Shabbos is often described as the “day of rest”, and the value it offers as a respite from the treadmill of life in the 21st century is inestimable. Yet a deeper look reveals a more complex relationship between the seventh day of the week and our need to kick off our shoes and just “chill”.
The Torah is the source of all Jewish practice, and the Torah defines the day of rest in a much more subtle manner than simply “taking it easy”. Part of the essential definition of Shabbos is the abstaining from thirty-nine very specific categories of activity, including planting, writing and lighting a fire. Ironically, from a Torah standpoint, shifting a heavy couch to make space for your lunch guests is completely within the spirit of the day of rest, while peacefully gardening or painting a masterpiece by the riverside is completely outside of the Shabbos ambit. The Torah’s definition of rest is clearly not related to how much sweat one generates.
So where do these parameters come from?
When the Torah defines the day of rest, it uses the construction procedures of an ancient temple as the model for what we should not be doing on this day. The thirty-nine restrictions of Shabbos are in fact learned from the thirty-nine creative processes used to construct the Mishkan, a mobile, miniature temple that was used by the Jews as a sanctuary as they travelled through the desert after being taken out of Egypt.
Why should our modern day lives be governed or influenced by what seems to be an arbitrary series of activities used to create an ancient structure?
First, some background.
The construction of the Mishkan took place shortly after the Torah was given at Sinai some 3300 years ago. A mere forty days after the Jewish people experienced a national revelation and accepted the Torah with the monumental declaration, “we will do and we will listen”, members of the nation were prancing around a graven image declaring it to be their god. Our tradition recounts the incident of the Golden Calf as a tragedy of cosmic proportions.
It was at that low point that we were instructed to build the Mishkan. The construction of the Mishkan served in some way to remedy the devastation caused by the Golden Calf. Indeed, the Mishkan itself served as a pristine microcosm of the world in its perfect state, a place of ideal balance and harmony, with the Torah ensconced in its centre and within its walls a faithful adherence to the laws and rituals.
The function of the Mishkan was as a place of refuge and re-alignment: when a person sinned in the “outside world” of imbalance and imperfection, he was required to enter the Mishkan where he could achieve atonement and “re-alignment” with Hashem. Thus the Mishkan was in fact a miniature world. Indeed, Torah sources draw a number of remarkable comparisons between the construction of the Mishkan and the creation of the universe.
The Medrash, for example, portrays the Mishkan as a miniature rendition of the universe, with the skin coverings as the sky, the large wash-basin as the gathering of the water, candelabra as the luminaries, cherubs with their outstretched wings as birdlife and the priests parallel to mankind who must serve within. The Medrash continues to describe how the construction of the Mishkan was completed with the word “vateychal”, while the six days of Hashem’s labor were completed with the same root word “vayechulu”.
G-d rested from creating the world on the seventh day, and in the Mishkan, all construction halted on Shabbos. We can now understand why when we wish to emulate G-d’s “resting” from creating the universe, we cease from the very activities that were carried out to manufacture the Mishkan.
The Mishkan is no longer, and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem which later took its place has been in ruin for over two millennia. We are now left to wonder, where in our chaotic and confusing world can we find the indispensable pocket of perfection, the microscopic sample of the way the world should be?
Kabbalah teaches that all existence can be divided into three general dimensions: time, space and spirit, which all manifest in varying levels of holiness. For example, in the dimension of space, the land of Israel is holier than the rest of the world, Jerusalem holier than Israel, the Temple holier than Jerusalem, and the Holy of Holies at the centre of the Temple more sacred still. A similar arrangement exists in the dimension of time, with each day of the week progressively holier relative to its proximity to Shabbos. In the dimension of spirit the Jewish people are divided into concentric circles, levi above yisrael, kohen above levi and kohen gadol or high priest above them all.
Although we have lost the pristine world in space, namely the Mishkan, we still have access to the microcosm of perfection in time: Shabbos. Described as “a taste of the world-to-come”, Shabbos remains our sample of the way things should really be in a world gone wrong, and when we plunge into its embrace, we have the chance to realign ourselves with the perfection of the world the way G-d wants it to look.
Perhaps in the dimension of spirit we also have the ability to maintain this pocket of perfection, in the form of our homes. The Jewish home is not simply a phenomenon of space, a piece of land enclosed by four walls and a roof. Rather it is a coming together of souls in a holy union of perfection, and it is in these miniature sanctuaries that perfection can still exist.
Even in the dimension of space, we still hold onto a sliver of the flawless perfection in the form of our shuls, which are constructed in almost identical form to the ancient Mishkan.
Our Shabbos can be the confluence of all of these elements, a day not simply to “chill out”, but to realign ourselves with perfection and harmony, to strengthen the haven of spirit that is our families and homes, to step into the healing embrace of our shuls and to encounter the ultimate sanctuary in time that is the day of rest.
Rabbi Ari Taback
Rabbi Ari Taback is associate Rabbi of Ohr Somayach Glenhazel in Johannesburg, and the director of Dirshu South Africa. He is also the author of "The Director" (Artscroll 2003), a collection of short stories illustrating the Divine choreography of our lives. He lives in Johannesburg with his wife and kids.