Shabbat, demons and taking the plunge

by Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens

Every Friday night, as we make Kiddush over a cup of wine, we recite the following verses from the book of Genesis (2:1-3):

And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all of their hosts. And on the seventh day, G-d finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And G-d blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because He rested on it from all His work which G-d had created to make.

The last two words of this verse, “to make” (which in the Hebrew is just the last word – la’asot), seems like a strange and grammatically eccentric add-on. G-d rested from all of the work which He had created. That sounds fine. Why stick the words “to make” on to the end?

The authors of the Midrash were sensitive to this question, and they made the following suggestion (Tanchuma, Bereishit 17): the peculiar wording of the verse allegedly hints to the fact that when the Sabbath came in, it caught G-d unawares, so to speak. There was more work that he had planned to make, but he had to stop, in deference to the Sabbath.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find that there’s never enough time on Friday afternoon to get ready for Shabbat. It doesn’t matter how late Shabbat comes in in the summer, there’s always a last-minute rush. In the winter, it seems a miracle we get anything at all ready in time. Whatever the season, the lighting of the candles always follows a massive frenzy, and ushers in a corresponding calm. The candles are lit. Nothing more can be done. We have entered holy time.

This remarkable Midrash pictures G-d in a similar vein, bringing in Shabbat before He had finished all that He planned to do. The Midrash then continues:

Rabbi Bannaya said: These are the demons, whose souls he had created. While he was creating their bodies, the Sabbath commenced. So he left them alone and they survive to the present as spirit with no body.

The works that were left uncompleted, as that first Shabbat came in, were what became known as “demons” – forever left without the bodies that G-d had intended for them. Beyond any literal commitment to the existence of demons, what might this Midrash be trying to say? And was G-d really caught unawares by the onset of the Sabbath?

One compelling reading suggests itself. Gottfried Leibniz famously thought that our world is the best of all possible worlds. But, perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps there is no such thing as a best possible world. Imagine any possible world, and you’ll find that you can always make it better. Accordingly, if G-d was waiting until the world had been perfected before he brought in the first Sabbath, he would have been waiting forever. At some point, if G-d was ever going to create, then he was going to have to take the plunge.[1]

There will always be things that G-d could have created but didn’t; because there’s no limit to what could be created. But at some point, the artist has to put down the paintbrush. The sculptor has to lay down the chisel. And when, like G-d, we do stop – when the Sabbath commences – there will always be avenues unpursued; possibilities left un-actualised; formless “demons” forever left without bodies. In a nutshell, the Midrash is telling us that creation involves taking the plunge.

In a sense, that’s what Shabbat symbolises. It symbolises the leap of faith that G-d took in creating a world. Think of all the possible worlds that he could have created. And yet He created ours – and left the rest as formless possibilities held in suspended animation. Think of all the possible people He could have created in your place. But G-d took the plunge on you. For G-d to sanctify the Shabbat was to pronounce the world, in some sense or other, complete; to choose it over all of the possible other worlds that He could have created.

When we bring in Shabbat, and put the rest of our lives on hold despite feeling under-prepared, we’re taking a similar leap of faith. It’s true that I could have sent one more e-mail before turning off the computer. It’s true that I could have swept one more floor, or cooked just one more dish for dinner. I could have remembered to iron my shirt! Those will be my demons. But I cross over into Shabbat, putting creation on hold, going in with what I’ve got, in the faith that the ideas and laws of Shabbat are worth taking the plunge on.

And thus, it can be seen that Shabbat is both an expression of our faith in G-d (and His laws), and of G-d’s faith in us.


[1] In order to write a blog, rather than a long-winded philosophical treatise, I am here simplifying what is actually a remarkably complicated topic: G-d’s choice of a world from all of the possible worlds that could be created. Though I disagree with some of his conclusions, a good introduction to this topic is the following article by Klaas Kraay: http://www.ryerson.ca/~kraay/Documents/2008PC.pdf. My more fully articulated views on this matter can be found in my article, ‘The Life of Faith as a Work of Art: A Rabbinic Theology of Faith’, in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, volume 81, issue 1-2, pp: 61-81 (2017).

Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens

Sam Lebens is a postdoctoral research fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa, and was a fellow at Rutgers University and at Notre Dame and holds a PhD in metaphysics from the University of London. He studied at Yeshivat Hakotel, Yeshivat Hamivtar, and Yeshivat Har Etzion, and received rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. Lebens works in the philosophy of language, early analytic philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. He is co-founder and chairperson of the Association for Philosophy of Judaism (www.theapj.com).

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