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Parshat Vayakhel: Understanding Shabbat

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

Unlocking the Torah Text -- Shmot


 As the curtain rises on Parshat Vayakhel, Moshe assembles the nation in order to convey God’s commandments concerning the construction of the Mishkan.

Suddenly, however, he opens his remarks with the following directives concerning Shabbat:

Six days work may be done and the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Shabbat, a day of complete rest for God; whoever does work (melacha) on that day shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day.





As is evident from the body of Parshat Vayakhel, Moshe’s clear purpose in assembling the nation at the beginning of the parsha is to launch the construction of the Mishkan.

Why, then, does Moshe abruptly insert the subject of Shabbat?

While Shabbat is certainly a hugely important topic, why must it be mentioned, apparently out of context, specifically at this historic moment?



The abrupt, seemingly arbitrary pairing of Shabbat and the Mishkan at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel is not an isolated phenomenon. Earlier, in Parshat Ki Tissa, on the summit of Mount Sinai, God follows His commandments to Moshe concerning the construction of the Sanctuary with the immediate warning “However, you must observe my Sabbaths…” This admonition introduces a series of further directives concerning Shabbat. In the book of Vayikra, Shabbat and the Sanctuary are again connected without explanation in the passage “My Sabbaths you shall observe and my Sanctuary you shall revere – I am the Lord.”

This repeated pairing of themes, clearly intentional, serves as the source for a series of foundational halachic observations on the part of the rabbis.



Commenting on the opening passage of Parshat Vayakhel, Rashi verbalizes the most immediate halachic lesson learned from the encounter between Shabbat and the Sanctuary: “[Moshe] prefaced the commandments concerning the work of the Mishkan with a warning concerning Shabbat – to convey [that work within the Mishkan] does not supersede Shabbat.”



The halachic decision granting Shabbat supremacy over the Sanctuary is more far-reaching than it may seem, playing a major role in the legal definition of Shabbat observance itself.

To understand, we must recognize the challenge created by an apparent omission in the Torah text.

Over and over again, the Torah prohibits the performance of “melacha” (usually translated as “work”; see Points to Ponder, below) on Shabbat. The problem is, however, that nowhere does the Torah directly define or quantify the term melacha. The list of activities prohibited on Shabbat is never cited within the text. Left to our own devices, with only the written text to guide us, we simply would not know what tasks to refrain from on this sanctified day. Shabbat observance would be impossible.

Thankfully, the Oral Law comes to the rescue. Based upon the repeated juxtaposition of the themes of Shabbat and the Sanctuary in the text, the rabbis learn, not only that the tasks associated with the Sanctuary must cease on Shabbat, but that the very definition of the activities prohibited on Shabbat is determined by the tasks that were connected to the construction (and, some say, the operation) of the Mishkan.

Specifically, the rabbis delineate thirty-nine avot melacha – major categories of creative labor – associated with the construction of the Sanctuary, which are, consequently, prohibited on Shabbat. These thirty-nine general categories of melacha and their derivatives serve as the basis for the laws of Shabbat.

The encounter between Shabbat and the Sanctuary, orchestrated by Moshe at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, is far from arbitrary. Emerging from the intersection of these two foundational phenomena are the laws which define the observance of Shabbat itself.



On a philosophical plane, the message which emerges from the encounter between Shabbat and the Mishkan is significant, as well.

Shabbat and the Sanctuary represent two different realms of potential sanctification within Jewish tradition: the sanctification of time (e.g., Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and the festivals) and the sanctification of space (e.g., the Mishkan, the Temple, the Land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem). Through the observance of God’s laws, man is challenged with the investiture of holiness into each of these central domains.

And yet, while both of these realms are clearly significant, when a choice between them must be made, the sanctification of time reigns supreme. That is why the observance of Shabbat supersedes the construction of the Sanctuary.

The primacy of time sanctification is indicated in other ways in the Torah, as well.

Not by chance, the phenomenon of kedusha (sanctity) is first mentioned in the Torah in conjunction with Shabbat, an example of the sanctification of time.

As we have also seen, the first mitzva granted to the Jewish nation is Kiddush Hachodesh (the sanctification of the new moon), an example of the sanctification of time.

While the clear transcendence of time sanctification over space sanctification remains unexplained in the text, a rationale may be offered from our own experience: the single most precious and tenuous commodity we possess in life is time. Our moments are limited; each moment exists…and before we know it, that moment is gone.

There could, therefore, be no greater expression of our belief in and our loyalty to God than the dedication of some of our limited moments specifically to His service. The sanctification of time – the dedication of time solely to our relationship with God – is one of the highest religious acts possible, transcending other acts of sanctification.

When Moshe, therefore, underscores the laws of Shabbat immediately before the launching of the construction of the Mishkan, he reminds the people to remember their priorities. As monumentally historic as the launching of the Mishkan may be; as overwhelmingly important as the Mishkan and all of its symbolism will be across the face of history; even more precious to God is the dedication of our own moments of time to His service.



Another message of prioritization may well be included in Moshe’s words, as well.

By specifically stating, “You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day,” Moshe underscores the primacy of that fundamental unit – the centrality of which is underscored, over and over again, at critical points in Jewish history – the Jewish home.

Even as the nation congregates for the stated purpose of launching the central concept of the Sanctuary within Jewish tradition, Moshe cautions:

As central as the Sanctuary and Temple will be in your experience, their role will pale in comparison to that of your homes and your families. Within your homes, new generations will learn of their affiliation to our people and its traditions; observance will be taught through example; children will be raised, deeply connected to their proud past and prepared for their challenging futures.

The Sanctuary is meant to inspire and to teach, but the lessons it teaches will reach their fulfillment only within your homes…

Never believe the Mishkan to be more important than your personal observance of a single commandment: “You shall kindle no fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day.”


Points to Ponder

What is the secret of Shabbat? What is the ultimate purpose of this all important, weekly holy day?

The answer, it would seem, should lie within the laws which define the day. As we have seen, however, approaching Shabbat through the law is a difficult task, a path shrouded in mystery. The Torah does not clearly classify the term melacha, the term used by the text to refer to the Shabbat prohibitions. The ultimate definition of melacha, derived through association with the Sanctuary, is technical, with no apparent philosophical base.

Popularly, the term melacha is often defined as “work” – and the logical claim is made that “work” is prohibited on the “day of rest.” This explanation, however, is clearly insufficient. Using the classical definition of work – “an activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something” – we would be hard-pressed to explain why, for example, one is allowed to lift a book on Shabbat but prohibited from flipping a light switch; why one can move a chair or walk up stairs but cannot rip a paper towel.

In his short, classic work, The Sabbath, Dr. Dayan I. Grunfeld analyzes sources in the oral tradition and arrives at the following working definition of the term melacha: an act which shows man’s mastery over the world by the constructive exercise of his intelligence and skill.

We might, based upon those same sources, suggest a further refinement of Dr. Grunfeld’s definition: melacha represents an attempt by man to transform his environment through a thought-filled act of physical creation.

The Torah tells us that, on the “seventh day” of the world’s birth, God stops creating in the physical realm. To mark that divine cessation, we are commanded to cease physical creation, each week, on the “seventh day,” as well.

What specifically, however, is accomplished by this mandate? Why would God commands us to commemorate His “day of rest” with our own?

The brilliance of the Shabbat concept can best be understood, I believe, by considering two dangerous philosophical extremes towards which each of us can easily gravitate.

At one end of the spectrum lies our tendency to develop, to use Torah terminology, a kochi v’otzem yadi complex. Towards the end of his life, Moshe warns that, upon successful entry into the Land of Israel, the Israelites should not falsely conclude, Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh, “My power and the might of my hand made me all of this wealth.”

How easy it is, particularly in our era, to lose our way at this extreme. Mind-boggling scientific discoveries, ferociously fast-paced technological advancement, define the world in which we live. Our mastery over our physical surroundings grows exponentially with each passing day. Never before has man been as “powerful” as he is today.

At the same time, at the opposite end of the spectrum, lies our deep capacity for despair in the face of our “powerlessness” – the moments when, standing beneath the vault of the heavens, we contemplate the stars above and mark our own apparent insignificance. How many galaxies, suns, planets, stretch out around us? In the face of such unimaginable vastness, how can we even contemplate the notion that we are important or powerful?

Much of Jewish tradition is designed to place us exactly where we belong, in the middle between these two extremes.

Tefilla (prayer), for example, reminds the individual suffering from a kochi v’otzem yadi complex that he is dependent upon God for continued health, sustenance and so much more. At the same time, prayer addresses the individual in despair by sensitizing him to his own value. He is a unique, independent being of inestimable potential value, capable of discourse with a responsive God.

Our weekly observance of Shabbat is carefully crafted to help us maintain a proper balance between power and limitation, as well.

One day a week, we remind ourselves of our creative limitations. Through the cessation of physically creative acts we testify to the true mastery of the Divine Creator. We recall the creation of the world on Shabbat and we recognize that only God has the power to create yesh mei’ayin (something from nothing), while man, at his best, can only create yesh mi’yesh (something from something).

During my college years at Yeshiva University, excitement ran high in the scientific community, which felt itself to be on the brink of the creation of life (specifically a virus) in a test tube. Such an accomplishment, many scientists proclaimed, would constitute an assault on the very heavens, proof of man’s God-like powers to create life itself. Deeply concerned, we raised the issue to one of our teachers – a Talmudic scholar who possessed significant scientific background as well. “I see no issue,” he responded. “If scientists could take an empty test tube and conjure life within, that would present a theological challenge. What they propose to do now, however, is to take God’s hydrogen, God’s oxygen, God’s nitrogen, etc., and mix them together to create their virus. That does not make them, God forbid, God; it makes them good chefs.”

A kochi v’otzem yadi complex is impossible to maintain in the face of Shabbat. The observance of this day reminds us that, in the final analysis, only God is the true Creator.

At the same time, however, while Shabbat sensitizes us to the limitations of our power, this very same day reminds us how truly powerful we really are.

Throughout the week our lives are, in so many ways, controlled by the forces surrounding us. Work, school and other responsibilities pull us along at a frenetic pace. Cell phones, BlackBerries and e-mail keep us in constant contact. The demands on our time and energy, from all sides, are overwhelming. We feel out of control, powerless to set these pressures aside.

And then…Shabbat arrives. The cell phones, computers and BlackBerries are shut down and put on the shelf. Work, school and other responsibilities are set aside for another day. Time is spent, at ease, with family and friends. We reconnect with community. We are given the opportunity to regain control of our lives. Our cessation of physically creative acts becomes a freeing experience, enabling us to truly recognize the power we possess to define and control the quality of our lives.

This empowering aspect of Shabbat was driven home to me many years ago through the example of a friend whom I will call “Bill.” Bill was a chainsmoker who went through several packs a day. Come sundown each Friday night, however, he would lay down his cigarettes. He would light his first cigarette of the next week, Saturday night, from the Havdala candle (the candle used as part of the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat).

If you asked Bill at any point of the Shabbat day whether he missed his cigarettes, he would look at you as if you were crazy and say, “Of course not – it’s Shabbat.” He could not, however, replicate this abstinence on a weekday. Shabbat freed my friend from a habit that controlled him every other day of his adult life.

Tragically, Bill failed to learn the full lesson that Shabbat is meant to convey. The true power of this day lies in its potential effect beyond its borders. If on this one day of the week, we are successful in reaching proper perspective – in striking a healthy balance between our power and our limitations – then we can strike that balance on the other days of the week, as well.

The genius of Shabbat, in the final analysis, is evident from its laws. Through the cessation of melacha, this holy day teaches us how to reclaim proper life perspective.