This week’s parasha is Vayekhel, Exodus 35:1 – 38:20.1 The haftarah is 2 Kings 11:17 – 12:17 and the reading from the Besorah is Mark 12:41–44. This week is also Shabbat Shekalim with its special reading Exodus 30:11-16 which is the reading for the Maftir.
It’s interesting to realize that in Ki Tisa last week, just before the episode with the molten calf, Moshe was specifically told to “Speak now to Bnei-Yisrael saying, ‘Surely you must keep My Shabbatot, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, so you may know that I am ADONAI who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:13) Then this week, in Vayekhel, just as the construction of the Mishkan is about to begin, we read Moshe’s reiteration of that command, “These are the words which ADONAI has commanded you to do. Work is to be done for six days, but the seventh day is a holy day for you, a Shabbat of complete rest to ADONAI. Whoever does any work then will die. Do not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on Yom Shabbat.” (Exodus 35:1-3) In fact, four times the issue of keeping the Sabbath appears in Exodus, the first in Yitro, Exodus 20:8-11, then again in Mishpatim, Exodus 23:12, third in Ki Tisa and the fourth in Vayekhel. For those who like statistics, consider this: murder, adultery, and not coveting only appear once, but observing the Sabbath occurs four times.
One of the common threads in three of the four locations is the fact that we are to do no מְלָאכָה, (melakhah) translated as “work” in English. On one hand, this translation makes sense as the passages all state that for six days one can work but on the seventh, no work is to be done. But on the other hand, the word melakhah is obscure. What exactly does it mean? Depending on the dictionary, the word can have numerous uses, work, deed, duty, craft, service, occupation, labor, business. According to the Torah Shebaal Peh (Oral Law) melakhah is any of the thirty-nine activities that went into or is related to the building of the Mishkan. Some regulations drawn from this forbid the opening of umbrellas, tearing of toilet paper, or brushing hair and applying make-up; and we won’t even talk about turning on or off lights, answering the phone or driving the car.
In his book, The Sabbath, Its Meaning for Modern Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel states,
He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.2
In other words, it is a time to be separated from the day-to-day life of the other six days and to focus not on our activities but upon HaShem alone. HaShem Himself provided an example of what it means to be separated from the day-to-day life at the first mention of Shabbat,
.וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
God completed—on the seventh day—His work (melakhah) that He made, and He ceased—on the seventh day—from all His work (melakhah) that He made. (Genesis 2:2)
On the seventh day, HaShem ceased His creative activity and rested. כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, He took a Sabbath from all His melakhah. As He ceased His creative activities on the seventh day so should we put aside our day-to-day activities and focus not just on resting as HaShem did but to also focus on He who has called us to rest in Him, to come close to Him and to rest in His presence.
The magnitude of the importance of observing the Sabbath is epitomized in these words from the prophet Isaiah
“If you turn back your foot from Shabbat, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call Shabbat a delight, the holy day of ADONAI honorable, if you honor it, not going your own ways, not seeking your own pleasure, nor speaking your usual speech, then You will delight yourself in ADONAI, and I will let you ride over the heights of the earth, I will feed you with the heritage of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of ADONAI has spoken.
Notice the specifics in Isaiah’s counsel, we are to refrain from doing our own pleasure, from going our own thing as it were, even speaking our usual speech should be curtailed. In other words, it is a time to focus upon HaShem, delighting ourselves in ADONAI.
Often at this point a list of do’s and don’ts, of what to do and what not to do on Shabbat, is given or the verse from the Besorah is mentioned,
Then He (Yeshua) said to them, “Shabbat was made for man, and not man for Shabbat. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of Shabbat.” (Mark 2:27-28)
Yeshua’s chastisement here is not with the observance of Shabbat rather with the traditional fences that were established to protect the Shabbat to the detriment of the individual. As to the do’s and don’ts, look again at the four repetitions of the command in Exodus. All four times the command to observe the Sabbath was given, it was given to the community, to Bnei Yisrael. Keeping the Sabbath is a communal activity. Some communities are stricter while others are more lenient, less stringent. The degree of observance needs to have communally accepted boundaries. In this, the words of Rav Shaul may well come into play,
Therefore, do not let anyone pass judgment on you in matters of food or drink, or in respect to a festival or new moon or Shabbat. (Colossians 2:16)
I propose that we all adopt the guidelines that Isaiah advocated, “If you turn back your foot from Shabbat, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call Shabbat a delight, the holy day of ADONAI honorable, if you honor it, not going your own ways, not seeking your own pleasure, nor speaking your usual speech, then You will delight yourself in ADONAI…,” and find ways within our communities to focus on HaShem unhampered by the other six days of normative life.
One last comment, in August 1966, Commentary Magazine surveyed a group of rabbis, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, asking them a series of questions on the topic The State of Jewish Belief. Rabbi Richard J. Israel, ז״ל, a long time Hillel rabbi made the following comment about Shabbat observance.
I cannot feel that the important issue in non-observance of the Shabbat is sin, but it certainly is a missed opportunity which can never be recovered. A Shabbat that I miss can never happen to me again. I have lost it.3
Observing the Sabbath is an opportunity to commune with HaShem, at His invitation. He desires our presence. We should make every effort not to miss such an invitation. As it is written, “it (Shabbat) is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, so you may know that I am ADONAI who sanctifies you.”
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
2Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951) p 13.