentary. "Horeb" is highly recommended for those seeking a deeper understanding of the ethical and spiritual benefits of the mitzvos. There is also an excellent book which discusses the 39 categories of melacha which are forbidden on the Shabbos, according to the insights of Rabbi Hirsch. It is called "The Sabbath," and the author is the late Dayan Dr. I Grunfeld, a prominent Torah judge, British lawyer, and community leader. It is published by Feldheim:  . (Feldheim is now having a special sale on all their books in honor of the approaching Chanukah holiday.)

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: