Bereishit | The Power Of Shabbat
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
We have just celebrated the completion of the reading of the Torah on Simchat Torah, and now we are about to begin the cycle of Torah portions once again, beginning with Parshat Bereishit.
Parshat Bereishit discusses the creation of the world. There is one aspect of Creation that we don’t usually think of as being part of it, even though it is integral, and that is Shabbat. We tend to think of Shabbat as the day Hashem rested from His work, but Shabbat is so much more than that; it is a creation in and of itself. The same way G-d created light and dark, the sun and the moon, the plants, the animals, and Adam and Eve, He created Shabbat.
Every Friday night we say in kiddush, Vayechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tzeva’am. Vayechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i melachto asher asa vayishbot bayom hashe’vei’i mikol melachto asher asa, “And thus the heaven and earth were all completed and all of their hosts. And G-d completed His work on the seventh day and He ceased from all the work that He had done, and He blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” Notice that the verse says “and G-d completed His work on the seventh day.” Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, asks, why does the verse say that G-d completed His work on the seventh day? We know He completed it in six days and on the seventh day He rested. However, the Midrash explains that G-d actually did create something on the seventh day: the concept of rest – Shabbat. The Midrash gives the analogy of a king who builds a beautiful chuppah, a wedding canopy, and everyone is waiting for the kallah, the bride. So too the whole of Creation was waiting for Shabbat, for the concept of rest to come into the world.
Shabbat is an integral part of Creation. Its prominence is evident in the fact that it is one of the mitzvot the Jews received soon after they left Egypt, before they even got to Mount Sinai: the manna fell from heaven, G-d commanded them not to collect it on Shabbat and a double portion fell on Friday.
Shabbat features in the Ten Commandments as well. It says in the Ten Commandments, Zachor et yom hashabbat lekadsho, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the term zachor, “remember,” is used, because it refers to something that has already been created; it was not a new commandment being introduced. Shabbat was and is an integral part of Creation and this is why the term “remember” is used: we are commanded to remember that Shabbat is a creation in and of itself, and not just a new commandment that came into the world at that time.
Incidentally, from the term Zachor et yom hashabat lekadsho, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” the Gemara derives the origin for the mitzvah of kiddush on Shabbat. The word zachor is linked to the word lehazkir, which means “to mention.” One should verbally declare the sanctity of Shabbat and this is what we do when we say kiddush every Friday night.
The sanctity of Shabbat
The sanctity of Shabbat differs from the sanctity of the holidays in that its sanctity is embedded in Creation; the holiness of the festivals came only later on. In the mussaf prayer on Shabbos Chol HaMo’ed, which we said last Shabbat, we conclude the middle blessing with Baruch Ata Hashem, mekadesh hashabbat, Yisrael, vehazemanim, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who sanctifies the Sabbath, the Jewish people and the festivals.” The Gemara in Tractate Beitza explains that we say it in this order because G-d first sanctified Shabbat and only then did He sanctify the Jewish people, who in turn sanctified the festivals through sanctifying the months. Succot begins on the fifteenth day of Tishrei, but there can be no Succot if there is no declaration of the month of Tishrei. Likewise, there can be no Pesach on the fifteenth of Nissan if there is no declaration of the month of Nissan. Without declaring Rosh Chodesh – the new month – and setting the calendar, there can be no festivals. The Sanhedrin, based on the testimony of witnesses who saw the new moon, sanctified each new month.
Thus, the sanctity of the calendar and, consequently, the sanctity of the festivals, depends on the Jewish people – through the Sanhedrin. In fact, the calendars we have today have been sanctified by the Sanhedrin as well: when the Sages saw that the exile was near and that the Sanhedrin was going to be disbanded, they set the calendar and sanctified all future Roshei Chodashim, new months, for all time. The holiness of the festivals is completely dependent on the Jewish people, on the sanctity vested by the Sanhedrin in Rosh Chodesh.
Shabbat, however, is different; its sanctity comes directly from G-d, from the very beginning of Creation. Hence we mention Shabbat first in the blessing: “Blessed are You Who sanctifies Shabbat, the Jewish people and the festivals.”
The power of Shabbat
Understanding the source of Shabbat’s sanctity is crucial to our service of G-d and our understanding of the purpose of Creation as well. Shabbat is not just a day of rest and inactivity, but represents something positive and proactive. We see this in the aforementioned Midrash, which likens the creation of Shabbat to a bride entering a wedding canopy erected by the king, and everyone is waiting just for her. When the bride enters the chuppah, that is not the cessation of activity; she is in fact the life and soul of the chuppah. So too Shabbat is the life and soul of the world; it is not an absence of work but a presence of sanctity. People think Shabbat is just a day of rest, a day we don’t do anything. But actually Shabbat brings a positive, powerful energy into the world and this is why our Sages compare it to a bride entering the chuppah.
What is the power of Shabbat?
Shabbat is about faith and belief. It says in the Ten Commandments, Zachor et yom hashabat lekadsho, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” We are commanded to work for six days and to keep the seventh day as Shabbat, “because in six days G-d created heaven and earth and He rested on the seventh day.” Shabbat is a testimony to the fact that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Every Shabbat, when we say kiddush on Friday night, we are testifying to this fundamental principle of our faith, that “the heavens and the earth were completed and G-d then rested on the seventh day and He sanctified it.”
Belief in G-d does not mean solely the belief that G-d exists, but that He, alone, created the world. This belief is not merely an academic, intellectual exercise that remains in the realm of the philosophical. We live this belief; it is the foundation which shapes our worldview. It means looking at the world as though it is being created anew all the time. Lest we think that the creation of the world was a one-time, distant event in history, every week we reaffirm and celebrate G-d’s creation of the world.
This belief is not limited to Shabbat alone but shapes the rest of the days of the week as well. There is a mitzvah to “remember the Shabbat,” which refers to remembering Shabbat throughout the week. Thus, in Hebrew, the days of the week do not have names but are called by number: yom rishon, yom sheni, yom shelishi, “the first day,” “the second day,” “the third day” – the first day leading toward Shabbat, the second day, and so forth. Shabbat creates the atmosphere of the whole week. The days of the week have numbers, not names, because their identity is formed in anticipation of Shabbat. The awareness that G-d created the world remains with us throughout the week, and this changes the way we look at the world. We view the world not as something static, created a long time ago and left alone, but as something dynamic which is constantly being created; as we say in our daily prayers, Hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, “G-d in His goodness renews Creation every single day.”
We must not view the world and our lives as something old and static; we must never take it for granted but must live with freshness and newness all the time. We must look at the world and acknowledge the fact that G-d created it – and re-creates it all the time – and we do this every week, when we declare our testimony in kiddush on Friday night.
Renewal of the world
The Sefer HaChinuch, one of the classic works which expounds on the reasons behind the mitzvot, says that the root of this mitzvah is that on Shabbat we should be free from all our business and work so we can give honour to the day, in order to instil in our souls the belief in what he calls chiddush ha’olam, “the renewal of the world.” We believe that the world is created a new every day, unlike secular philosophy which maintains that the world has always existed, that there was never a beginning point and that there was no creator. We believe that there is a Creator, Who created the world and Who re-creates it every day. This, says the Sefer HaChinuch, is the string that holds together the foundation principles on which our religion is premised.
Living with the belief that G-d created the world means living with the belief that our lives have purpose and meaning, and that there is a reason why we are here. If we believe in random evolution, that the world just “happened” to come into existence by some quirk of fate, then life is indeed meaningless; it has no intelligent design, it wasn’t meant to be, but is just an accident. However by declaring our belief that G-d created the world, we are saying that the world and our lives do have a purpose. At the heart and soul of Judaism is the belief that life has meaning and that we were created by G-d to serve a supreme and holy purpose in this world. We have to live with this sense of purpose; we have to know that we have an important mission to accomplish in the years we have been granted on this earth, and that what we do with our life is important. Shabbat is the foundation principle of our faith, a sign of our belief that not only did G-d create the world and re-creates it every day, but that He created it with a purpose and that our lives have meaning.