Shabbat: Positives and Negatives

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus

The last instruction that Moses receives on Mount Sinai, before God gives him the inscribed tablets, before the incident of the Golden Calf, is the reminder about the importance of the sabbath. Like the story of Creation, which culminates in the day of rest, so the blueprint for the creation of the Tabernacle, with all its equipment and personnel and procedures, culminates in the instruction that no work should be done on the sabbath day. The Tabernacle is to be a mini-universe, so its creation, too, must cease on the seventh day.

Just in case someone might think that the sacred work of creating the Tabernacle, a place for God to dwell, would override the prohibition of work on Shabbat, this passage is very clear, and placed in context to dispel such a misconception. We read:

And the Eternal One said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Eternal have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:12-15)

This is not a warm and fuzzy picture of Shabbat as an uplifting experience. This is a direct order to cease labor, with dire consequences indicated for those who disobey. In the modern Jewish world, we tend to stress the positive aspects of Shabbat observance and ignore the Torah's presentation of profaning the sabbath as a capital crime. But even for liberal Jews, the juxtaposition of the construction of the Tabernacle with the instructions for Shabbat reminds us that, for example, fundraising for our synagogues is not an appropriate Shabbat activity.

The more familiar passage about Shabbat is found in the following verses:

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)

We know this passage by the first word: v'shamru. We sing or recite it in our Shabbat services and as a preface to the Shabbat morning Kiddush. The first sentence is somewhat redundant: it tells us both to keep (v'shamru) and to observe (la-asot) the sabbath. Rabbi S. A. Taub of Modzhitz1 taught:

Why is it stated twice? One possible answer is found in the Gemara (Shabbat 118b), which reads, "If only Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to their laws, they would be redeemed in an instant." Why, specifically, two Shabbatot? Perhaps because there are two dimensions to Shabbat. One mode is sitting still and not doing anything, keeping the word, the conduct, and the like. The other mode is getting up and doing something, enjoying Shabbat, learning Torah and the like. . . . For this reason we read in Exodus: "And they shall keep the Shabbat," which implies sitting still and not doing anything; and "to do the Shabbat," which implies getting up and doing something. Only then will the Shabbat they attain be "throughout their generations, an eternal covenant." For at last the children of Israel, having earned a time of unending Shabbat, will be "redeemed in an instant."

Again we see the vocabulary of the Torah being carefully analyzed to harvest meaning from every single word. The Rabbi of Modzhitz interprets la-asot, "to make," as indicative of the positive "mode" or aspects of Shabbat, the actions that one should do to make Shabbat different and meaningful. Another interpretation sees the opposite. Commenting on the fact that Moses himself is to tell the people about Shabbat (Exodus 31:12-13, "And the Eternal One said to Moses: [You!] Speak to the Israelite people . . . "), Nehama Leibowitz2 writes:

Now the text states ve-atta dabber: you—yourself—who was the one to convey to the Israelites the command to bring contributions to the Tabernacle and build it, you yourself who kept on instructing to "make" this and to "make" that, you are the one to tell them restrict that "making" and stop work when the Sabbath comes along. . . .

One "making" overrides all the other makings involved in the construction of the Tabernacle (80 in all, in the form of ve-'asita orta'aseh) beginning with "let them make me a sanctuary" (25:8). The threefold mention of "doing work" ( ha-'oseh vah melakhah, ya'aseh melakhah, ha-'oseh melakhah) (31:14-15) is immediately followed by the contrastive la'asot et ha-shabbat "to make the Sabbath." This "making" transcends all these other kinds of "making."

We learn here that "making Shabbat" is the opposite of making anything else. It is a cessation from creative labor that allows us to stop and, like God after six days of Creation, to be refreshed. This is best expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his beautiful book, The Sabbath3:

The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

1. Cited in Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky, Sparks Beneath the Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104

2. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot [Jerusalem,The World Zionist Organization Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1981], pp. 538-539

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1951], 1996), p. 10; quoted in the Shabbat Morning Service II in Mishkan T'filah, p. 329

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Moses's Glow Reflects Pride of Accomplishment

Daver Acher By: Aaron Benjamin Bisno

Moses ascended and descended Mount Sinai not once but twice.

On his first trip to the top of Mount Sinai, God carved and incised the tablets with which Moses returned to the people. Unique in quality and origin, the Ten Commandments were a most precious gift. Yet only moments after receiving them, Moses shatters the tablets upon the desert floor. At best, God's largesse was little appreciated; at worst, God's injunctions were more of a burden than Moses could shoulder. Moses's first trip to Mount Sinai is marked by anger, if not petulance, and certainly a lack of maturity.

And Moses's second trip? Following Moses's earlier actions, God instructs him to carve new tablets and then to return to Mount Sinai. Moses does as he's told. And yet, as the time for the second set of tablets to be inscribed draws nigh, a cloud descends and the clarity of our story is momentarily lost. Yet at the end of this journey, we read Moses's face was shown radiantly. To what can we ascribe Moses's transformation?

In Exodus 34:28, the Torah employs a verb that requires and has no antecedent: v'yichtov is best translated as simply "and he wrote." The careful reader cannot discern whether the second tablets were penned by God or Moses. Following the lead of biblical commentator Umberto Cassuto1 (1883-1951), we may infer what it is that took place on that mountaintop long ago. What if, whereas God carved and incised the first set of tablets, Moses was responsible in toto for the second?

Read this way, the radiance that colored Moses's face as he descended Mount Sinai for a second time can be likened to the feelings of one who initially squanders money he did nothing to merit, but in time and with experience, comes to know the satisfaction of spending scrip(t) he has earned by his own labors.

If so, is it a stretch to suggest that even as Moses twice traveled to and from the top of Mount Sinai, his true journey was one of self-discovery?

  1. See Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University; 6th Reprint 2008 edition [January 6, 1967])

Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno holds the Frances F and David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520 

Originally published: