Shabbat tells us a lot about the nature of life. It defines what our purpose is in this world and teaches us how to view the relationship between this world and the next. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:16) says in the name of Rabbi Yaakov: Ha’olam hazeh domeh liprozdor bifney ha’olam haba; hatken atzmecha baprozdor k’dey shetikannes latraklin, “This world is like a corridor before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the corridor so that you may enter the banquet hall.”
This Mishnah tells us how to view the relationship between this world and the next: though we live in this physical world, it is merely the entrance way, or antechamber, to the next world. When the body dies, the immortal soul leaves this world but lives on in olam haba, the World to Come. We have to prepare ourselves in the corridor, this world, in order to enter the grand hall, which is the World to Come.
What does this have to do with Shabbat?
Preparing for Shabbat, preparing for the World to Come
In his commentary on this Mishnah, Rashi asks, what does it mean to “prepare yourself in the corridor so that you can enter the banquet hall”? Rashi answers with the analogy of preparing for Shabbat: if you didn’t cook your food before Shabbat, you are not going to have anything to eat on Shabbat.
The simple understanding of Rashi’s comment is that he is giving us a frame of reference to understand the Mishnah: just like we are allowed to cook on Friday afternoon but once Shabbat comes in we cannot cook anymore, and if you did not cook anything before sunset you are going to eat cold food on Shabbat – if anything at all – so too this world is the only time we have for doing mitzvot because once we die we will not be able to do mitzvot anymore. In the World to Come there is no free choice, and so the only opportunity we have to do mitzvot is in this world.
This relates to the next Mishnah which says, also in the name of Rabbi Yaakov: Yafa sha’ah achat b’teshuva uma’asim tovim ba’olam hazeh mikol chayey ha’olam haba, “Better is one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come,” because one cannot do any mitzvot in the next world; and Veyafa sha’ah achat shel korat ruach ba’olam haba, mikol chayey ha’olam hazeh, “Better is one moment of bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.”
This Mishnah turns everything on its head: this is the world where we can repent and do mitzvot and do good deeds; in the next world we can’t. And real pleasure, tranquillity and peace of mind is only in the next world, because all of the pleasures of this world combined do not equal even one moment of the next world.
What emerges from these statements is that if we want to understand the relationship between this world and the next, Shabbat is a very good analogy, as Rashi says. But it goes further than that: Shabbat is not just the analogy, but the key message about the relationship between this world and the next. Our Sages refer to Shabbat as me’ein olam haba – a microcosmic reflection of the World to Come. Meaning, Shabbat gives us an inkling of what awaits us in the next world. Shabbat is a day of pleasure, rest and tranquillity. It is a day of korat ruach, spiritual bliss and peace of mind. All the stressors of work are left behind on Friday afternoon because on Shabbat nothing can be done anyway. We can relax because all the bills that need to get paid and the things that need to get done cannot be taken care of anyhow. That is true korat ruach. Shabbat gives us an inkling of the tranquillity of spirit that we will experience in the next world. Through Shabbat G-d has given us a taste of the World to Come, a glimpse of heaven on earth.
Maximising our time in this world
Another important lesson emerges from this analogy, and that is that if Shabbat is the World to Come, this world is Friday afternoon. As we all know, no matter how long or short Friday afternoon is, whether it is a winter Shabbat or a summer Shabbat, there are always last-minute things that need to get done and there is always a rush. But when the sun sets on Friday afternoon, that’s it; we may not do any melacha. The Torah says lo ta’aseh kol melacha, “do not do any ‘work’” which, as we have mentioned before, refers to the thirty-nine categories of work derived from the activities done in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The thirty-nine categories of work are actions of human creativity and dominance over nature; for example building, reaping and cooking – all things that human beings do to master their surroundings. When Shabbat comes in, we have to stop all human creativity. We might be busy with so many things, yet when Shabbat comes in we cannot do anything anymore. A moment before sunset we can do whatever is necessary – run that last errand, buy whatever we need, heat the soup on the stove and get everything ready for Shabbat. But once the sun sets, everything stops.
This is a profound analogy for life on this earth. In this world we can do mitzvot but in the next world, we can’t. We go to olam haba with whatever mitzvot we have accumulated in this world, and then the account is frozen. A moment before the sun sets on our lives we can still do whatever we need to. We can accumulate good deeds, give charity, do chessed, keep kosher, observe Shabbat and do all of the mitzvot. But when the sun sets on our lives, that’s it; we cannot do any more mitzvot because in this world we have free choice and in the next world we do not. The defining quality of human beings is free choice, which we exercise in this world. Hashem took our souls from the heavens and put them into a physical body so that we can do good deeds. When the soul leaves the body and goes to the heavenly world, there is no free choice anymore and so we can neither sin nor do any mitzvot. We are who we are at the moment of leaving this world.
The experience of going from Friday into Shabbat is a reminder of what life is about. The word Shabbat stems from the Hebrew word lishbot, “to cease.” On Shabbat we refrain from doing the thirty-nine categories of work, meaning everything that we could do through human ingenuity, creativity and power must stop. As Shabbat comes in, we have to stop all of that and focus on spiritual things like davening, learning, singing and family time. Those types of activities we do, but the power of human action is taken away from us on Shabbat, as a reminder of what is going to happen when we leave this world to go to olam haba. There will be korat ruach, great tranquillity of spirit, in the next world; but teshuva and ma’asim tovim, repentance and good deeds, we are not going to have in the next world.
Shabbat is me’ein olam haba, just a taste of the World to Come. Obviously on Shabbat we can do mitzvot,and remain active. But it does give us a bit of a taste of what happens when our time runs out. On a weekly basis we are reminded of the fact that our time on this earth is limited.
The Torah’s philosophy of time
This goes to the heart of the Torah’s philosophy of time. There is a well-known story of the Chafetz Chaim who, when travellers returning from America told him that in America people say “time is money,” responded that, “time is life.” Time is what we have on this earth. We must live with a consciousness that life is short, and we must realise how precious it is. It is the only opportunity we have to do good deeds, fulfil the commandments of Hashem and get eternal reward.
We are told to live with the mindset of erev Shabbat. The World to Come is likened to Shabbat; interestingly, however, this world is compared specifically to erev Shabbat – a Friday afternoon. Some people live life as if it is just any ordinary day, a Sunday or a Monday, never bothering to think about the next world. The Tiferet Yisrael commentary says that what the Mishnah is telling us is that time is short and life is precious, and we must live life as if it is erev Shabbat and we are running out of time. The analogy to a corridor teaches us that the world is temporary by its very nature and is really only the gateway to the real world – the World to Come.
Shabbat reminds us that our lives should be focused on the next world. In fact, that is why we were put here on this earth in the first place – to accumulate good deeds so that we can get rewarded in the World to Come. The Midrash says that one of G-d’s kindnesses is that He hid the day of our death from us, for if we were to think about our death we would actually not be able to live normally. People wouldn’t build things or get married, and wouldn’t plan long-term. Therefore G-d, in His kindness, hid the day of our death from us. Thus, our relationship with time should be such that we live life without constantly thinking about our death, and yet we do have to live with a sense of urgency, with the awareness we have only a short amount of time in which to accomplish our life’s goals, to live with a sense of erev Shabbos.
Shabbat, the focal point of the week, is a constant reminder that our lives on this earth are not for the purpose of transient achievements but for the purpose of accumulating good deeds, which are the currency of eternity. Shabbat teaches us that life is more than just physical survival; it cannot be because no one survives life, in the end everybody dies. Our purpose, then, is to maximise the short amount of time we have on this earth and do as many mitzvoth as we can. As one of the great classics of Jewish philosophy, the Messilat Yesharim, says in his opening statement, we have to begin with our ultimate purpose in mind, which is the good deeds we do in this temporary world and take with us to the next world so that we can get eternal reward. This is our purpose and Shabbat reminds us of this purpose, as it gives us a taste of the eternity of the next world, and the urgency of this one.