The Jewish People as Shabbat’s Partner

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Bereshit Rabbah 11 has a quote of R. Shim’on b. Yochai, where he portrays Shabbat as complaining to Hashem over her lack of a partner; Hashem promises her the Jewish people will be her partner. At Sinai, Hashem reminds the Jews of the commitment, when Hashem says zachor et yom ha-Shabbat le-kadesho, remember Shabbat to declare it sanctified.

Shabbat Rejects Aristotelianism

Aristotelians cannot believe in any difference in how Hashem approaches the world from one day or era to the next, because “all” Hashem does is provide energy, in their view. Shabbat becomes an important way for Jews to show we disagree, since we desist from creative labor to commemorate Hashem’s changed effect on the world once the six days of Creation ended.

Whatever “rest” or ceasing creating means regarding Hashem (R. Arama thinks Hashem is still mechadesh the world daily; mechadesh means renew, but R. Arama implies there’s more to it than just keeping the laws of Nature going), the word indicates Hashem shaped the world at one level of activity and involvement before the first Shabbat, some other one after. Each time we rest on Shabbat, we assert our belief in a Gd Who interacts with the world in various ways, more actively or less, and is certainly not limited to passive provision of the life force of unbreakable laws of Nature.

The Activity of Shabbat

Shabbat’s interest in a partner started with its distaste for being set up as a negative space, defined by its lack of action. The path to perfection always takes action, R. Arama says, which told Shabbat it was being consigned to an inherently imperfect role. Ketubbot 59a says idleness leads to shi’amum (today translated as boredom, but the Gemara meant something worse), and for happiness, the soul must operate, actively, at its highest level. Similarly, the Jews are praised for their commitment to act according to the Torah at Sinai, where they said na’aseh ve-nishma, we will act and (then) we will listen. The action mattered most, in R. Arama’s reading.

To assuage Shabbat’s sense of being relegated to a day of what we do not do, Hashem tells her the Jewish people will partner with the day, with positive requirements, shemirat Shabbat, observing Shabbat, as well as shevitah, desisting from creative labors. Shemot 31;16 says ve-shameru, to observe, Shabbat la’asot, to do Shabbat, to give it an active component.

[I have a vivid memory of getting the sense, growing up, of Shabbat as full of “don’t’s,” and spending time searching for a sense of its “do”s. It continues to be an issue in many Jewish communities today, from what I can tell.]

R. Arama’s idea of active Shabbat observance is for Jews to focus Shabbat on acquiring the knowledge embedded in the day, knowledge of the world’s having been created ex nihilo, with full free Divine Will (not as a subject of any laws, nature or other). Since (as he’s said before), these truths also underlie any idea of reward and punishment, the Midrash says Hashem reminded the Jews about the promise to pair them with Shabbat just before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, since Torah cannot work without reward and punishment.

When we recognize the day on the way in and out (by saying kiddush and havdalah, paying attention to what we mean), and then desist from any distractions, spend the time in prayer and other ways of feeling Hashem’s Presence (as if Shabbat were our spouse and we are finally fortunate enough to spend some time together), R. Arama thinks (and thinks Ibn Ezra might have said it before him) those very actions declare our acknowledgment of Creation ex nihilo and all that comes with it.

[R. Arama is here very out of step with many Jews today, who try to emphasize the technical and back-pedal or downplay the theological. In his view, acquiring the correct view of Hashem’s interactions with the world, which then also lead to a proper idea of reward and punishment, is the way we keep Shabbat.]

Shabbat and the Continuing Creativity of the World

I am skipping the questions R. Arama raises about the Torah’s description of the first Shabbat (starting with the word ve-yechulu), to go straight to his answers. There were three phases to creation, he says. First, Hashem brought chomer ha-hiyuli, basic fundamental matter, into being, from absolute nothingness [which, let us remember, is why R. Arama is sure of Hashem’s complete freedom, since Hashem made the whole system].

The six days of Creation were for this basic fundamental matter to be turned into the building blocks of our physical world (Hashem was telling the material created ex nihilo to form, shape, and convert itself into heavens and earth, separate land and water, etc.). From there, starting on the seventh day, the world continued on its own, different primary substances uniting and dividing, making new materials or objects.

A World Which Continuingly Develops

This all started on the seventh day, which the Torah said was when Hashem desisted, because the world doing its own thing was the goal of creation. Shabbat was when Hashem stopped a certain kind of input into the world, but the world itself was just getting started.

In an aside, he parallels what happens here to what happens in the building of the Mishkan. The call for donations from the people are like the creation of ex nihilo material; Betzalel and his crew put the materials together into a Mishkan, which can only then perform its real purpose. The celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan (like the end of the six days of Creation) marked the end of the preparatory stages, inaugurated its real functioning.

Bereshit Rabbah 68 tells of a woman asking R. Yehoshu’a what Hashem does all day now that Creation has ended. R. Yehoshu’a tells her Hashem is making matches, which she thought [as do some people who give divrei Torah at wedding celebrations] R. Yehoshu’a meant Hashem finds ways to introduce people who will marry. R. Arama thinks he really meant Hashem is helping different combinations of materials occur, to have the world build, grow, and develop, its true purpose.

Since Hashem is still involved, the verse says va-yechulu, were completed (in the passive). Only on the seventh day, when Hashem finished shaping the world by setting it on its continuing and somewhat more independent path of formation, did the Torah use the active verb va-yechal Elokim, Hashem completed.  Nor was completion a cessation of change, since (as we’ve just seen) development and growth is part of the world’s purpose. Hashem stopped only melachah, which R. Arama is reading as the basic building blocks of the world, leaving much creation and development—the most important—to start and continue forever after. [This is a remarkably modern idea, especially since some people portray traditionalists as unable to tolerate or accept evidence of the earth’s changes over the years, geological and evolutionary; R. Arama anticipates the idea, puts it centrally in his view of the world].

The Gd of the Six Days, Transitioning Into a New Stage

The berachah given the seventh day recognized the new element of Shabbat, it’s being the first day of the rest of the world. The kedushah of Shabbatoften translated as sanctity, was also to recognize the achievement of the end of one kind of creation, from which Hashem indeed desisted.

R. Arama also expresses what happened in the move from the six days of Creation to Shabbat as the difference between a time in which Hashem acted completely against Nature [I think he means Nature was not yet in place, as Hashem was setting it up; he has to mean something like that, since he earlier made a point of noticing the use of Elokim throughout the six days, which he had said referred to Hashem Who acts through general laws of Nature, rather than the more individualized attention of the four letter Name].

With Shabbat, that phase of world history ended. [Some scientists today talk about the very beginning of the world as operating under different laws of physics. Of course, they speak of the first fractions of a second, but the idea is there, supposedly unchanging Nature operating one way at one point, then settling down into a more regular pattern].

Shabbat Takes Us to the World to Comme

Shabbat 10b depicts a conversation between Hashem and Moshe, where Hashem says Shabbat is a great gift for the Jewish people. R. Arama thinks the gift was in the weekly human Shabbat leading to the future, hidden Shabbat (I think he means the World to Come, which he will speak of in a moment, but not again refer to as the future Shabbat).

The restrictions the Torah places on people, guiding Jews to lives of perishut (abstinence, by which I think he means learning not to get overly enmeshed in the physical) and kedushah, which he defines as learning the right de’ot, ideas and perspectives of the world. The qualities produce a nation whom Yeshayahu 60;21 could characterize as kulam tzaddikim, all righteous, whom Sanhedrin 90b could say all have a share in the World to Come.

It starts with Shabbat, our partner. As we weekly re-acknowledge the truths Shabbat embodies, we are led on the path to our best success. (He includes a homiletic idea I like; since Shabbat is our partner, sort of like a spouse, we inherit what she has to give, why Chaza”l use the phrase nochalei ha-‘olam ha-ba, those who inherit the World to Come).

Four she’arim are a tiny portion of the whole ‘Akedat Yitzchak, but this ends his presentation of Creation (he still has much to say about people and how they work, in the coming she’arim). I am going to take next week to review some of the main ideas we’ve seen, to try to express R. Arama’s view of Creation, as we’ve seen it so far, in a more concise, condensed, and concentrated way. After that, we’ll move on the fifth sha’ar.

About Gidon Rothstein

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