Why the Oppressors Banned "Shabbos"

Dear Friends,

As we discussed in our previous letter, a major stream of Greek thought stressed the sovereignty of the human being over the earth and its creatures. This can help us to understand why the representatives of Greek culture that invaded our land eventually decided to outlaw the observance of Shabbos - the Sacred Seventh Day. These cultural imperialists felt threatened by our commitment to Shabbos, for on this sacred seventh day we demonstrate that human beings are not the owners and sovereigns of the earth and its creatures. The following mitzvah - Divine mandate - can serve as an example:

"Six days shall you do your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey 'yanuach' - will have restful contentment" (Exodus 23:12).

The Hebrew word "yanuach" is related to the word "menuchah" - rest and contentment. According to a midrashic commentary known as the "Mechilta," the word "yanuach" is teaching us that in addition to resting from physical work on Shabbos, our animals are also free to go into the fields and graze undisturbed. For as one sage explains, "On Shabbos, our animals are to have contentment of the heart" (Be'ar Yitzchak, a commentator on Rashi, cited by Sha'arei Aharon).

Hashem the Compassionate One - has given us a mandate to allow our animals to experience rest and contentment on Shabbos, and in his commentary on this mandate, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:

"On the Seventh Day, the human being refrains from exercising his own rule over any of Hashem's creatures and humbly subordinates himself and his world to the Creator. While he observes the Shabbos, the Shabbos teaches him to respect every other creature alongside himself, as all are equal before Hashem, and all are His children. This dismantling of the human being's rule over all creatures is one of the objectives of the Shabbos - the day on which the human being shows homage to Hashem - so that the animals who work and bear burdens should have rest from working for the human being."

Even our relationship to plant life and inanimate objects undergoes a change on Shabbos, as it is written: You shall not perform any kind of melacha..." (Exodus 20:10). In biblical Hebrew, the term "melacha" refers to skilled or creative work. Rabbi 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. There are 39 categories of creative work which we are forbidden to do on Shabbps. Some examples 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 over nature and thereby demonstrate that we are not the sovereigns of the earth.

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 sovereignty of the Compassionate One.

The cultural imperialists of the ancient Greek empire did not succeed in destroying Shabbos, for many of our people risked their lives in order to preserve the message of Shabbos; moreover, the Maccabees drove the cultural imperialists from the Land of Israel. Shabbos still lives in the hearts of our people, and this is one of the reasons why we rejoice on Chanukah.

Have a Happy Chanukah,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

For Further Study and Reflection:

1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the principles underlying the laws of Shabbos in his biblical commentary and in his classical work on the mitzvos known as "Horeb." There is also an excellent book published by Feldheim which discusses the 39 categories of melacha which we refrain from doing on Shabbos. It is called "The Sabbath," and the author is the late Dayan Dr. I Grunfeld, a prominent Torah judge, British lawyer, educator, and community leader, who was greatly influenced by the writings of Rabbi Hirsch. The following is an excerpt from an essay in this book which discusses "menuchah" - contentment, rest, and tranquility:

"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 irresistable: 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."

2. According to our mystical tradition, the arrival of Shabbos represents the arrival of the Shechinah - the Divine Presence. The Shechinah expresses the "feminine" attributes of the Compassionate One; thus, before the sun sets on Friday, we get ready to welcome the "Shabbos Queen" and we chant: "To welcome the Shabbos, come let us go, for She is the source of all blessing" (Lecho Dodi).

3. In our generation, a growing number of Jewish men and women are rediscovering the blessing of Shabbos through observing the "halacha" of Shabbos. Many of them proceed 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, friends and family members sit together to enjoy a traditional Shabbos meal with good food, Torah discussion, storytelling, and singing. Others may begin their observance in a different way. For example, someone may decide that on Shabbos he will not do anything related to his livelihood. Another person may decide that he will not drive his car, or that he will not work in his garden. The more we honor the Shabbos, the more we receive in return. In this spirit, we sing the following words on Shabbos morning during the meal: "She is holy to you, the Shabbos Queen, within your homes to bestow blessing. In all your dwellings do no melachah" (Baruch Kel Elyon).

4. Shabbos hospitality for individuals:

Shabbos hospitality for groups visiting Israel:

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