B'reishit for Tweens: Define 'Work'

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE


"And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation which God had done." (Genesis 2:3)

According to Torah, the world was created in six days, followed by a day on which God rested. The above verse from Genesis 2 explains God's sanctification of the seventh day, the day we know as Shabbat.


The first instance of the seventh day as a day of rest is found in this parashah. God worked for six days creating the world and on the seventh day God ceased working. The word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word meaning "to cease."

There is no further mention of the seventh day as a day of rest until Israel reaches Sinai. At Sinai, Shabbat becomes a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. In the book of Exodus it reads, "It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed." (Exodus 31:17) The concept of Shabbat as a day of rest expanded to include a time to become refreshed and renewed.

The essential meaning of Shabbat was to cease working, but what was to be the definition of work? In the book of Numbers, a man is called a Sabbath breaker because he gathered wood on the Sabbath. During the Rabbinic era, Jewish sages codified the work restrictions of the Sabbath. They identified 39 actions as "work" and these categories were recorded in the Mishnah. The actions identified as "work" (and therefore prohibited on Shabbat) included: any kind of agricultural work, spinning, weaving, sewing, hunting, slaughtering, kindling fire, and transporting. Through the centuries the definition of work expanded to respond to modern day developments and inventions. Sabbath restrictions now include prohibitions on transacting business, touching money, writing, tearing paper, smoking, switching on lights, using the telephone, television, computer, traveling, and carrying.

One might focus on Shabbat observance as a series of prohibitions, those things one is forbidden to do. By shifting that focus we can see instead what Shabbat enables and encourages us to do. We are then able to see the possibilities of Shabbat observance.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has written about the joy of celebrating Shabbat and has summarized the values that we can discover through the observance of Shabbat:

  • "Keeping Shabbat brings dignity to our life.
  • Shabbat offers us a way to keep Jewishness in our home, family and personal life.
  • Shabbat gives us a set of values and imposes a template of meaning on our life.
  • Shabbat is deeply healing to the psyche.
  • Shabbat is a time for family.
  • Shabbat helps us redeem society.
  • Shabbat brings to our lives a spirituality that cannot be duplicated in the workaday world." (Elkins, A Shabbat Reader: Universe of Cosmic Joy)

To Talk About

  1. What is your own definition of "work?" What, then, is the definition of "rest?" Is "rest" in the traditional Jewish sense (see the Commentary section) the same as leisure? Why or why not? Explain.
  2. If you do not observe a cessation of "work," does this distance you from Jewish faith and belief? Explain.
  3. Ahad Ha-am, a 19th century Jewish thinker wrote, "More than Israel has kept the Shabbat the Shabbat has kept Israel." What do you think he meant by this statement? Within liberal Judaism we are taught to choose observances which are meaningful. How have you decided if an observance or tradition is meaningful for you? What meaning does Shabbat have in your life? Based on Ahad Ha-am's comment, do you think he would agree that there are observances which one must assume in order to be part of the Jewish people or to help Judaism survive? Do you agree with this comment? Explain.
  4. Reread Elkins' summary of values we find in Shabbat observance from the Commentary section. Which of these values are part of your Sabbath celebration? How does the observance of Shabbat fit into your world, into the Jewish world and the world at large?

To Do

Read one of the following resources on Shabbat to enhance and/or reconsider your own Shabbat observance: The Shabbat Seder by Ron Wolfson, A Shabbat Reader: Universe of Cosmic Joy by Dov Peretz Elkins, or Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today's Families by Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper.

Reference Materials

B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34

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