Thursday, February 10, 2022

Ki Tisa: The Transition from Shabbat to the Workweek

 Hebrew עברית

Ki Tisa: The Transition from Shabbat to the Workweek

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor... (Exodus 34:21)

Shabbat and the six workdays are inseparably connected. Without working on the other six days, Shabbat loses its significance. However, despite the importance of Shabbat, the Torah does not define when exactly it begins or ends, and says nothing of our familiar transitional ceremonies: candle lighting, Kiddush and Havdalah. The latter two appear for the first time in the Mishnah, where they are discussed without any introduction or explanation, meaning that their origin is very ancient. Indeed, there are midrashim that attribute the Havdalah ceremony to none other than Primordial Adam (=Adam and Eve). There are several versions; I will relate to two of them.[*]

According to Midrash Genesis Rabbah (11:2), the light of creation that preceded creation of the sun continue to shine through the first Shabbat. Therefore, when the sun set on Friday evening, Adam and Eve did not experience darkness. When the Sabbath ended, God stored that light away, the sun set and they made their first acquaintance with night. The midrash explains what happened next:

When the sun set upon the departure of the Sabbath, the darkness became palpable as the sun descended. The First Man was terrified [and exclaimed], “‘Surely darkness comes to bruise me’ ( יְשׁוּפֵנִי; Psalm 139:11); perhaps the one of whom it is said, ‘He shall bruise (יְשׁוּפְךָ) your head’ (Genesis 3:15) will come to attack me?!”

What did the blessed Holy One do? He presented him with two flints, which he struck together and light came forth, whereupon he blessed it, as it is written, “The night was light for my sake” (Psalm 139:11).

What blessing did he say on it? “who creates the lights of fire.”

This agrees with Shmuel, for Shmuel said: “Why do we recite a blessing over light at the end of Shabbat? Because it was then created for the first time.

Note that the Adam and Eve do not fear the darkness itself but rather the danger that might hiding under its cover. The Holy Blessed One does not tell them, “Get over it,” or hint “You deserve it,” and certainly doesn’t claim, “I would never give you a burden you can’t bear.” God’s ways are not human ways. God offers tools for finding a solution. In this version, it isn’t clear who, Adam or God, struck the flints together. In either case, the midrash differs from the Greek myth – and other similar stories from distant cultures – in which fire must be stolen from the gods to help humanity. Here both fire and the technology with which to create it are gifts from God to humans

Midrash Tehillim (92:3)[**] clarifies that Adam is the one struck the flints, and adds another interesting detail, the origin of the flints themselves:

The Holy Blessed One presented Adam with two stones, one of Deep-Darkness and the other of Shadow-Death, for it is said, “He put an end to darkness, and searches out to the farthest bound the stone of Deep-Darkness and Shadow-Death” (Job 28:3).

Adam took up the stones and struck them together until fire came forth from them, whereupon he distinguished/enacted Havdalah. Hence, at the close of the Sabbath, we say Havdalah over light. 

Deep-Darkness and Shadow-Death, darkness and fear: challenging, difficult experiences are the raw materials that humans use their intelligence to process and create. In this version, it is not technology that God grants humans, but rather human intelligence, creativity and the drive to improve the world.

As we transition from the Day of Rest to the work week, we stop for a moment to gaze at the flame, express our gratitude for it and be aware of fire, technology and our ability to create for our benefit, the benefit of those around us and generations to come. 

May we know how to do this for blessing and not for a curse.


[*] See also Rachel Adelman, “Primordial Adam and the First Havdalah,” in HavdalahD. Birnbaum and M. Cohen, editors, pp. 107-130. 

[**] On the verse “A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day” (Psalm 92:1). 

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