Secret of the Sabbath

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

It isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.

The Sabbath is one of the great mysteries of Jewish tradition. The traditional Jew dedicates a seventh of his life in recognition of God’s having rested on the seventh day of Creation; yet the Bible offers no explanation as to why God rested. The Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism, refers to this enigma as raza d’shabat, the secret of the Sabbath, and suggests that it touches the very foundations of Jewish belief.1 Indeed, the Jewish sources place the Sabbath on a level of importance higher than almost anything else in the Tora. According to the Talmud, it is “equivalent to all the commandments,” and its careful observance has the power to atone even for the sin of idolatry.2 Moreover, while other Jewish festivals commemorate events that took place in the history of the Jewish people, the Sabbath recalls something which can hardly be considered within the normal  bounds of time and space, and is in fact entirely outside of human history. Thus while it is the Jewish people that, according to tradition, formally sanctifies the other festivals, the holiness of the Sabbath is understood to come directly from God.3

More than anything else, the Sabbath in Jewish tradition is characterized by its comprehensive ban on work (isur melacha). The scope of this prohibition, and the theological explanation behind it, have no parallel in the customs surrounding other holy days, either within Judaism or without.4 Over the centuries, a colossal halachic structure has been raised around the prohibition of labor, relating it to nearly every facet of human life. The poet Haim Nahman Bialik, who as a youth received a classical religious education, was amazed by the “mighty spiritual work” invested in the prohibition of work in the Talmud. “There are one hundred and fifty-seven two-sided pages in tractate Sabbath, and one hundred and five in Eruvin [which also addresses laws of the Sabbath],” he wrote. “For the most part they consist of discussions and decisions on the minutiae of the thirty-nine kinds of work and their branches…. What weariness of flesh! What waste of good wits on every trifling point!Bialik’s dismay was tempered with pride, however; he did not conceal his belief that the Sabbath was a great wonder of the Jewish spirit—“a source of life and holiness to a whole nation.”5

One is hard pressed to find such sentiments in popular culture today. Instead, the traditions and laws of the Sabbath are widely dismissed as oppressive or arbitrary. An example of this can be seen in an essay on the subject by the sociologist Ya’akov Melchin, writing in the Israeli journal Yahadut Hofshit:

The weekly day of rest was originally devoted to a range of leisure activities, including family and community cultural activities, blessing and prayer rituals, readings in poetry and rhetoric, and the study of the classical literature that is at the foundation of the Jewish cultural heritage. Over the years, restrictive commandments accumulated, developing into an oppressive Sabbath code full of rules and restrictions that get in the way of leisure and restrict the freedom of those enjoying the Sabbath as they please, violating the spirit of this unique institution, which is meant to grant maximum freedom to all, regardless of age, gender or class, that they may enjoy their free time as they see fit.6

Such statements are common in Jewish culture today, and reflect the gulf separating the “freethinking” view of the Sabbath, dedicated to leisure and relaxation, from that found in the traditional Jewish sources. From the traditional standpoint, the prohibition on work is not meant to establish the value of leisure, or to protect workers from the harsh realities of capitalist society. Rather, its meaning is primarily spiritual. In some respects, the prohibition of work teaches more about the nature of Jewish faith than any other commandment.

For “work” is another name for creative or productive activity, which is the center of normal human occupation. By prohibiting this kind of activity one day in seven, Judaism draws attention to human creative effort and teaches us about its essential nature—what it means, and what it requires. In the process, it also presents an original theological teaching, concerning the share in creation assigned to man by the Creator, and man’s resultant relationship with both the world and the divine. This teaching contains two contradictory elements: For six days, man exercises his will upon the world; he then exercises restraint on the seventh. Through the proper balance between these two elements, will and restraint, man’s labor acquires a kind of meaning and purpose which are attuned to the fundamental dynamic of Creation itself.

The Sabbath, therefore, contains within it a central, ancient message about the Jewish way in the world. As we shall see, it also offers an important critique of those civilizations, including contemporary Western civilization, which have chosen other paths.



When the pagan scholars of the classical world learned of the practice of the Jews to cease their productive activity every seventh day, they saw it as something strange, arbitrary, even dangerous. Some saw it as proof of Jewish indolence. The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, derided the Sabbath as a wasteful institution, in which the Jews “lose almost a seventh of their life in inactivity.”7

Yet Judaism taught of a far more comprehensive idea of labor, of which the “indolent” Sabbath teaching was only one element. In the Jewish sources, productive work is presented as an essential human obligation, a central pillar of man’s mission on earth. As opposed to the belief advocated by the Church in medieval times, the Tora does not see labor as a form of punishment.8 While it is true that the sin for which Adam was expelled from Eden brought about an increase in the difficulty involved in labor, it was still not seen as a curse. On the contrary: The engagement in productive activity, with the hardship it implies, is seen as a means of coming closer to God, through imitation of him.9 Just as the Eternal created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, man is similarly commanded: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, and the seventh day is a Sabbath for the Eternal your God: You shall not do any work.” Based on this verse, the Sages determined that “just as the Tora was given as a covenant, so too was work given as a covenant.”10 This positive approach is also expressed more fully in the following midrash:

R. Shimon ben Elazar says: Even Adam tasted nothing before he worked, as it is written, “And he placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to keep it”; only afterward did he tell them, “Of every tree of the garden you may eat.”11 R. Tarfon says: The Holy One similarly did not rest his Presence upon Israel until they had worked, as it is written, “And they should build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”12 R. Yehuda ben Beteira says: If a man has no work, what should he do? If he has a fallow yard or a fallow field, he should go and work it, as it is written, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”13… R. Yose says: A man dies only through idleness.14

According to the rabbis, labor occupies a crucial place in the Jewish view of proper living, one which nothing else can replace. In this spirit they taught, for example, that “the merit of labor stands where the merit of lineage cannot.”15 Even the study of Tora cannot replace work: “All study of Tora that is not combined with labor,” argues the Mishna, “ultimately comes to nothing, and causes sin.”16 In his discussion of the rules of Tora study, Maimonides went as far as to write that “whoever decides to study Tora and not to work, but instead to live on charity, desecrates the name of God and brings the Tora into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself and deprives himself of life in the world to come.”17

The rabbis’ emphasis on work was not simply a reflection of their abhorrence for indolence and idleness. As suggested above, the rabbis saw work as intimately related to the religious ideal of adherence (deveikut), that is, of man’s attempt to draw close, or “cling,” to God.18 Now, such a demand poses a serious theological difficulty for the Jew: Given the unbridgeable gulf between the Creator and his creatures, how can man “adhere” to the Eternal? The midrash suggests one possible answer: Adherence can be achieved through imitation.

R. Yehuda, son of R. Simon, began: “Walk after the Eternal your God.”19 But can a flesh-and-blood creature walk after the Holy One?… Rather, from the very beginning of his creation of the world, the Holy One was engaged first of all in planting, as it is written, “The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden.”20 So should you, too, engage first of all in planting when you enter into the land.21

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