G-d has set up time to function in units of seven days; we work for six days and on the seventh day we rest. This seven-day cycle has been accepted the world over. Theoretically, we could have had an eight-day week or a ten-day week – and there were in fact times in history when this idea was experimented with – but the seven-day cycle has always been the basic unit of time within which we live.
Where does the seven-day cycle come from?
The seven-day cycle comes from Creation. It is not coincidental that G-d chose the very cycle with which He created the world as the cycle of time in which human beings function. The six days of the week parallel the six days of Creation, and the seventh day – Shabbat – parallels G-d’s resting on the seventh day. Previously we have discussed how Shabbat is an integral part of Creation. The verse says Vayechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i, “and G-d completed His work on the seventh day,” which Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains to mean that G-d actually finished Creation on the seventh day, with the creation of Shabbat and the concept of rest. Thus, the seven-day cycle, including Shabbat, mirrors the seven days of Creation.
This is truly an amazing concept: by establishing a seven-day cycle G-d is telling us to be creators like Him, as we move within the same time-cycle with which He created the world. The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat, page 119b, says that whoever says Vayechulu – the first paragraph of the kiddush on Friday night – na’asa shutaf laKadosh Baruch Hu b’ma’aseh bereishit, “it is as if he has become a partner with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in Creation.” By saying these words in kiddush we declare that we are keeping Shabbat as a holy day because G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
How do we understand the concept of partnership with G-d in Creation?
Being creators like G-d
In his book Pri Tzadik, Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin quotes the Midrash which describes a debate between a Roman officer by the name of Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose acts are greater, man’s or G-d’s?” This was a set-up. Turnus Rufus was actually heading toward questioning how the Torah can command circumcision: if G-d had wanted newborn sons to be circumcised, surely He would have created them that way. What right do we have to alter a baby just eight days out of the womb?
In answer, Rabbi Akiva placed stalks of wheat and a loaf of bread before Turnus Rufus and asked him, “Which do you prefer, the stalks of wheat or the loaf of bread?” Turnus Rufus replied that obviously he prefers the loaf of bread. “But,” said Rabbi Akiva, “G-d made the stalks of wheat and man made the loaf of bread.”
Rabbi Akiva’s message was that G-d created this world in a state of potential which has to be transformed and elevated. G-d does not want us to just accept the world as it is; He wants us to improve it. He gave us the wheat but we have to use human creativity and ingenuity to turn it into something better. This is not considered going against His will – on the contrary, this is precisely His will. This is symbolised by the mitzvah of circumcision: by G-d commanding us to circumcise our newborn sons, He is saying that human beings are created in a certain form and we have to elevate it. G-d created the world for us to join Him in Creation, to improve and transform it into something better.
The seven-day week symbolises our partnership with G-d in Creation. By operating within the same cycle which He used in the creation of the world, working for six days and resting on the seventh, our role and status as His partners is demonstrated. We are called to become G-d’s partners in continuing the process of creating and improving this world.
Rav Tzadok says that the way we fulfil the mandate of being G-d’s partners in Creation is through the commandments. He quotes the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot which says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim” – Torah study, service of G-d (i.e., through prayer) and loving kindness. Rav Tzadok says that these categories contain all the mitzvot: Torah study gives us the philosophical framework to understand G-d’s worldview; prayer includes the emotional and spiritual connection to G-d; and the acts of loving kindness include all of the practical, physical mitzvot. He discusses at length how these three pillars of the world encapsulate all of the 613 commandments and are our call to action to be G-d’s partners in Creation. The more mitzvot and good deeds we do in this world, the more we elevate ourselves and the world around us.
Productivity in “doing”
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik applies the idea of partnership with G-d more broadly than Rav Tzadok. We know that the Torah is not a history book but an instruction manual for life. Given this, asks Rav Soloveitchik, what mitzvah or guidelines on how to behave and act are found in the first chapter of Genesis? The beginning of Genesis appears to be a history of the creation of the world. If, as the term Torah implies, the Torah is a book of hora’a – a book of instruction and practical guidelines – what instructions are there in the story of Creation?
Rav Soloveitchik answers that inherent in this chapter is the mitzvah to imitate G-d and become creators like Him. He mentions the specific commandment of vehalachta bidrachav, “you shall walk in His ways,” which the Gemara interprets primarily in the context of chesed, loving kindness: “Just as He is compassionate, so too shall you be compassionate; just as He visits the sick and comforts the mourners, so too shall you.” But Rav Soloveitchik applies this Gemara to the area of creativity as well: G-d is a Creator and therefore each of us must be a creator like Him. G-d said, “Let there be light,” and so we have to bring light where there is darkness; He created a world, so too must we summon all our powers of creativity to advance civilisation – be it in medicine, engineering, technology or any other human endeavour. We must use our creativity and ingenuity to improve the world for the benefit of all humankind. In so doing, we imitate G-d; just as He is the Creator, we become creators as well.
Thus, according to Rav Tzadok, being a partner in Creation with G-d applies in the spiritual sense, through the commandments we fulfil; and according to Rav Soloveitchik, who views partnership with G-d in a broader sense, imitating G-d applies in the physical, practical dimension as well, in using human creativity and ingenuity to advance civilisation. This accords with what we have mentioned previously in the name of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch regarding the thirty-nine categories of work, the common denominator of which is that they are all acts of creativity imposing human will on the physical world. For six days we do melacha and on the seventh day we rest. Six days we are creative like G-d, advancing civilisation, developing society, converting the wheat into bread and doing whatever is necessary to improve the world. But on Shabbat we cease from all of this, modelling ourselves on G-d Who rested on the seventh day.
Productivity in “being”
If our purpose is to be partners with G-d in Creation, what, then, is the role of Shabbat? What is productive or creative about a day of rest?
We usually think that productivity means doing things – making money and creating things that we can touch and feel. Yet by G-d creating Shabbat and the concept of rest on the seventh day, He taught us that creativity is not just what we produce physically but an internal, intangible process as well. On every day of the week, G-d made things – the land, sea, animals, stars and everything else in the world; and although it seems He did not create anything on the seventh day, He actually did create something, namely, Shabbat and the concept of rest. Thus, Creation was completed on the seventh day, even though nothing tangible was created on it.
Unfortunately, in today’s materialistic society, some people measure themselves by tangible productivity. Many people think that unless they are producing something that can be touched, measured or charged for, they are not being productive. But when we desist from all physical productivity and focus instead on developing ourselves and improving our relationships with family and community, fellow congregants and community members, when we invest in our spirituality and connection with G-d, this too is a form of creativity. Shabbat teaches us that productivity and creativity are not just in doing things. Shabbat enables us to stop the busyness for a while and focus internally on becoming better people, on connecting with G-d and His Torah, with family and friends, and with our souls – all things which we can’t touch and quantify, but are nonetheless important; that, too, is productive.
There are two kinds of creativity, external and internal, and both are important. Sometimes we need to stop the external activity so that we can be internally focused. We need space from the busyness so that we can develop who we are internally and that is no less a creative process than our productivity during the week. When we take time out on Shabbat to sit together as a family, learn Torah and pray, we are creating a whole new, internal reality.
Shabbat – and not only Shabbat but the seven-day weekly cycle – defines who we are. Rav Tzadok writes that the sanctity of Shabbat is an extension of how we live during the six days of the week. When we view ourselves as partners in Creation with G-d, and work accordingly, our productivity fosters the holiness of Shabbat. This is why the seven-day weekly cycle is so central: the six days lead into Shabbat and Shabbat, in turn, energises the following six days. We are in a continuous cycle of creativity, both external and internal. This is why the Gemara says we have to keep two Shabbatot, not just one, in order for the world to find redemption. Shabbat cannot exist by itself; it needs the six days of the week leading up to it, and it gives energy to the six days following it. When we live this seven-day cycle productively, we become partners in Creation with G-d and can merit bringing the Final Redemption to the world.