Public Desecration of Shabbat

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

In Bamidbar 31:16, the Torah states, “Thus shall the children of Israel observer the Shabbat…Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that in six days HaShem created the heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested”. The Gemara Chulin states (5a) that he who publicly desecrates the Shabbat is considered as one who denies the entire Torah, and he cannot act as a witness in Jewish law, he is pasul le’eidut. Why should this be so? After all, one who eats non Kosher food, or speaks Lashon Hara is not regarded as having denied the entire Torah? The only other stringency is by one who is an idol-worshipper. Here we say you cannot be a believer in Torah while at the same time you are an idol worshipper. But why is the Shabbat violator treated so severely?

Furthermore, why does this consequence apply only to a public violation? Generally, the Torah seems to imply that the hypocrisy underlying a sin committed in secret renders the action even more reprehensible than the same act committed in public. Consider, for example, that the penalty for a “ganov” thievery, is greater than the penalty for a “gazlan”, a robber (Bava Kama 79b). So why then is public violation of the Shabbat considered to be heresy while private Shabbat violation does not carry the same stigma?

Rav Soloveitchik suggested that one must understand that there are three fundamental aspects to the observance of Shabbat. The (39) negative commandments regarding the cessation from work, the positive commandments (Kiddush, 3 meals, Lechem Mishnah) affirming the holiness of the day, and testimony concerning the six days of creation and the seventh day of divine rest.

It is through this third aspect that the heresy inherent in public Shabbat violations becomes evident. One who violates the Shabbat publicly denies the creation and the Creator. This act of false witness occurs only when one openly violates the Shabbat; violating the Shabbat in private does not involve heresy, since by definition testimony is a public declaration.

(Source: Yahrzteit shiur for Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l)

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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