We would think that Shabbat, being a day of holiness, has no room for physical pleasures. But Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, points out that the concepts of holiness and pleasure are actually linked; although we tend to think of the two as incongruous, the holiness of Shabbat manifests itself in the physical pleasures of the day and the two are interconnected.
Shabbat is defined as a day of holiness; as it says, “G-d sanctified the Sabbath day.” But it is also defined as a day of physical pleasure and enjoyment. The prophet Isaiah says in chapter fifty-eight, Vekarata lashabbat oneg, “And you shall call the Shabbat a day of enjoyment.” We know that physical pleasure is an important part of Shabbat: the kiddush on Friday night is said on wine; there is a mitzvah to have three festive meals – obviously, in accordance with what one can afford, though the meals should be different from what one eats during the week; there is a mitzvah to wear special Shabbat clothing – again, in accordance with what one can afford; and there is a mitzvah to sleep on Shabbat. Thus we see how, on Shabbat, physical pleasures become a mitzvah.
How do we understand this connection?
Connecting the physical and the spiritual
Judaism is about living in accordance with G-d’s will, and doing so in the physical world. Before we come into this world, our souls are up in the heavens with G-d, in a completely spiritual existence. G-d puts the soul into a body, and body and soul come down together to this world in order to serve Him, uplifting the physical world and making it holy. This is why, as opposed to some other religions, Judaism does not have a negative view of the physical; G-d created it so that we could serve Him through it and uplift it. It is not second best but actually part of the very purpose for which we are here.
This is why so many of the mitzvot are physical actions – taking a lulav, building a succah, lighting candles, putting on tefillin; these are all mitzvot which are fulfilled through action. Even prayer, which is a very spiritual act, is physical; it is not just about mental meditation, there is a physical component to it. We use a siddur, and in fact we are obligated to articulate the words so that we can hear them; we wear a tallis, we sway; there is a minyan, and there is a physical structure – a shul. Judaism is about taking the physical world and harnessing it to the service of G-d, thereby uplifting and transforming it, and bringing out its latent spiritual energy. Consequently, angels, who have no connection to the physical world, are on a lower level of achievement than humans because they do not have the opportunities that we have to elevate the physical.
Finding satisfaction in the physical – through the spiritual
Shabbat’s holiness is expressed through the physical world. Shabbat is so holy, and yet it is a day filled with physical pleasure. This theme is evident on other holy days as well: for example, Rosh Hashanah, which is a day of judgment and repentance, is still considered a Yom Tov; we eat good food and wear fine clothes. Likewise on Yom Kippur, even though we fast, there is still a mitzvah to wear Yom Tov clothes; and as we know, there is a special mitzvah to eat on erev Yom Kippur. The Gemara says that one who eats well on erev Yom Kippur, it is as if he has fasted for two days – erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur. There is always a balance between the physical world and the spiritual world, and we need to use the physical in our service of G-d. This is what Shabbat represents, and this is why it is a major pillar of Judaism: in Judaism, pleasure and holiness can go together.
Judaism gives us the proper perspective on the physical world. If the physical world is used for a higher purpose – to serve G-d – then it will bring us satisfaction. But if not, it will never bring us satisfaction. Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains the concept of being satisfied, as follows: We have a mitzvah to say Birkat HaMazon, grace after meals. The verse says, Ve’achalta vesavata uveirachta, “You shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless G-d,” which teaches us that the mitzvah of bentching is dependent on satiety. In fact, if one is still hungry after having eaten, the mitzvah to bentch is rabbinic, not a Torah obligation. It is only a Torah mitzvah when one is satisfied.
A person can have fun and derive physical pleasure and still remain dissatisfied and empty. The Vilna Gaon compares the physical world to drinking saltwater: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. Physicality on its own can never satisfy us – on the contrary, it leaves us feeling empty. One can only feel full from the physical world when it is connected to spirituality. There is a partnership between the physical world and holiness. We serve G-d through the physical world and by harnessing it to serve Him we enhance it. The physical world then becomes the conduit to give us real satisfaction.
Shabbat teaches us this philosophy for life: physicality on its own will not bring us happiness yet we need the physical world in order to serve G-d. Physicality has its place, but without channelling the physical into holiness, there will always be emptiness and dissatisfaction, a thirst for something else, a void that is never filled. Shabbat, though it has special food, fine clothing, sleep and all of the pleasures of the physical world, is nevertheless a day of holiness, a day of davening and learning, a day of connecting to family and to G-d. We drink the wine but we sanctify it by saying kiddush on it. We have three festive meals but they are part of the mitzvah of Shabbat. Shabbat enables us to experience satisfaction with the pleasures of the physical world, because now everything has been uplifted. There is a reciprocal relationship between the physical and the spiritual – the more Torah and spirituality there is, the more one can enjoy the physical world; and if one enjoys the physical world through spirituality, one comes to a higher level of Torah. Torah is then not an esoteric concept divorced from the physical world but actually an integral part of it.
Shabbat gives us an opportunity to view life with the proper perspective, and this is why our Sages regard it as one of the most important mitzvot. It is the microcosm of life, the model of how to live, and if we internalise its message – that there must be an appropriate balance between the physical and the spiritual – it has a profound impact, which spills over into the rest of the week. Shabbat teaches us that we must live a balanced life. When the physical and spiritual come together, both are uplifted because this is what G-d wants from us, and this is how we live in the fullest and happiest way.
Connecting with G-d brings the ultimate joy
There is another idea which emerges from the connection between pleasure and holiness. The deepest pleasure and happiness is experienced when we are connected to holiness and to G-d. By connecting to Him we experience the joy of being connected to our inner core and to the very purpose for which we were placed on this earth. Hence, even when we are going through difficult times we can still feel joy and find meaning in life, provided we understand that all difficulties serve a higher purpose. If we are aware that all difficulties are part of a purification process and forming a connection with G-d, then we can experience a profound sense of joy in who we are and in our tasks in life.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel brings an amazing passage which describes how, upon leaving this world, the wicked have to go through a purification process in Gehinom before going on to Gan Eden. He quotes a source which says that even while going through the painful purification process in Gehinom, the wicked will say to G-d, yafeh danta, “You have judged righteously.” Even though they are experiencing profound discomfort in Gehinom, they take comfort in knowing that the purification of their soul is bringing them closer to G-d, and this knowledge brings them joy.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel explains that repentance may be a painful, even humiliating, process because it is filled with regret; yet there is comfort and joy in being able to rectify what we have done wrong and in knowing that we are doing the right thing. No matter what we are going through, if there is an understanding that we are doing what we are meant to do and that everything we go through serves a higher purpose, we experience joy. When we are on the right path in life, doing what we are meant to be doing, we feel the greatest joy and satisfaction.
Shabbat is a day of profound joy because it redeems the physical world by elevating it to become a platform for the service of G-d and because it brings us back to our core essence, to G-d, to His Torah and His values. When we return to who we are, we feel the ultimate joy and pleasure – the joy and pleasure that come from the holiness of connecting to G-d.
The key to happiness is having a sense of completeness and wholeness. When things are missing or fragmented, unhappiness results. Shabbat is the ultimate completeness and wholeness, bringing together the physical and the spiritual, which together comprise the totality of what it means to be a human being, just as G-d wanted us to be. When things are complete, when things are whole, we feel at peace and can experience profound joy.