More than R&R  

This page is based on a classes I have given at Kehillat Hod veHadar in Kfar Saba. Its purpose is to explore some of the reasons for keeping the Sabbath beyond, “it’s a mitzvah.” Dealing with the “why” rather than “how” could be considered either a “lower” level concern because it is the foundation on which observance is built, or it could be considered “higher,” more philosophical and less practical. Either way, without having some idea of why the Sabbath is observed turns questions of how it is observed into technical, legal issues that can be very important but are also rather dry. Moreover, the reasons for or purpose of keeping the Sabbath can also be a factor that considered when answering questions of how it is observed. That said, I've added some links to an interesting analysis of why particular forms of work are forbidden to the end of the post. 

The Sabbath is first introduced in the Torah at the end of the first creation story:
On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. (Genesis 2:2-3).
This establishes the Sabbath as something [almost] as old as time, divine/holy and cosmic but it says nothing about if or how people are meant to observe it. That will wait for Sinai:
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The newly freed Israelites are commanded to keep the Sabbath, and include their (future?) slaves in the observance. Creation is explicitly mentioned as the foundation for the commandment. This is the aspect of the Sabbath that we mention in the amida (standing prayer) on Friday night. Other aspects are emphasized during other services, as discussed here.
Note that working six days is as commanded as resting on the seventh (we’ll get back to that later). Here and elsewhere, the Torah (and the Bible), gives few details regarding what types of work are forbidden. Nothing is said about positive practices, other that additional sacrifices, No candles, no Kiddush, no festive meal and no Havdalah. All those come much later. (Read about the development of Shabbat candles here.)
A bit later on, the Torah elaborates, adding the element of the Sabbath as a sign of the special relationship between God and the people of Israel:
The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 32:12-17)
These verses are quoted in the Sabbath morning service and morning Kiddush.
Forty years down the road, Moses reviews of the Sabbath observance for the benefit of those people about to enter the Land of Israel (most of who were unborn or very young at Sinai). Here he gives a different reason for the commandment:  
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Dt. 5:15)
It might be  interesting to discuss why is freedom from slavery a more appropriate way of explain the Sabbath to the next generation.
Moving beyond the text of the Bible, let us consider some of the many ways that modern Jews have experienced and understood the Sabbath. All of the following texts were published in the latter half of 20th century or in the early 21st century, in Israel and the United States. Key points are quoted below; longer excerpts and reference may be found on the class handout, available here. Most of the modern Hebrew sources are here
First, modern Bible scholar Yairah Amit (Tel Aviv University) seeks to understand the Sabbath in the context of the Bible’s historical development as a text:
It seems that those who made the effort to create the myth of the Sabbath day and were strict about making the Sabbath-calendar into a mandatory life-style, were the members of the “Holiness School… Members of this school of thought tried, by using the Holiness Calendar, to separate and preserve their society... It seems that the Babylonia exile and the period of the return to Zion, living in several centers, using different calendars, dealing with life without the Temple but with the desire to create a holy realm in unclean surroundings, are the sitz im lieben, the life setting, or circumstantial background for turning the Sabbath into the mandatory calendar and means for separation [from others] and unification [of the people], and even a reason for the destruction, itself. Therefore, the Holiness calendar is one of the issues for which the Holiness School fought when editing the Torah literature during the Babylonia exile or the return to Zion.
The dynamic of the Sabbath being the glue that holds the Jewish people together is surely familiar to many of us. This is the Sabbath of which Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet and Zionist ideologue: 1856-1927) is quoted as saying, “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Yet today, as in the period Amit discusses, this reason seems particularly suited to Diaspora Jews. Surely, the Sabbath is no less important in Israel.   
The first (chronologically) of our modern sources, Abraham Joshua Heschel claims that the disconnection from the spatial realm is the very essence of the Sabbath:
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals... This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place--a holy mountain or a holy spring--whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first… The Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  (1952) 
Heschel’s words are nothing if not poetic, moving, inspiring. They have motivated many to make the Sabbath part of their lives. But not everyone agrees with his analysis.
The next selection by Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg disputes Heschel’s point and describes his own experience of the Sabbath as a honored guest, who visits his home, in space. Like Amit, he also thinks that the Sabbath took on added importance during the Babylonian exile, and stresses that the Jews who returned brought their Sabbath with them.
[Heschel’s] essay, The Sabbath is a highly personal statement, not a characteristic expression of Judaism regarding the Sabbath. Its uniqueness is the assumption that the key to understanding the Sabbath is the tension between place and time, a theme that runs throughout the entire essay but which is not a characteristic experience of the Sabbath....
There is a festive atmosphere on the Sabbath; we do not rise above time, but rather fill time with joy and gladness, like a guest of whom I am particularly fond–not only are the days and hours before his arrival filled with preparations and expectation of his arrival but when he arrives, his presence changes my life completely. I put my affairs and weekday worries aside and direct all of actions towards the guest. I even change my daily schedule and adapt it to him. Again, this parallels what happens on the Sabbath… This spiritual reinforcement, which the period of the Babylonian Exile contributed to the concept of serving God, did not disappear when the Second Temple was built. It remained in Judaism’s storehouse, as did Sabbath customs. The enrichment, which was added in exile, to the lives of individuals and families in the Land of Israel after the return to Zion, was pure profit. The new element was not put aside when the reasons for its creation were no longer relevant. Rather it was preserved, an absolute enrichment of the spiritual content of the people’s lives.       
Eliezer Schweid develops the role of the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant, that foreshadows the ideal world and an expression of God’s kindness:  
In the Fourth Commandment, the Sabbath day is ordained as the symbolic realization of God’s vision in creation, for it is the great end-goal for whose purpose the kingdom was established. Despite the present imperfect state of human existence in nature, the Israelites will live on the Sabbath day as an ethical life befitting humanity’s destiny in accordance with God’s vision of creation... In the six working days, the Israelites are instructed to work to provide for themselves and their households – and careful compliance, of course, with the injunctions of mutual responsibility, cooperation, justice and equality. By contrast, on the Sabbath they are commanded not to work for satisfaction of their needs (this is not a prohibition in the usual sense, for working to satisfy one’s need is in and of itself a commanded act, not a sin, hence refraining from work has an active positive significance defined by the term “rest,” which should not be confused with idleness), so that they will devote themselves to the service of YHVH their Creator and King.… The value expressed in observance of the Sabbath is the value of faith in God’s goodness and kindness. This is the counterpart of the value of fear of God that is expressed in obedience to the first three commandments.
Asa Kasher in Judaism and Idolatry (2004) analyzes the commandments as the means for
combating idolatry in all its various forms. The Sabbath is no exception:

Work is a potential form of idolatry… When work is the highest value in life, it becomes a false god. The commandments comes to thwart this risk. A person who ceases all work on a regular basis, one day in seven, has not made work an idol. The Sabbath commandment thwarts not only the risk of attributing ultimate value to work, but also the risk of attributing ultimate value to any other aspect of his life that would require total submission to work.

A similar idea is developed by Alouph Hareven in To Know That We Do Not Know (2004)
Indeed, work is an obligation but because of limits in time and it transience, it is not an absolute value to which people should be subservient. Therefore, “Remember the Sabbath Day to make it holy.” The holiness is in the stoppage of work, not in the continuation; because a person’s behavior and thoughts are weary from work, which concerns the product of human hands, and for the unseen God: “Sabbath to the Lord.” On the Sabbath, a person stops realizing his work. Instead, he directs his thoughts to the unseen and different God, the God-who-does-not-know, and who cannot be concretized in any manner.

W. Gunther Plaut considers the Sabbath a protest and an antidote to the stresses of daily life and ceaseless competition:
If the Sabbath is to have significance, it must confront one of modern civilization's greatest curses, its internal and external unrest. This unrest arises from the twin facts that the life we lead is frequently without goals and that we are involved in competition without end. I view the Sabbath as potentially an enormous relief from and protest against the basic causes of unrest. Once a week it provides us with an opportunity to address ourselves to the meaning of human existence rather than the struggle for survival; to persons rather than things; to Creation and our part in it; to society and its needs; to ourselves as individuals and yet as social beings. This has been called “the inner source of leisure,” the setting of goals which are both realistic and within one's reach, yet also beyond one's self.‎..
Endless competition is a specific form of restlessness. The Sabbath can be a surcease from and a protest against all forms of competition even when they come in attractive packages marked “self-advancement” or “self-improvement...” 

What work is forbidden on Shabbat?

It is commonly said that the forms of work (melachah) forbidden on Shabbat are those that were needed for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness (because of the juxtaposition of  verses in Exodus 35) or creative work.  Dr. David Kraemer (from the Jewish Theological Seminary) has another view:
That the rabbis understood “melachah” to be “survival work” is clear from a teaching in which they indicate what the Torah’s category excludes: “‘You shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:10) — excluding blowing the shofar and the separation of bread from the oven wall, which is an act of skill and not work” (Shabbat 117b).
In other words, in the rabbis’ view, the Torah forbids, on the Sabbath, the work needed for our survival, not special creative skills that might enhance our lives but which we do not need to survive.So the rabbinic Sabbath is a time when we pretend that all of the essentials of our survival are already provided to us, a day when we do not have to worry about the struggle of surviving from one day to the next.  (The Jewish Week, Special Section Shabbat, April 2010).
For a brief audio presentation:
For a more detailed audio presentation:


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