Shabbat: Renewal of the World

Shabbat: Renewal of the World

Shabbat teaches us that the world is constantly renewed and that our sustenance comes from G-d.

From the Desk of the Chief Rabbi
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

This is part two in a series of discussions on Shabbat

Every Friday night, in the davening, we quote a verse from chapter 31 of Exodus, which says Veshamru Bnei Yisrael et hashabbat, “The Chidlren of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant.” The verses go on to say that Shabbat is a sign between Hashem and us that G-d created the world in six days and uvayom hashevi’i shavat vayinafash, “on the seventh day He stopped and rested.” It is interesting to note that the verse uses the word vayinafash, which actually means “and he was refreshed.” What does the term “refreshed” mean in relation to G-d?

As we know, we keep Shabbat because G-d worked for six days and rested on the seventh. But one of the big puzzles about Shabbat is why does G-d need to rest? He does everything effortlessly. He created the world just by ordering it into existence; He said, “let there be light,” and there was light. Why does G-d need to “rest”?

The word vayinafash, from the Hebrew word nefesh, “the soul,” holds the secret to understanding what Shabbat is about. In kiddush on Friday night we quote the verse from the beginning of Genesis, which says, Vayechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tzeva’am vayechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i melachto asher asa, “And G-d completed, on the seventh day, all the work which He had done.” The question is asked, what does it mean He finished on the seventh day? It seems to imply that He was still working on the seventh day; if so, what did He create? And was Creation six days or seven days?

The Ohr HaChaim, one of our kabbalistic commentators, explains that by creating Shabbat He completed the work of the other six days. Thus, the Ohr HaChaim interprets the verse as follows: “And G-d completed, on the seventh day, all of His work that He had done during the six days.” By creating Shabbat, Hashem gave substance and energy to the other six days. In other words, all of Creation was shaky, till Shabbat came along and held everything together, giving the world purpose.

Renewing the world

The Ohr HaChaim takes this one step further: it says Ki sheshet yamim asa Hashem et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz, “six days G-d created heaven and earth.” Grammatically, it should say b’sheshet yamim, “in six days He created heaven and earth,” and not ki sheshet yamim, “six days He created heaven and earth.” What is the meaning of “six days He created heaven and earth?” The Ohr HaChaim explains that G-d created the world to last only six days, and every six days the world “expires.” By analogy, every product has a limited shelf life and every appliance has a limited lifespan; nothing lasts forever, and eventually it breaks down. The “shelf life” of the world, so to speak, is not millions of years, but actually only six days. He created the world for six days only, and at the end of the six days the world should disintegrate. However, Shabbat refreshes the world, and hence the word vayinafash, “to be refreshed.” Every Shabbat new energy and new life is breathed into the world. Every six days the world comes to an end and then Shabbat revives it.

Renewing ourselves

In the past we have discussed that in Hebrew the days of the week are not given names but numbers. Yom rishon, yom sheni, etc., because the days are counting towards Shabbat. Now we can understand this on an even deeper level: when we say today is yom shelishi, “the third day,” it means it is literally the third day of the world because after six days everything ceases until Shabbat refreshes the world and the cycle begins again. This teaches us that the world in which we live is new and fresh all the time. We must never think of the world as static and we must never allow life to become stale and empty. G-d didn’t just create a world and then neglect it; he made sure that there is a constant cycle of renewal, every week. Shabbat holds the week together, bringing a spiritual energy into the world and refreshing it. G-d reinvests spirit and soul into the world and thereby refreshes its existence – vayinafash.

The word vayinafash captures the essence of what Shabbat is. It means to be refreshed, to be given new life and energy. This occurs on many different levels, spiritually and practically. After six weekdays, Shabbat refreshes us spiritually, giving us new energy and new direction. On a practical level as well, we get a chance to breathe. Breathing means a person is alive. In the creation of man it says vayipach b’apav nishmat chayim, “and G-d blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” In breathing into his nostrils, G-d made him come alive.

One aspect of how Shabbat allows us to breathe and come to life relates directly to our faith in G-d. On Shabbat we have two challahs on the table, representing the double portion of manna that fell from heaven. When the Jewish people were in the desert, before they even reached Mount Sinai, they were told about Shabbat. They were told that two portions of manna would fall on Friday, so that they would have enough for Shabbat. They were told not to go out and collect on Shabbat because Shabbat is a holy day. This is why we use two challahs at each meal, to remind us of the double portion of manna which fell on Friday in honour of Shabbat. One of the reasons we cover the challahs is as a reminder of the manna, which had a layer of dew covering it.

Rashi explains that when the Chumash says that G-d blessed Shabbat, it is referring specifically to the blessing through the manna from heaven. There is a very important symbolism in the manna, and in the two challahs on our Shabbat table. The manna represents trust and faith in G-d because it reminds us that we rely on G-d for everything, and particularly in the area of parnassah, of making a living. The Jews in the desert didn’t know where their sustenance was going to come from the next day; they had to wait for the manna, from day to day. The manna and Shabbat remind us that although we have to go out and do our best to earn a living, nevertheless we are in G-d’s hands. Day by day we rely on the “manna” coming from heaven – G-d’s blessing. Shabbat enhances this peace of mind because on Shabbat we refrain from working. We have many stresses throughout the week, and are troubled about where our parnassah will come from. Shabbat helps us realise that we are in G-d’s hands.

Faith in G-d’s sustenance

The Dubna Maggid, one of our great sages who was a master at explaining concepts using parables, gives the following analogy: a poor man is travelling along the road, carrying a heavy bag. Along comes a wealthy man with a carriage drawn by horses, and offers the poor man a lift. The poor man gets onto the carriage. A little while later, the wealthy man notices that the poor man is still sitting with his heavy bag on his shoulders. He says to the poor man, “why are you still carrying your bag? Why don’t you put it down?” The poor man answers, “I feel bad enough that you stopped to give me a lift and that your horses have the extra burden of my weight. The least I can do is carry my own bag.” The wealthy man says, “how foolish! The horses are carrying you and your bundles anyway.”

The Dubna Maggid uses this analogy to explain our relationship with Hashem. Hashem  carries us throughout life. Although we may think that we need to carry our baggage and anxieties alone, in truth Hashem is carrying us all the time, and so we can put down our worries. What this means in the context of Shabbat is that we can think of Shabbat as a day of lost business and worry about all the things we haven’t accomplished during the week; or, we can realise that G-d is carrying us, always. We can embrace Shabbat, put our bags down, relax and enjoy the fact that we are in Hashem’s hands. Of course Hashem expects us to do our best to earn a living, but this does not mean working on Shabbat or worrying excessively. We must realise that Hashem is carrying us. Shabbat brings with it a sense of peace and tranquillity, and that is the meaning of vayinafash, to breathe – to have a sense of relief from work, a day we can relax completely.

To use a modern-day analogy, think of a public holiday. There are two types of people: those who are employees, who love public holidays, and those who are self-employed, who don’t like them. Employees get paid anyway, and so they like having the day off. But people who are their own boss, running their own business, don’t like public holidays because they lose business. On Shabbat, we are all employees of Hashem. We can just relax – even if we are running our own business. We don’t have to worry about our parnassah, we don’t have to make our living by working on Shabbat. We can put down our burdens, breathe, and have a sense of relief. The serenity of Shabbat teaches us that life is not relentless. There is a point where the week stops and we can take a rest.

Interestingly, the seven-day week comes from the Torah. It could have been a ten-day week or a five-day week, and throughout history different societies have experimented with different days. But G-d, in His wisdom, created this cycle of Shabbat as an integral part of Creation. Every seven days we have a day off, free from worries, no calls to answer and no stress. We can put down our baggage and breathe, and this is what Shabbat is about – vayinafash. The double portion of manna teaches us that all sustenance is from Hashem. By recognising that we are in His hands we can enjoy the refreshing, energising spirit that Shabbat brings into the world.