The Commandment To Work


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candelighting: 6:59 p.m. (Fri.);
7:01 p.m. (Sun.); 8:01 p.m. (Mon.)
Torah: Ex. 33:12-34:26;
Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Havdalah: 7:59 p.m. (Sat.);
8:02 p.m. (Tue.)

The Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach is from Ki Tisa, where God orders Moses to sculpt fresh stones for the second set of Tablets. Moses ascends the mountain where God proclaims His “Thirteen Attributes” followed by a seemingly random mélange of laws, including the observance of Passover and Sabbath: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest [Exodus 34:21].”

Clearly, we read this segment on Shabbat Chol Hamoed as it contains laws regarding both Passover and Shabbat. One wonders, however, why the Torah mentions Shabbat here altogether? After all, as the Fourth Commandment, it is about to be engraved on the very tablets Moses has just prepared. Indeed, the Torah already mandated the observance of Shabbat when the first Tablets were given in Parshat Yitro and yet again in Parshat Mishpatim, and in great detail in this very Parsha [Exodus 32:13-17], not to mention the fact that Moses would reprise the Ten Commandments in Parshat Va’etchanan [Deuteronomy 5:13-15].

The inclusion of Shabbat seems superfluous here including — especially the warning to desist from labor during the “plowing season and harvest,” as there was no imminent danger of this happening during the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.

If we scrutinize each iteration of Shabbat in the Torah, there is one overriding consistency; the order to desist from labor on the Sabbath always appears with the mandate to labor on the six weekdays.

It is a common fallacy that Shabbat is exclusively about resting; that we fulfill the commandment by abstaining from all the ‘thou shalt nots’ of creative labor. Overlooked is the positive commandment to actually work the rest of the week. Indeed, one who desists from labor during the week is as liable of violating the Sabbath as is one who engages in it on the seventh day.

And the reason is clear. As we are told in Yitro [Ex. 20:11], “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day,” which is repeated in a more abridged form earlier in our parsha [Ex. 31:17]. We, who are created in God’s image, must follow His example of laboring six days and resting on the seventh. As the Midrash tells us; “Histakel b’oraitah uvara olma” — God used the Torah as a manual whereby to create the world. Hence the Torah for us, too, is not an abstraction. It is the book by which we learn to create, produce, build and sustain.

The current, and growing, trend of abstaining from work seven days a week in order to engage in full-time Torah study is a relatively new phenomenon that contravenes God’s directive for us to follow in His footsteps by laboring during the week.

In Israel this new kind of Judaism — a Judaism that presumes the primacy of Torah study to the exclusion of all constructive labor and any participation in national defense — is threatening the economy and the social fabric of the Jewish state.

Gedaliah Alon in his seminal work “The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age” tells us that “in the Hellenistic-Roman world, physical labor was despised by the upper classes” — that the belief that one can be too good to work for a living is a fundamentally non-Jewish idea, hence the visceral opposition of the Sages to Torah without labor. Alon citing Aboth de Rabbi Nathan, says, ‘Love work’— what does that mean? It teaches that … no man should hate work. For even as the Torah is meant to be a covenant, so was work given as a covenant; as it is written: ‘Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work.’ And elsewhere in the same book, ‘Great is labor; for it was only after the Israelites had performed manual labor that the Divine Presence rested upon them.’”

Clearly then, our Shabbat Chol Hamoed Torah reading is meant to remind us that the 40-year labor-free subsistence in the desert was exceptional; that upon settling in the Land of Israel, labor must be done. At the same time, even the most vital, life-sustaining labor of plowing and harvesting must cease from Friday evening to sundown Saturday — because both engaging in and desisting from labor are part of a single commandment of Shabbat, which literally means to desist. And one can only desist if one has what to desist from.

JJ Gross is an advertising executive in Jerusalem who spends his mornings learning in Kolel Simhat Shlomo.