Converts and Shabbos: A Message for All Israel

Dear Friends,


In the previous letter, we discussed a Divine message about how we can get ready for the final redemption, and this message stressed the importance of guarding the Shabbos – the Sacred Seventh Day. This Divine message also stressed the importance of converts guarding the Shabbos, as Hashem proclaimed:


“And the converts who join themselves to Hashem to serve Him and to love the Name of Hashem to become servants unto Him, all who guard the Shabbos against desecration, and grasp My covenant tightly – I will bring them to My Holy Mountain, and I will gladden them in My house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:6,7).


The Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Simla’i, cites the tradition that there are 613 mitzvos – Divine mandates – in the Torah (Makos 23b). These are the root mitzvos of the Torah, and each of them has various branches. Why does the above Divine message to converts specifically mention the mitzvah to guard the Shabbos? The beginning of an answer can be found in the following verse:


“Thus shall the Children of Israel keep the Shabbos, to establish the Shabbos for their generations as an eternal covenant.” (Exodus 31:16)


Shabbos is not just another mitzvah; it is an eternal covenant – an intimate bond between Hashem and the Children of Israel. One who joins the Children of Israel must therefore be prepared to fulfill this eternal covenant.


Why is Shabbos given the status of an eternal covenant? I do not claim to know all the deep reasons as to why the Infinite One has given Shabbos this honor. I would, however, like to suggest the following ideas which can give us some understanding as to why the Torah stresses the importance of Shabbos:


The detailed steps on the Torah path are known as the “halacha” – the way to walk. Through following the halacha of Shabbos, we demonstrate that we are not the sovereigns of the earth and its creatures. Our relationship to the earth and its creatures therefore undergoes a change on Shabbos, and we will begin our discussion with the following Divine mandate:


“Six days shall you do your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey may be content” (Exodus 23:12).


Even our animals are to experience rest and contentment on Shabbos! In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “This freeing of all creatures from the mastery of the human being is one of the objectives of the Sabbath – this day of acknowledging Hashem.” As an example, Rabbi Hirsch cites the following midrashic teaching of the Mechilta on the words, “so that your ox and your donkey may be content”: Not only must one leave one’s animals at rest on the Sabbath, but one must turn them out and allow them to graze undisturbed.


Our relationship to plant life and inanimate objects also undergoes a change on Shabbos, as it is written:


“And the seventh day is a Shabbos to Hashem, 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 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 a strenuous 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 mandate not to perform melacha on Shabbos. For a study of the halacha reveals that the prohibition of melacha on Shabbos usually refers to an activity whereby the human being transforms anything in the environment for his or her own use such as for food, clothing, and shelter. Through this study, we learn that there are 39 categories of melacha which we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. Some examples are plowing, sowing, harvesting, baking and other constructive uses of fire, dyeing, sewing, building, and catching or slaughtering an animal for food.


Through keeping the halacha of Shabbos, we give up our technological control over nature. On Shabbos, we are to walk on the earth without asserting our mastery over the earth, in order to acknowledge the sovereignty of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.


Erich Fromm, a noted psychoanalyst and writer of the 20th century, discusses the traditional 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.”


A growing number of Jewish men and women have begun to observe the halacha of Shabbos, step-by-step. As a result, they begin to experience the special menuchah – contentment, rest, and tranquility – of Shabbos. This menucha 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 in England who was influenced by the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Regarding Shabbos menucha, Dayan Dr. Grunfeld writes:


“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.”


In this spirit, we sing the following words at the Shabbos table on Friday night:


“This day for Israel is light and joy – Shabbos of  menuchah. Heart’s beloved of the shattered nation, for suffering people an additional soul; for a troubled soul it removes moaning – Shabbos of menuchah. (Yom Zeh L’Yisrael by the Arizal)


May all Israel rediscover the menuchah of 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 our tradition, this refers to honoring the Shabbos. For example, we bath before Shabbos, and on Friday night, we say the “Kiddush” – blessing of sanctification – over wine, grape juice or two loaves of bread. We also honor the Shabbos through wearing fine clothes and eating fine foods.


2. It is written, “Safeguard the Shabbos Day to sanctify it” (Deuteronomy 5:12). According to our tradition, this refers to safeguarding the sanctity of the Shabbos by refraining from the 39 forms of melacha.


The Divine 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, and not to all humankind, as Hashem proclaimed:


“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 the 39 forms of melacha is one of the major ways in which the People of Israel – including the converts – are to become a “kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Through safeguarding the Shabbos, this holy nation is to proclaim to all the nations that everyone and everything in creation belongs to the Creator, as it is written:


“To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1)


May we proclaim through our own example this message of Shabbos.


3. The 39th melacha that we do not do on Shabbos is “carrying” – a unique category of melacha. We are allowed to carry on Shabbos within a private domain, like our own home, or in an area that is enclosed in some way according to the requirements of the halacha. What is prohibited by the Torah is carrying from a private domain to a public domain and vice versa. It is also prohibited to carry something more than four cubits (about 8 ft) within the public domain. The restriction regarding carrying helps us to proclaim the Divine sovereignty over our social and economic relationships


Dayan Dr. Grunfeld, in his book, “The Sabbath,” share with us the following insights regarding the prohibition against carrying on Shabbos:


“We are dealing here with something which is clearly quite different from the realm of nature. The house, the street, the city – these belong to quite another sphere: the sphere of human society.” (Page 36)


“The circulation of material goods, whether for commercial, personal or social ends, is the life-blood of the community; and it is this which must be dedicated to its entirety to God on the Sabbath.” (Page 59)


The dedication of our material goods to serving the Divine purpose is the initial step towards the establishment of a model society which can serve as an ethical and spiritual example to all the nations. It is therefore not surprising that the Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the following Divine message:


“Hear the word of Hashem, O kings of Judah, and all of Judah, and all inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter through these gates: Thus said Hashem: Take heed for the sake of your souls; do not carry anything on the Sabbath Day, and do not bring anything into the gates of Jerusalem.” (Jeremiah 17:20, 21).


The Prophet Jeremiah had previously warned the people in the name of Hashem that their kingdom and Jerusalem were in danger; moreover, he told them that their only hope was to return to the path of Hashem and thereby fulfill their mission in the Land of Zion. In this spirit, he also conveyed to the people the following Divine promise: If they refrain from carrying on the Sabbath and sanctify the Sabbath through refraining from all melacha, Jerusalem will flourish, “and this city will be inhabited forever” (Ibid 17:25).


4. “The Sabbath” by Dayan Dr. Grunfeld is published by Feldheim:

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