In the Ten Commandments we are told “Six days you shall work… but the seventh day is Shabbat… Do not do anything that constitutes work… because G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.” How do we understand the parallel between our work during the week and G-d’s creation of the world in six days? Our work during the week cannot possibly compare to the creation of the world. Furthermore, the main point of the commandment is to rest on the seventh day; why, then, does it say, “six days you shall work”? Why does the Torah emphasise that we should work during the rest of the week?
The answers to these questions hold the key to understanding the deeper meaning of Shabbat.
Creating a sanctuary for G-d in the world
As we know, the definition of “work” on Shabbat is anything that falls under the thirty-nine categories of melacha, which, as we have explained previously, refers to work done in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, which later became the Temple. But why is melacha defined by the work done in connection with the Tabernacle? What is the connection between G-d creating the world and the building of the Mishkan?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of our great rabbinic philosophers of the twentieth century, explains that there is indeed a potential parallel between the building of the Tabernacle/Temple and the creation of the world: the world has the potential to become a Holy Temple, a place for the service of G-d. If it achieves this potential, then it emerges that when G-d created the world, He was actually creating a giant Temple. If this occurs, there is a parallel between G-d resting from creating and us resting from the 39 categories of work used to build the Tabernacle.
How do we go about making the world a Holy Temple?
Rav Hutner cites Rabbeinu Bechayey, one of the great commentators from the Middle Ages, who says in the name of the Rambam that “six days you shall work” is an imperative to serve G-d in all areas of life. How do we serve G-d in everything we do? Service of G-d obviously means keeping the 613 commandments. But what percentage of our day is actually spent doing mitzvot? Very little, especially if we take sleep into account, as well as other mundane aspects of life in a given twenty-four-hour period.
However, our Sages teach us that everything we do, even the seemingly mundane, can be transformed into a mitzvah; it all depends on the intention in doing it. The verse in Proverbs says, Bechol derachecha da’ehu, “You shall know Him in all your ways.” We must serve G-d in everything we do. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch says that all our actions should be l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven.” By having the right intentions we actually turn what would be ordinary, mundane activities into mitzvot. For example, if we sleep in order to have energy the next day to be productive, to help others and to do G-d’s will, then our sleep is considered a mitzvah; if the intention in eating is to nourish ourselves so that we are able to do good in the world and to perform mitzvot, then our eating is transformed into a mitzvah. Likewise, going to work or running a business can be a mitzvah, depending on one’s intentions. If the intention is just to accumulate money, that is certainly not a mitzvah. But if the intention is to earn a living in order to fulfil the mitzvah of supporting one’s family with dignity, to be able to give charity, support Torah education, and keep all of the mitzvot – then going to work is considered a mitzvah, because it is being done for the sake of Heaven.
Thus, if we apply the principle of knowing G-d through everything we do, then all of life becomes a mitzvah. If we live l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, every minute of the day – including while we are asleep – is considered a mitzvah. And if we live this way, then the whole world becomes a sanctuary for the service of G-d. This, says Rav Hutner, is the imperative in the verse “six days you shall work.” It does not mean simply that we have to work; rather, it means that during the six days of the week we must serve G-d through embracing every part of life with the intention of doing His will. We must not compartmentalise things into the secular, ordinary part of life and the mitzvah-oriented part of life. Everything must be viewed as part of the service of G-d. With this approach, all our endeavours throughout the week are like the creation of the world in that we are building a platform for the service of G-d, like the Temple is a platform for the service of G-d. From this emerges a direct parallel between G-d resting from creating the world and our resting on Shabbat because the definition of “work” on Shabbat is to desist from acts used to build the Tabernacle.
Shabbat: an all-encompassing mitzvah
When G-d created the world, He created the physical reality we know as the universe. But the identity of the world and of our own lives He left to us to determine. The question is, do we view the world as just a physical reality, a mass of molecules? Or is the world a holy place and life a meaningful, holy experience? It is up to us to choose. If we live our lives meaningfully in accordance with the will of Hashem as expressed in the Torah, then the world is indeed a holy sanctuary.
Interestingly, Shabbat itself plays a role in this cycle. Shabbat is the ultimate representation of turning this world into a sanctuary: what other mitzvah completely envelopes a person? There is, of course, the mitzvah of succah. When we are in the succah, we are completely surrounded by it and everything we do in it is a mitzvah. But the difference between succah and Shabbat is that one can walk out of the succah; one can’t walk out of Shabbat. It’s there, in the dimension of time, as a fundamental part of our existence. On Shabbat we uplift every part of the physical reality. This is why on Shabbat we have a mitzvah to enjoy festive meals, to wear nice clothes and to sing and enjoy the day, because it is about declaring that the service of G-d is not just religious and ceremonial but covers every aspect of life.
In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that we must not describe Judaism is religion, because “religion” implies service of G-d in the limited sense of only ceremony, house of worship and prayer. Those are all aspects of Judaism, of course, but they are only part of it. Judaism is about the service of G-d permeating all of life, and Shabbat is an expression of this. On Shabbat we demonstrate that we serve G-d even with the physical aspects of the world. We elevate those aspects and sanctify them as part of the service of G-d, turning the whole world into a sanctuary.
Shabbat is not just a one-day-a-week mitzvah. In fact, it is one of the pillars of Judaism; it permeates the rest of the days of the week and gives meaning to all of life. The Ten Commandments say Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.” We fulfil the command Zachor, “remember,” by saying kiddush Friday night; but it is also fulfilled by remembering the holiness of Shabbat throughout the week. In his commentary on the Chumash, the Ramban explains that we fulfil this commandment when we mention the names of the days of the week. As we mentioned previously, in Hebrew the days of the week have no names, only ordinal numbers – yom rishon, yom sheni, “day one,” “day two.” This is because each day we count is in reference to Shabbat.
Based on what Rav Hutner says, we can now understand the importance of Shabbat and its relationship to the rest of the days of the week. The way we live our lives during the week will determine whether we are living the way G-d wants us to live. G-d set up a seven-day cycle based on His creation of the world and in so doing gave us the challenge of determining the identity of the world and of our lives. It is up to us to determine whether the world is just an accumulation of molecules or whether there is something special, holy and meaningful about it. How we live during the week will determine how holy our Shabbat will be. If we live the days of the week as if the whole world is a place for the service of G-d, and every aspect of life – be it making a living, engaging with family, parenting or acting ethically in business – is used for the service of G-d, then we have turned the world into a temple and that infuses Shabbat with holiness and meaning. The Torah says “six days you shall work,” work those six days to engage every aspect of life in the service of G-d, and rest on the seventh day, just as He did.
Shabbat is a pillar of Judaism. Judaism is not just a religion but a way of life, in accordance with G-d’s will; it touches every aspect of human existence. As the Midrash says, “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.” It’s a whole worldview, encompassing every aspect of life. Shabbat is a representation of that. It encompasses every part of what it means to be a human being – the physical and the spiritual, the emotional and the intellectual, the communal and the individual. It is a complete experience, teaching us to embrace every aspect of life in the service of G-d.