Shabbat: The Essence of Judaism


Vayakhel opens with the command to keep the Sabbath, raising the question about the strange order of the last five topics in the Book of Exodus: Sanctuary; Sabbath; Golden Calf; Sabbath; Sanctuary.

Thus the Torah first commands us to create a Sanctuary, to establish a center of the sacred. But the sacred can easily be profaned. Hence, in the middle of the construction of the Sanctuary (the weeks of Teruma and Tetzaveh), comes the travesty of the Golden Calf (Ki Tissa), an eloquent warning to subsequent generations not to pervert the holy. It then becomes logical to now return to the Sabbath, the essence of Judaism, and the positive message of the Sanctuary (as in Vayakhel and Pekudei).

The Sabbath is the essence of Judaism, the central pillar of our faith. The first law given to the Jews after the splitting of the sea (even before Sinai) was the Sabbath. The first law explained to a would-be convert is also the Sabbath [Talmud Yevamot 47].

Certainly the glow of the Sabbath candles, the Kiddush wine, the familial and congenial togetherness of Sabbath meals replete with angels of peace, blessings of children, songs of holiness and words of Torah, all contribute to a special and unique day.

But the Sabbath is more than that. The “oasis in time” evokes the three most seminal moments of past and future that define our Jewish present. These moments are evoked in each of three main Amidot (standing prayers): On Friday evening we evoke and re-experience the creation of the world (“And God completed the heavens and the earth…”); on Shabbat morning we re-experience Sinai (“Moses rejoiced with the gift of his portion … the two tablets of stone he brought down in his hands”); and on Shabbat afternoon we attempt to experience the Redemption (“You are One and Your Name is One.” The prophet Zechariah teaches that “on that day [of Redemption] will God be One and will His name be One”). Creation, revelation and redemption are the bedrock of the Jewish mission.

Creation reminds us that there is one omnipotent Creator. That we share the same “Parent” in Heaven means we are all siblings on earth. The corollary of God the Creator is God the Redeemer who will not allow any of His children to be enslaved by any of His other children. Hence the two versions of the Ten Commandments and the Kiddush prayer define the Sabbath as both a memorial to creation and a memorial to the Exodus. Revelation reminds us that there can be no freedom without structure, no respect for self without taking into account the needs of others, no love without law. The Torah remains our God-given blueprint for the kind of lives leading to more perfect families and societies. In this sense, Judaism is a revolutionary concept, an idea and lifestyle which will not rest until human nature is perfected and the world is redeemed.

The genius of Judaism lies in its ability to maintain the future ideal as an ever-present reality of our daily lives. In this way we can never forget what we are striving to accomplish, nor can we become disillusioned about attaining it. Each working day of frustration is climaxed by Shabbat, a “taste of the World to Come,” a glimpse into a time of peace and harmony. Each Shabbat reminds us of the Sanctuary, preventing our descent into Golden Calf materialism and idolatry.

The story is told of a rebbe who always rejoiced upon Shabbos meals with his chasidim. Burdened each week, they would become transformed into clear-eyed princes and princesses with the advent of Shabbos. But the mood changed with the “third meal” late on Shabbos afternoon. With the setting sun, songs would become somber, as mundane concerns would return to remind the Jews of the return to reality.

One late Shabbos afternoon, the rebbe’s eyes glowed and he banged on the table, crying out: “I have it! We shall force God’s hand! We will bring Redemption — now! The plan is simple. We will not recite Havdalah! If Shabbos never ends, Redemption never ends. With no Havdalah, we will never return to the weekday world.”

The chasidim danced and sang, long past the end of Shabbos in other towns. But then their wives began looking for them. Children had to be fed and bathed; clothes needed washing; food needed cooking. One by one each chasid returned to his family, leaving the rebbe as the lone revolutionary — until the rebbe’s rebbetzin entered the scene, complaining that the week had to begin, for there was much necessary work to do. With tears, the defeated rebbe made Havdalah. A voice came down from Heaven: “Redemption shall come, the world will experience a never-ending Shabbos. But this cannot occur until all of Israel really wants to be redeemed, really works to be redeemed, until every Jew internalizes the message of Shabbos, reaching out to every human being, making each day a Shabbos, creating a new world of peace and love.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 5:28 P.M.
Torah: Ex. 35: 1- 38:20
Haftarah: I Kings 7:40-50 (Ashkenaz); 7:13-26 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 6:30 P.M.