The Sovereignty of the Shechinah

According to the noted 18th century sage, the Vilna Gaon, the Hebrew word for sovereignty - malchus - refers to a sovereignty that is willingly accepted by the people, unlike a dictatorship which is forced on the people. In the messianic age, explains the Vilna Gaon, all the peoples of the earth shall willingly accept the Divine sovereignty and join together in unity to serve the Divine purpose. (Commentary of the Vilna Gaon to Proverbs 27:27)


Dear Friends,


As we mentioned in the previous letter, Shabbos represents the Shechinah – the Divine Presence, and She is known as the Shabbos Queen. The observance of Shabbos enables us to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shechinah. In this way, we do a “tikun” - fixing - for the original sin that we committed in the Garden of Eden, when we imagined that we were the sovereigns of the earth.


Through the observance of Shabbos, we demonstrate that we are not the sovereigns of the earth; thus, the way we relate to other human beings and other creatures undergoes a change on Shabbos. As Hashem – the Compassionate One - proclaimed:


“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, and your maidservant's son and the stranger may refresh their spirits.” (Exodus 23:12)


Even our animals are to rest 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.” In addition, our relationship to plant life and inanimate objects undergoes a change on Shabbos, as it is written:


“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 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 mandate 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 Shabbos. Some examples are plowing, sowing, harvesting, baking and other contructive 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.


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 Shechinah.


Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below.)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the principles underlying the laws of Shabbos in “Horeb” - his classical work on the mitzvos. In addition, there is an excellent book which discusses these laws 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 and educator. It is published by Feldheim:   . The following is an excerpt from an essay in this book which discusses the “menuchah” - contentment, rest, and tranquility - 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 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. During the first Shabbos day meal, we sing the following words:


“She is holy to you, the Shabbos Queen, within your homes to bestow blessing. In all your dwellings do no melacha” (Baruch Kel Elyon).


On Shabbos, when we fully acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shechinah, She gives us in return a sweet and precious blessing: Shabbos Menuchah. This is why a growing number of Jewish men and women are undertaking to observe the halacha of Shabbos. Most 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. Their liberation from these technological distractions enables them to get more in touch with themselves; moreover, it also enables them to join with family members and/or friends and enjoy a 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.

The more we honor the Shabbos Queen, the more we receive in return. In this spirit, when we welcome the arrival of Shabbos, we chant: “To welcome the Shabbos, come let us go, for She is the source of all blessing” (Lecho Dodi).


3. 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 39 forms of melacha.


4. 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 which all human beings are to remember. In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch cites 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).


5. For information on Shabbos hospitality in your area, visit: . For information on how to celebrate Shabbos, visit:   .   For information on the "Shalom Aleichem" song which we sing at the Shabbos table - including a recording of a sweet Chassidic melody for this song – visit:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision