Shabbos | The Centre That Holds
Updated: Apr 29
Excitement is building with the Shabbos Project just around the corner, on the 11th and 12th of October. People around the country, from all walks of life, are signing up. There is an incredible sense of, and a real buzz and anticipation in the air. If you haven’t yet signed up, I encourage you to do so at http://www.theshabbosproject.org/.
On the website you will also find lots of material about the philosophy behind Shabbos, as well as the practicalities of how to keep it. You can find a host, become a host, find a coach, or become a coach, and there is a Tool Kit available through the website as well, to accompany you through the whole process of keeping Shabbos. You can contact your local shul office; we are doing this as a community, and everyone is here to help you along the way.
I would like to take this opportunity to step back for a moment and think about Shabbos more deeply.
Shabbos is multifaceted. Indeed a lot of material on the topic has been distributed over the last number of weeks, and is now available on the website. Here, I would like to share some thoughts with you which, strangely enough, were inspired by the words of William Butler Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
We experience this every day, on so many different levels. If we look around the world and especially at the Middle East – the carnage in Syria; Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; the turbulence of Egypt, once an icon of stability, now going through one president after another; and in the middle of it, Israel – there is truly a sense of “mere anarchy loosed upon the world.”
This is not only on a global level, but on a national level as well: South African society is contending with so many challenges. And on a family level, too: the modern family bends under so many pressures, be they financial pressures, technology, or the deluge of media and communications. In such a fast-paced, fragmented world, what is the centre that holds us together and prevents things from falling apart?
The inherent chaos of the world
In truth, these forces of anarchy at play in the world are actually embedded in Creation. The beginning of the Book of Genesis describes the world as tohu vavohu vechoshech al pnei tehom, “chaos and void and darkness over the abyss.” We know that one of the cardinal principles of Judaism is the fact that G-d created the world ex nihilo. There was a point in time prior to which there was nothing and following which He created everything. This means – and the Midrash states this – that He actually created the chaos, the void and the darkness and then formed the world.
In his essay Halachic Man, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that G-d embedded tohu vavohu, chaos and void, into Creation. This is borne out by science, what is known as the force of entropy. There is constant chaos and anarchy, even on a molecular level.
This force of chaos occurs at every level of existence: in global politics, in society, in our individual lives and even on the most basic levels. To use a simple example, a garden left untended will become overgrown; a swimming pool left untended will turn green with algae. If one does not look after him- or herself – be it in matters of health, hygiene or personal grooming – things will descend into chaos.
The tohu vavohu is always there. This “mere anarchy loosed upon the world” is part of the very fabric of Creation, and human beings constantly have to struggle against it. How, then, do we find our way through this fog of entropy?
Shabbos – the antidote to chaos
The remedy to these forces of chaos and anarchy was actually revealed at the conclusion of Creation. On the seventh day, G-d created the force of unity which holds the world together: Shabbos. Creation was not six days long but seven. “He finished His work on the seventh day,” for on the seventh He created Shabbos as an integral part of Creation.
Shabbos introduces two powerful forces to the world. The one is unity, and the other is the ability to return to our source. The Shem MiShmuel, one of the great Chassidic masters of the Sochatchov dynasty, quotes a Midrash that when G-d created the world there was chaos, and this chaos did not dissipate until Shabbos arrived. Even while G-d was creating the world and He said, “Let there be light,” there was still chaos such that Creation was not actually visible. The Midrash says it was like having beautifully crafted utensils hardly visible in a bath of bubbling, frothing water; only when the water clears and becomes still can one actually see the beauty of the utensils. So, too, the world was full of chaos and anarchy at Creation until Shabbos settled the chaos and G-d’s Creation could be seen in all its splendour.
The universe is comprised of disparate elements. But as we say every day, as we know and believe, Hashem Echad – G-d is One. He is the uniting force, the One Who created everything and holds everything together. Shabbos is the expression of that force in the world, giving us the opportunity to see the world’s unity.
Unity is the opposite of chaos. Chaos scatters everything in different directions while unity signifies a coherent whole. Shabbos provides us with a sense of integrity and balance, a sense that our lives are not fragmented. We are held together by our value system and our common purpose. We are held together by that Unity organizing this universe – Hashem Himself.
Shabbos brings us back to our source
In addition to the power of unity, Shabbos also has the power to bring us back to our source. The Shem MiShmuel quotes the Midrash which says that when G-d created the world, the world continued to expand: shamayim va’aretz nimtachim – heaven and earth were stretching and expanding, further and further away from the centre, till G-d pulled everything back. This Midrash coheres with modern science, which confirms that the universe has been expanding ever since the beginning of time. The universe is, literally and figuratively, expanding all the time; it is constantly in flux, moving in all different directions. And Shabbos is what brings the world back to its source.
On Shabbos we return to ourselves, to our roots as human beings who are connected to Hashem and His Torah values. We go back to our families and our communities. This power of unity and the ability to return us to our source place Shabbos at the centre our lives.
Shabbos holds us together, on every level. Think of it on the simple level of a family. At least one day a week a family can come together to talk, to sing, to laugh, to share words of Torah, and to really connect with one another. This is so vital in today’s world, where families are constantly pulled apart by all kinds of stress.
Shabbos holds not only the family unit together, but also the community. There is no organisation, building or law that can maintain a community’s cohesiveness, except this: one day a week, every Friday night and Shabbos day, Jews disengage from everything and come together in shul. Shabbos brings us back to our community. In a world of chaos, Shabbos remains the unifying force bringing everything and everyone together.
This applies not only on the levels of community and family but on an individual level as well. One of the impacts of the modern world is that, even as individuals, we don’t have a centre of gravity holding us together. Life is often a frantic race just to keep up and survive. The demands placed on us from all sides and on all levels can knock a person off balance. But thankfully Shabbos comes once a week, enabling us to stop, take a deep breath and rediscover ourselves; to connect with Hashem and with our loved ones; to connect with our real selves and pull ourselves together physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Shabbos is the centre that holds our lives together as individuals, as families, and as communities. But it also holds us together historically, in terms of our Jewish destiny. Shabbos was with us at every point in Jewish history, in the darkest moments of the Holocaust and at the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel.
Even on a global scale, Shabbos serves to bring us back to our source, in terms of world history. The Ramban explains, based on the teachings of the Talmud, that the six days of Creation parallel the six thousand years of history, a day for each millennium. World history is 7,000 years long, paralleling the seven days of Creation. Just as the six days of Creation culminated in Shabbos, so too the six thousand years of world history will culminate with the coming of the Messiah and the Final Redemption. We are now in the Jewish year of 5774, so the Messianic Era is, relatively speaking, just around the corner. The Messiah could come before then, but no later than that, and the six thousand years of history will culminate in the ultimate Shabbos—the Final Redemption.
Shabbos is the force of balance, for us as individuals, as families, as a community, and in terms of our Jewish destiny and world history. We never stray too far from who we are because Shabbos is never more than six days away. We have a weekly opportunity to get back in touch with our core essence, thus keeping together ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and the world at large.
Creating a space in time
This world exists in two dimensions, space and time. We are always looking for some sort of structure to hold our lives together, but there is no structure that can hold everything – except Shabbos. Shabbos creates that very structure for us, not in space but in time.
As we know, on Shabbos we may not perform any of the thirty-nine categories of work which are derived from the tasks that were necessary to build the Tabernacle. Why did G-d dictate that specifically these thirty-nine categories of work be forbidden on Shabbos? The reason is because by keeping Shabbos and desisting from these thirty-nine categories of work which represent our physical domination over the natural world, we are actually building a different reality – not in space, but in time.
This sanctity of time, as manifested in Shabbos, differs from the sanctity of the festivals. The sanctity of Shabbos was present right from the beginning of Creation, whereas the sanctity of our festivals is contingent upon the calendar, which in turn rests on the declaration of the Sanhedrin who set and sanctified the calendar. Even though the mitzvah of Yom Tov is in the Torah, its sanctity is bound to the power vested in the Sanhedrin, who sanctified each new moon. Shabbos, however, has always been sacred; it is an integral part of Creation and the reality of this world.
Shabbos keeps us in balance so that we never stray too far from our source, from who we are, from our values and from our G-d-given purpose. It ensures we never lose our sense of unity and our sense of identity. It is such a powerful force, right at the centre of our lives, and that is why the South African Jewish community is embarking upon this project.
The Shabbos Project is about strengthening the unity that holds our community together and about bringing us back to our source. It places these forces firmly in the middle of our lives as the South African Jewish community. The incredible energy of Shabbos will ensure that things do not fall apart; it will hold us all together, connecting us with Hashem, with our loved ones, with each other, with the community, and with our sense of Jewish destiny.
Time is running out, so seize the opportunity. Go onto the website, www.TheShabbosProject.org and sign up for the Shabbos Project. Join all of us who are so excited about this and let’s keep it together.