Back to the beginning: The Fourth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, June 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

It has been a season of simchas. Among our extended family and friends have been numerous weddings and graduations, two birthdays, a military commission ceremony, a Bat Mitzvah, a brit, and a pidyon haben.

Despite their infrequency, the celebrations of these extraordinary moments were familiar: special clothes, choreographed rituals, inspirational music, delicious repasts, and much bonhomie.

What a shame that our religious tradition’s most significant — and most frequent — celebratory moment in time is neither as familiar nor as exalted, except among the most observant: Shabbat.

We block out time on our calendars to attend weddings and graduations. We plan ahead to shop for birthday presents. We spend hours in the kitchen preparing for a brit or dinner party. We dress up in our finest for a Bar Mitzvah or an awards ceremony.

But what about Shabbat? Do we block out the time on our calendar? Shop ahead? Set a festive table? Cook a special meal?  Dress up in something special?  Join with others for ritual and friendship?

What a shame if we don’t. After all, the concept of Shabbat — a day set apart by God, unrelated to natural cycles like the sun or moon — was a singularly unique invention of the Jewish people, one that has spread to the four corners of the earth.

The origin
Shabbat first appears not as a noun but as a verb, at the end of the Creation story (Gen. 2:2): “God had finished, on the seventh day, his work that he had made, and then he ceased (vayishbot), on the seventh day, from all his work that he had made.”

Based on the Hebrew sh-b-t, “ceased,” often misleadingly translated as “rested,” Shabbat is the action of “ceasing from creating.”

In the Fourth Commandment (Ex. 20:8-10), Shabbat becomes a noun, similarly connoting desisting from creative work: “Remember the Sabbath day (yom haShabbat), to hallow it.  For six days, you are to serve (ta’avod) and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath (Shabbat) for the Lord your God: you are not to make any kind of work…”

But Shabbat is not just cessation from creative work; it is also a release from slavery to the demanding “masters” of everyday life: bosses, homework, computers, carpooling.

For six days you are you to work and serve others, a-v-d (like avadim in the Passover song Avadim Hayinu, Once We Were Slaves.)

However, on the seventh day you are not to be a slave, not to people, not to things.
“The Sabbath is the ultimate statement that the world does not own us (Rachel Mikva, Broken Tablets).”

The roadblocks
Despite Shabbat’s compelling purpose, there appear to be five key roadblocks to embracing its observance on any level.

• God and Torah. For those who do not view the Torah as God-given or God-inspired, the Commandments are simply suggestions or good ideas. Shabbat as a command has no meaning.

• The Rational Mind. In the modern scientific view, Shabbat observance makes sense as a retreat from overscheduled lives or, in the words of a recent Bat Mitzvah sermon, a stress-reliever. It’s an opportunity for relaxation and renewal. For the philosopher, Shabbat is a symbol: it represents “the social morality of time,” reminding us to be more sensitive to workers’ rights for shorter hours or more vacation time (Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World).

Shabbat’s “rejection of slavery” is a symbolic reminder to confront child labor and forced prostitution. Shabbat is valuable only if it has a utilitarian purpose.

• Egotism. We humans have a tendency to see ourselves as omnipotent imagineers, designers, and creators. We are the center of the universe. We are in constant demand. We have constant demands. Shabbat interferes in our self-important, self-idolatrous lives.

• The Laws. In writing about her husband, Shulevitz highlights another stumbling block to Shabbat observance: “He belonged to a synagogue, but he had never thought of the Sabbath as anything but an antiquated practice reserved for those with a masochistic taste for censorious laws.”

The problem is that we have trouble giving up control; without laws, we remain enslaved to the responsibilities and demands of the workweek. On the other hand, Shabbat focused only on limits leaves little room for rejoicing.

• Practicalities. Shabbat seems to be so overwhelming. One of the biggest roadblocks is knowing what to do or where to begin.

“I like the idea of keeping the Sabbath,” writes Shulevitz, “but at the thought of actually doing it, of passing an entire day following strange rules while refraining from customary recreations, I am knocked flat by a wave of anticipated boredom.”

Faced with a lack of knowledge or an all-or-nothing attitude about observance, it’s hard to take that first step.

We complain that we have no time. We complain that we’re drained. We complain that we’re slaves.

At some point we all look for a Sabbath, a withdrawal from the world by whatever name.

So we sign up for yoga, go on retreats, take vacations. The problem is that each of these momentary escapes still involves our creative energies; still keeps us slaves to money, schedules, and bosses; still leaves us anchored in the ordinary world. So it doesn’t satisfy our soul.

Perhaps it’s time to make the conscious choice to ignore the roadblocks, go back to the beginning, and explore the possibilities of a moment set apart: Shabbat.

Family Discussion: How are you a slave to the creative world? Which roadblocks prevent you from fully engaging with Shabbat? What is one thing you could do to invite Shabbat into your life?


Literature to share

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz is an intricate weaving of sociology, history, philosophy, and memoir. While the author clearly has mixed emotions about the traditional practice of Shabbat, her fascination with the topic has led to a thoughtful, moving, and rich volume.

Hanna’s Sabbath Dress by Itzhak Schweiger-Dmi’el recounts the tale of a little girl who, all dressed up for Shabbat, is faced with an ethical problem. This longtime favorite for preschoolers is still so popular that a play script and a You Tube version can be found on the Internet.

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