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17 Adar I 5763 - February 19, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Choicest of Days

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

Reasons for the Commandment of Shabbos

"Between Me and the Children of Israel it is an everlasting sign" (Shemos 31:17).

The commandment of Shabbos was included among the Ten Commandments and even preceded the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Jews were commanded regarding Shabbos at Moroh. The Torah states two reasons for keeping this seventh day: the first appears in the commandment of the Aseres Hadibros in Yisro and the second, in the commandment appearing in Voeschanon, namely: "For [in] six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all they contain, and He rested upon the seventh day. Therefore did Hashem bless the Sabbath day and sanctified it" (Shemos 20:11).

Abstaining from work on Shabbos is designed to affix in our hearts the realization and the belief in the renewal of the world, which was created during six days by a Creator, Who also rested from His work, as do we abstain from work on this seventh day. Shabbos is, therefore, an appointment in time whose purpose is to strengthen faith in the Creator.

In the Ten Commandments of Voeschanon, we read an altogether different reason: "And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Hashem your G-d took you out of there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore did Hashem your G-d command you to make the day of Shabbos" (Devorim 5:15). From here we infer that observing the day of Shabbos serves as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. What, then, is its real purpose?

Shabbos Cannot Only be a Day of Abstaining from Work

The Jewish people are commanded to abstain from all labor and to totally shun any creative work. By the very fact of his ceasing to do all labor, a Jew remembers that Hashem also desisted from further creation on the seventh day. In this manner, a Jew establishes in his soul the faith that there is a Creator to this world, a Being Who preceded this world and created it, One Who made, does make and will make everything in the world. This is the main purpose of Shabbos: Shabbos is a basic principle of Jewish faith.

On the other hand, merely abstaining from all toil which one is accustomed to do throughout the six days of the week, would present a danger to the soul and spirit of a person, for idleness leads to sin. Boredom and lack of productivity is certainly the mother of all sin. Therefore Hashem saw fit to fill the vacuum that was created by abstention from toil with a positive entity; to pour content of spirituality and holiness into the Sabbath day.

We are all familiar with the wonderful work of the kiruv seminars. Within their framework, participants listen to a battery of lectures, they pray together, eat together and, after two or three days, feel a tremendous spiritual exaltation that gives them the strength and impetus to continue on and on.

They return home, but the impression of the seminar has made its mark upon their thoughts. They will return to work the following day, to their respective positions in education, clerical work, hi-tech, but the seminar will have left a strong imprint upon their lives. Even after they return home, they will attempt to clarify, investigate, ask and seek to learn more, all based on the impression of that seminar.

Shabbos is the Time for Torah

That is the nature of Shabbos. It is not simply a day of rest and leisure, of idleness. The day serves as a day of introspection. On this day a Jew severs himself from the material world and ascends to a world that is wholly pure. He exits the common cycle and is able to draw close to the sources of his soul. He then fills his reservoir and recharges his spiritual batteries with energy that will last him for the six days of activity in the coming week.

This is how the Ramban explains it in his commentary to the Torah:

"The Torah writes `to sanctify it' so that the memory of the Shabbos be holy in our eyes, as it is said, `And you shall call the Shabbos `a pleasure' to the Holy One, Hashem . . . ' That the resting shall be in our eyes for the sake of its being a day of holiness, to divert all of our idle thoughts away from the vanities and the times, and to provide our souls with spiritual pleasure in the ways of Hashem, to go to the sages and the prophets to hear the word of Hashem, as it is written, `Why are you going to him [Elisha] today? It is neither Rosh Chodesh nor Shabbos.' For that was customary. Chazal also said we see from here that on Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos it is fitting to go" (Ramban, Shemos 20:8).

In other words, we were not forbidden to work in plowing or harvesting simply to have a reprieve from work and to idle away our time, but to "Go to the sages and the prophets in order to hear the word of Hashem."

In this aspect, there is a great similarity between the exodus from Egypt and Shabbos. There, some three thousand three hundred years ago, the Jews left the bondage of Egypt for freedom. But Jewry purchased its freedom at the price of a new yoke which they were commanded to place upon their shoulders. While it was not one of bricks and mortar, of brutal taskmasters forcing them to produce a daily quota, it was the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, the yoke of tefillin, tzitzis, mezuza, Shabbos, korbonos and the rest. A liberation from the backbreaking bondage of Egypt exchanged for a spiritual bondage which reached its peak at Mt. Sinai.

The relationship between Shabbos and the weekdays is similar, for on Shabbos we are commanded to rest from the weekday toils -- but this does not mean we are supposed to twiddle our thumbs. The reason for our desisting from toil is to free us to acquire more knowledge, to elevate ourselves spiritually, to store up reserves of spiritual treasures to tide us over the coming weekdays.

In this aspect, the ushering in of the Shabbos does resemble the exodus from Egypt, for in both, the Jew divests himself of his work clothes in order to enter the beis hamedrash and lift himself up a tefach from the grey reality of the weekday world.

The Unique Property of Shabbos is a Rapid Ascent in Spirituality

If you will, the Torah alludes to another reason why it mentions the historic event of yetzias Mitzrayim as the central purpose of Shabbos. This attempts to provide an answer to those who think that one single day is not powerful enough to effect a significant change upon a soul that was designed for a mundane existence in weekly toil.

What, after all, can a simple Jew attain, they ask, during the one day of severance from the mundane and adherence to holiness that will continue to sustain him during the coming week? How much can the wisdom of the sages and the exhortation of the prophets avail to one steeped in the physical world?

From a logical standpoint, they might be right in asking that question. Mathematically speaking, it is one against six; how much of an impact can this Shabbos pack to exert its influence across the weekdays that take up most of a person's living time?

The answer is that Shabbos contains a special power, the same power that attracted the Jews and held them in thrall to the worship of Hashem after their emergence from Egypt. Then too, they were immersed in the forty- nine depths of spiritual pollution and every vestige of holiness and purity was far beyond them.

Who would have believed that a group of men, products of the depraved Egyptian society would, within a short space of time, reach a prophetic level greater even than that attained by the prophet Yechezkel? In the span of seven weeks, a tribe of slaves, abused, wallowing in a spiritually-deprived morass, rose to participate in a historic, momentous, unique and exceptional occasion, an all-time event in all the annals of mankind's chronicles: the revelation of the Divine Presence upon Har Sinai and the giving of the Torah! Such an event is totally inconceivable, according to our grasp. And similarly by analogy, in nowaday experience, can we imagine an Israeli youth, steeped in the paganism of distant India, suddenly taking himself in hand, returning to his roots and, after less than two months, being able to grasp concepts at the level of what the Chazon Ish grasped, for example, or some other erudite Torah sage?

The answer is, under normal circumstances, totally negative. But it happened at the liberation of our ancestors from Egypt. Apparently it is this kind of phenomenon that Hashem alluded to when he said to Moshe before the Giving of the Torah, "And I lifted you upon the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me" (Shemos 19:4). This expressed the rapidity of the polar change that took place amongst the Jews in their metamorphosis from decadence to holiness and from idolatry to prophecy.

This is also the inherent power and property of Shabbos. With just a little effort and within a short time, it can uplift a Jew from the bleakness of his weekday life to great spiritual heights, to an expanded spiritual capacity. He must merely create a needle-thin aperture in order that [Heaven] expand it to the size of an auditorium. This power is the blessing of Shabbos, which showers a munificence of holiness and spiritual capacity unattainable during other times.

Shabbos is Like a Minuscule Maamad Har Sinai

It is most apt to quote here the marvelous words of R' Chaim, brother of the Maharal of Prague, as it appears in his work, Sefer Hachaim:

"A person's heart harbors its doubts regarding the Divine origin of Torah and mitzvos. Any belief that is imposed upon a person from the outside must necessarily arouse within him a measure of doubt or skepticism unless he experienced it firsthand and arrived at the realization and faith on his own, as did our ancestors whose very feet stood on Har Sinai and who were all exalted to a level of prophecy and heard the voice of a living G-d speaking directly to them.

"Out of His great love to the Jewish people, and in order to remove all doubt from their hearts, Hashem granted us the Shabbos, which is a sign of the covenant between us, and in whose repose a gentile is forbidden to partake. In this repose, every Jew feels in person the Divine bounty, the glow of the Divine Countenance shining upon him and the added joy which permeates him, involuntarily even, immediately with the onset of the Shabbos. The night of Shabbos, entirely, is light and strength and joy wherever we are. Undoubtedly, this is nothing but a spark of light and joy that glimmers from the source of all prophecy, for even if we have no prophets and no seers and we are on tainted soil, still, He has not withdrawn from us His kindness and truth to continue to shower upon us a Divine light, Shabbos after Shabbos.

"We, in particular, who are weary from this bitter exile, are able to find surcease for our souls on this holy day. And by this very reality, we can conclude, without any room for doubt, that our Torah is a Torah of truth."

To these words it is fitting to add what is told about Count Potocki, the famous convert known as Avrohom ben Avrohom: even before he actually converted to Judaism, he would experience an inexplicable fervor every Friday evening without knowing or understanding wherefore. He would pace the floor restlessly, emitting an occasional roar in Polish, "Tzu-ta za Sobota?" (What is the nature of this Sabbath?) There existed a subconscious feeling in the mind and heart of one of the greatest sanctifiers of Hashem's Name throughout history. And even if not everyone feels the pleasant sweetness of the Shabbos, there are many reasons for it. But great people do sense it and react accordingly, each one according to the degree of his spiritual sensitivity.

A Goodly Gift in My Treasure House

Upon the verse, "So that you know that I am Hashem Who sanctifies you" (Shemos 31:13), Chazal say that Hashem said to Moshe: "I have a goodly gift in My treasure house; Shabbos is its name. I wish to give it to Yisroel. Go and inform them about it" (Shabbos 10:b). How does the Shabbos serve as a good gift? Is the prohibition to grind and to sort considered a gift? And if, indeed, we regard it as a gift, is it then a greater one than the prohibition to eat creeping and crawling creatures?

In reality, it is not the prohibition of grinding and sorting per se that are considered goodly gifts, but the special bounty that is shed and spread by the Shabbos. The neshomoh yeseiroh, the extra measure of intellectual insight that is given on Shabbos and the feeling of that "spark of light and joy that gleams from the very source wherefrom prophecy originates" are what cause people to look forward to its advent and to regard it as a day of a marvelous gift.

Some small-minded people do not understand that it is really a gift. They regard it as no more than a day of restrictions and barriers. In their eyes, everything is forbidden and prohibited. And when the heart is impervious to the good for various reasons -- as some hearts are -- it is unable to feel the wonder of that gift. Such people need to have the essence of this gift spelled out for them, as in a promotional brochure that highlights all the beneficial features of this gift.

This is necessary for others as well, namely, those who are willingly abstaining from work and truly wish to know how to relate to the Shabbos. They also need guidance in recognizing the value of this gift. This is why it was necessary for Hashem to tell Moshe to inform the Jews about the nature of the gift before they received it.

What is the significance of that announcement? What function does it fill?

The Rebbe R' Shmelke of Nikolsburg once sought to illuminate this idea with a story that happened to him the previous day. He had been sitting in his home when a poor man entered, asking for a handout. There was not a penny in the house. R' Shmelke turned his pockets inside out but nothing fell out and he was greatly distressed. Finally, in the recesses of a drawer, he found a gold ring with a brilliant gem which belonged to the Rebbetzin. He seized it joyfully and gave it to the poor man. When the Rebbetzin returned home shortly after and heard what had happened, she was greatly distressed. "How could you have given such a precious item to a simple beggar who expected no more than a few pennies?" she remonstrated.

When the Rebbe realized the great value of the ring, he rushed out of the house and went searching for the poor man. The beggar thought the Rov regretted having given him the ring and ran away, with R' Shmelke hot on his heels. He finally overtook him and, panting heavily, said, "I only wanted to let you know that the ring I gave you is very valuable; it is worth a great deal. Don't let anyone cheat you out of its real value."

A Pity for Every Moment Wasted

Even one who is very meticulous and precise in observing the Shabbos to the letter of the law, a truly G-d-fearing person, is not necessarily aware of the tremendous spiritual bounty the Shabbos embodies. He may be punctilious in areas of shehiyoh, chazoroh, hatmonoh, and be most cautious against intimating to a gentile that he wishes something to be done even in times of stress and emergency, and still while away most of the Shabbos in sleeping or reading newspapers. The precious hours of Shabbos pass by without him being aware that they are being wasted and dissipated.

It was to these people that Moshe was sent. They had to be informed of the value of the gift of Shabbos lest it slip between their very fingers. They were made to realize that this gift was very precious; they should not let themselves be shortchanged or `sell it' for less than it was worth. They must know enough to utilize every single moment for spiritual ascent that is acquired on this day with much greater facility than at any other time.

The Chofetz Chaim of Radin used another parable to drive the message home. A beggar came to a certain city in the hope of earning some money to help him marry off a daughter. He knocked upon the door of a wealthy man, who answered the door and asked what he wanted. A genial person, he engaged the beggar in pleasant conversation and asked him where he hailed from. When he heard the name of the city, his eyes lit up: this was the very place where he had been born.

The rich man invited the beggar in. After a few minutes of additional conversation, the beggar excused himself and said, "I came here to collect money for my daughter's dowry. My time is very precious as the wedding day is fast approaching. I am afraid that I cannot sit and talk any more."

The rich man thought for a moment and asked, "How much do you think you can make in an hour of door-to-door collecting?" The poor man quoted a sum, wondering what his host was leading up to.

"I'll tell you what," he suggested. "You remain here and tell me about life in my home town. Tell me about the people I ask you about; fill me in on the latest news, and I will give you what you would have collected during this time."

The beggar agreed willingly. Cold and weary, he could sit here and relax in a comfortable, well-heated room, without having to trudge about and knock on doors. All he had to do was to talk!

The host asked about this person and that, and the poor man replied according to his knowledge, enthusiastic at this easy deal. But when the novelty wore off, he began to tire. His attention wandered. He became bored and soon his head nodded; his eyes closed of their own accord.

The rich man grew incensed and said, "Here I am paying you for listening to my questions and answering them. I am paying for every moment of your time, for your slightest effort. Isn't it a pity for you to foul up this opportunity by falling asleep on me?"

A person who sleeps away the Shabbos is like one who bought an expensive ticket for a cruise. He prepared himself for the excursion, packed a lot of clothing -- but as soon as he boarded the ship, he settled down and went to sleep. He misses out on the beautiful scenery, on the exhilarating experience and, lulled by the motion, just sleeps on. Why did he have to spend so much money to begin with when he could have just crawled into a sleeping bag and hit the sack?

And if someone says, "What can I do? I'm exhausted." He may be telling the truth, but the opportunity will not return and the experience will have been wasted. He is advised to find himself a different time for sleeping; not on Shabbos!

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