What is Shabbat?


The Torah portion for this week is Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.

Ask yourself, your significant other, or children in your household this question and you are likely to get any number of responses. Shabbat is a day of rest; Shabbat is a day of worship; Shabbat is a day for family; Shabbat is a day for community.

Perhaps Shabbat is the center of your household’s week, or something that happens once or twice a month, or once or twice a year.

In the first section of his farewell speech, which takes up most of the book of Devarim, Moshe tells the Children of Israel about the Revelation that took place four decades earlier at Mt. Sinai.The centerpiece of that revelation was what we know as the Ten Commandments, which have been given elevated status by Jews for thousands of years.


In his retelling, Moshe does something that has generated generations of commentary by Torah scholars. He presents a different version of God’s words than those that we read in Exodus 20. The most significant changes Moshe makes are to the longest of the statements, the one concerning Shabbat.

Both texts include a similar set of rules that we are commanded to follow; they each tell the People of Israel to perform melakha six days and to cease all melakha on the seventh. That prohibition from performing what we usually translate as “work” extends to the entire household. In Exodus, this includes children, servants and resident aliens, with our parsha adding animals to the list (the only change that is an addition to and not a replacement for the original text).

The first noticeable change is to the first word of the statement. In Exodus, the statement begins with Zachor, or remember, but in our text it begins with Shamor, or keep or even guard.

The second, larger, change is to a section that gives a reason for the institution of Shabbat. In Exodus, we are told about creation, about how God ceased from creating on the seventh day, and that it is for this reason “God blessed the seventh day in order to make it holy,” but in this week’s portion, we are told to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, that God rescued us from that slavery, and that this is the reason that “Adonai your God commanded you to make/do Shabbat.”

I believe that combining the story of creation with the Exodus from Egypt makes for a more meaningful Shabbat experience than either motivation provides on its own.

What aspect of Shabbat does the creation story represent? I think that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave the best answer to this question when he wrote in The Sabbath that “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…” By making a moment holy (in addition to our holy objects and places) God gave us a gift that Jews benefit from no matter where we go.

While God’s resting from creation gives us a good spiritual motivation for Shabbat, it does not provide the best reason for Shabbat being presented as a command from God. This is where the slavery text comes in to support both the restrictions and obligations of Shabbat as presented in the Torah and expanded by the rabbis.

A slave can’t decide when to work and when to rest; she can’t expect time off or accommodations for physical or spiritual needs.

When God took us out of Egypt it was the first time in hundreds of years that we were able to choose when to work and when to cease from work. We are commanded by God to set aside a day on which we cease laboring and remember that rest itself is a gift not to be taken lightly.

May this Shabbat be one on which your rest and rituals bring you closer to your family, your community and God’s presence. n

Eitan Gutin is the director of lifelong learning at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington.

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