Parshat Va’etchanan- Shabbat Nachamu


The Torah portion of Va’etchanan retells the story of the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, the fourth of which is to remember and observe the Shabbat.[1] This article will focus on the observance of Shabbat through early history and the development of some of its laws. Adam and Eve

After creating man, the Torah says that G-d “placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.”[2] The Midrash says that this verse alludes to the fact that G-d gave Adam and Eve the mitzvah of Shabbat.[3] This is derived from the fact that, in reference to Shabbat, the Torah uses these same words “placed” (or “rested”),[4] “work”[5] and “guard.”[6]

Although Adam and Eve were not commanded to keep other mitzvot (besides the Noahide laws), they were commanded to keep Shabbat for several reasons,

  • This would protect them after their sin
  • Since G-d was “resting” in His celestial abode on Shabbat, it was appropriate for someone to mirror that below.
  • This is a particularly crucial mitzvah as it is a testimony to G-d being the creator.
  • Observing this mitzvah strengthens the belief in One G-d which is crucial for all of mankind.[7]

Shabbat Never Ceased

The Ohr HaChaim explains that when G-d created the world, he only invested enough energy in it to last for seven days. In order for the world to continue existing, it must receive a renewed energy for the next week on the previous Shabbat. The reason for this is that in order to receive G-d’s sustenance the entire world must yearn to cleave to Him. This yearning can only be achieved by experiencing Shabbat.[8]Thus, it is crucial that, at all times, someone in the world be keeping Shabbat. Just as Adam and the patriarchs observed the Shabbat (see below) so did the righteous men in the generations in between including Seth, Methuselah and the other tzadikim enumerated in Gen. 6 and 11. The Patriarchs

Upon reaching the city of Shechem, our forefather Jacob “encamped before the city.”[9] Our sages taught that this refers to the fact that Yakov measured the borders of the city for the purpose of establishing the Shabbat boundaries.[10]

The commentaries question how the patriarchs could have observed the Shabbat since, according to many opinions they were still considered gentiles[11] and since Shabbat is a unique gift to the Jewish people,[12] it is forbidden for gentiles to observe the Shabbat.[13]

Various explanations are offered:

  • The definition of (not) observing Shabbat for gentiles is to (not) refrain from strenuous labor. Whereas for Jews, observing Shabbat is defined as not performing any of the 39 melachot (types of labor). So the patriarchs would observe the Shabbat as Jews by not doing any of the melachot but would also perform strenuous labor so that it be considered that they did not observe the “Gentile version” of the Shabbat.[14]
  • The Chatam Sofer explains that the patriarchs wore tzitzit on their garments which, for a gentile is considered a burden and thus a Shabbat violation (in terms of carrying), but is a mitzvah for a Jew and is considered to be an adornment to their garment.[15]

The Tribes

In addition, the Midrash[16] infers that Joseph observed the Shabbat from the fact that when his brothers came to purchase wheat for the second time, he told the overseer of his house, “Bring the men into the house and give orders to slaughter an animal and to prepare, for the men will eat with me at lunch.”[17] Since the term “prepare” is used in reference to the double portion of Manna that fell on Friday,[18] the Midrash explains that Joseph was instructing his overseer to prepare the Shabbat meal.[19]

The commentaries point out that Joseph sent his brothers home the next day,[20] which (according to this Midrash) would have been Shabbat. Some say that the other tribes did not observe Shabbat.[21]Others say that, since they were bringing food to their famished family, it was considered a life threatening situation for which one may desecrate the Shabbat.[22] The Jews in Egypt

The Midrash says that, while still living in Pharaoh’s palace, Moshe succeeded in convincing Pharaoh that it would be good for the productivity of the Jewish slaves if they were given a day off. The day Moshe chose was the seventh day of the week – Shabbat.[23] On Shabbat, the Jews would read the scrolls bequeathed to them by their ancestors which foretold of their coming redemption.[24] Forty years later,[25] in the sequence of events leading to the Exodus, Pharaoh rescinded this permission and forced the Jews to work on Shabbat.[26]

This is why, in the prayers of Shabbat morning, we say that Moshe is “happy with the gift of his portion.” This is an allusion to the mitzvah of Shabbat which is called Moshe’s portion since he (re)instituted its observance.[27] In Marah

When the Jews were camped in Marah, after the splitting of the sea they were commanded to observe the Shabbat. The Torah states “There He gave them a statute and an ordinance.”[28] According to Rabbi Yehoshuah, “the statute” is referring to Shabbat and “the ordinance” is referring to the mitzvah of honoring ones parents.[29] Thus, when G-d said at Sinai “Guard the Shabbat as the L-rd your G-d has commanded you,”[30] He was referring to the prior command in Marah.[31]

The commentaries say that, at this point they were only commanded regarding the most severe Shabbat violations (i.e. to not work) and not the less severe ones such as the prohibition against allowing one’s animal to work.[32] When the Manna Fell

Whne the Manna fell in the desert, the Jewish people were instructed to gather a double portion on Friday and none on Shabbat.[33] They were also instructed to do all of their cooking and baking before Shabbat would begin.[34] At that time, Moshe alluded to the mitzvah of eating three meals on Shabbat.[35] At Sinai

As mentioned above, the fourth of the Ten Commandments is to observe the Shabbat.[36] Among the many laws derived from these verses teach is the mitzvah of Kiddush,[37] and the fact that men and women are equal regarding all the Shabbat laws.[38] When Building the Mishkan

Before informing the Jewish people of the mitzvah to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Moshe gathered them and taught the laws of Shabbat.[39] He was alluding that on every Shabbat they should gather in groups to study Torah.[40] In addition, the sages derive the 39 Melachot from the Torah’s juxtaposition of the command to build the Mishkan and the reiteration of the commandment to observe Shabbat.[41] In the Desert

The first person to violate the Shabbat publicly in the desert was the Mekoshesh – the man who collected sticks on Shabbat.[42] He was immediately arrested and, after consultation with G-d, was executed.[43] This was the only Jew (among the approximate two million Jews in the desert) who desecrated the Shabbat.[44] During the Conquest of Israel

According to the Talmud, if one begins a siege on a city at least three days before Shabbat, one may continue to do battle on Shabbat.[45] Thus, when Yehoshua (Joshua) led the Jewish people in the conquest of Jericho, they began the siege on Sunday and actually conquered the city on Shabbat.[46]This is the reason that Yehoshua consecrated all the spoils to G-d, so that the people not receive personal benefit from (what is normally considered) a Shabbat violation.[47] King Solomon

According to the Talmud, King Solomon instituted the mitzvah of Eiruv Chatzeirot.[48] Ezra and Nechemia

The book of Nechemia recounts that when Ezra, Nechemia and the Jews with them returned to Israel to rebuild the Bait HaMikdash (Holy Temple) they found that the local Jewish community in Jerusalem had sunken to a sorry spiritual state. In the words of Nechmiah, “In those days, I saw in Judea people treading winepresses on the Shabbat and bringing stacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, and figs, and all types of loads and bringing them to Jerusalem on the Shabbat day, and I warned them on the day they sold provisions. And… bringing fish and all [types of] merchandise and selling on the Sabbath to the people of Judea and in Jerusalem.”

Nechemiah put a stop to this immediately as the verse recounts, “and I said to them ‘What is this bad thing that you are doing-profaning the Shabbat day? Did not your ancestors do this, and our G-d brought upon us all this calamity, and upon this city, and you are increasing the wrath upon Israel by profaning the Shabbat?’ Now it came to pass when the gates of Jerusalem cast shadows before the Shabbat, that I commanded, and the doors were closed, and I said that they should not open them until after the Shabbat, and I stationed some of my youths over the gates so that no load should enter on the Shabbat day. So the traffickers and the vendors of all types of merchandise lodged outside Jerusalem once and twice. And I warned them and said to them, ‘Why are you lodging opposite the wall? If you repeat this, I shall lay a hand on you.’ Since that time, they did not come on the Shabbat.And I commanded the Levites that the watchers of the walls should purify themselves and come to hallow the Shabbat day.”[49] This is a brief outline of the history of Shabbat observance in the Biblical era. G-d willing, in the future, we will focus on the development of the Rabbinic laws of Shabbat.

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