Up-to-date Shabbos Versus Radical Shabbos

Dear Friends,


I became involved with Judaism as a boy, and at age 14, I began the process of observing Shabbos, according to the halacha – the detailed requirements of the Torah path. The halacha of Shabbos includes various actions to enhance the delight of this sacred day, as well various restrictions. I discovered that among the Shabbos restrictions were prohibitions against making a fire - including an electric spark, ploughing, planting a seed, severing any plant, fruit, or leaf from its place of growth, and killing any creature, even for food (unless the creature was endangering human life). Some of my acquaintances felt that all these restrictions had no place in our modern age, especially since we now have an advanced technology which enables us to do all these tasks with much less effort. They therefore felt that Jews should experience a Shabbos which is more “up-to-date” – a day of leisure and recreation which would allow any activity which a person finds to be relaxing or enjoyable. Due to my belief in the eternal Divine teachings, I did not accept their arguments; moreover, I found the observance of the traditional Shabbos to be an uplifting experience. I also sensed in my soul that there was a deeper purpose to the Shabbos restrictions, however, at that stage of my life, I did not how to respond to their criticism of the “old-fashioned” Shabbos of our people.


When I got older, I discovered through the writings of Rabbi Samson Hirsch that the “old-fashioned” Shabbos is actually the “radical” Shabbos, as through the restrictions 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 proclamation of Hashem - the Compassionate One:


“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 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.”


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 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 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.


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.


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 Shabbos:


“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 Jews are starting to observe the halacha of Shabbos,  and many have chosen to engage in this process on a step-by-step basis, at their own pace. 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 following is an excerpt 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.”


Menuchah is on its way, as there are only a few more days till Shabbos! 


Much Shalom,

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. And we honor the Shabbos through wearing fine clothes and eating fine foods. 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.


2. The Torah indicates that the Divine mandate to safeguard the Shabbos through refraining from all the 39 categories of melacha is a mandate which was given specifically to the People of Israel, and not to all humankind, 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)


3. The 39th melacha that we refrain from doing on Shabbos is carrying. We are allowed to carry on Shabbos within a private domain, like our own home. 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. As Dayan Dr. Grunfeld writes: “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.”

4. There are some searching Jews who found a Torah community to pray and study with, but they lived far away from this community. As they began to climb the ladder of mitzvos, they reached the stage when they moved closer to their community, so they would not have to drive on Shabbos. This move greatly enhanced their Shabbos experience; moreover, they also discovered the benefits of being part of a spiritual community whose members live near each other.


5. For information on Shabbos hospitality, visit: http://www.shabat.co.il/  . For information on how to celebrate Shabbos, visit: http://www.aish.com/shabbat/  


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