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Shabbat: The Central Light

by | Jun 26, 2008

Excerpted with permission from “ASCENDING JACOB’S LADDER.” Published by Mesorah and Ahavat Shalom Pub.

To get full value out of Shabbat in terms of benefits and enjoyment, we need to understand what resting on Shabbat really means. Some people think it means working hard six days of the week and taking it easy on the seventh. Asked to explain Shabbat in brief, they might say, “As long as you don’t work, you’re observing the Sabbath.” Taken to an extreme, a person might think, “No problem. I’ll lounge around in pajamas all day. That’s rest, isn’t it?”

Would he be keeping Shabbat? Far from it.

Whenever the Torah speaks about Shabbat, the phrase “Shabbat la’Hashem” appears — Shabbat is a day for God. During the other six days of the week, people are obviously involved in the physical world. Motivated by positive goals and good intentions, they earn a living, raise their children, and run good Jewish homes. With the right attitude, the workweek is elevated to a higher level. Even so, during those six days, we are involved in the physical world. On Shabbat, our involvement is with the spiritual world. During the six workdays, we’re active in the marketplace; on Shabbat, we spend time with our family. Shabbat is a day for looking into the depths of our soul, for taking stock of the spiritual side of our lives.

The physical and spiritual components of a person are locked in an ongoing battle for supremacy. When one dominates, the other submits. If you build up your spiritual side, your physical side will lose its power over you. Conversely, if you empower the physical side and make it the most important thing in your life, your spiritual side will be neglected.

God wants a balance. For six days of the week, we’re out there earning a living. These days can also be filled with many wonderful spiritual activities such as prayer, mitzvot, and giving charity — but they are basically days of physical action. On Shabbat, everything stops. The physical side is put on hold, allowing the spiritual side to soar to its highest levels. This is the idea of resting on Shabbat. We stop our involvement in the physical world to immerse ourselves in the spiritual world…


Many people are confused about what it means to observe the Sabbath. The intricate laws of Sabbath observance seem daunting. They wonder if God really cares about people abiding by all the exacting legal details. Take, for instance, the law of borer, “selecting.” On Shabbat, we are not allowed to move aside food we don’t want in order to choose the food we do want. An example of this would be pulling a fish bone out of a piece of fish. Instead, we should eat the fish, leaving the bone…

Some people look at Shabbat as a day full of restrictions. You can’t turn on a light, you can’t talk on the phone, and you can’t drive. It sounds like a day of suffering. “How is it possible,” someone once asked me, “that on Shabbat I can carry an armchair up and down the stairs for 24 hours straight and that’s allowed, but if I just flip a switch, which takes no effort at all, it’s considered desecrating Shabbat. It doesn’t make sense!”

Once the principle of Shabbat is understood, though, everything falls into place. Shabbat is a day that commemorates God’s creating the world in six days. In those six days, He brought into existence all the forces in the world. On the seventh day, He stopped creating; He rested. We commemorate this by stopping our creative work, too.

Work is defined as transforming an object into something else. For example, flipping a light switch activates an electrical process. Energy is generated and transmitted through wires until it turns into light. This is a creative process, and, as such, is forbidden. “Carrying” something is not a creative process, but “bringing it from one domain to another” changes its status. Change of status, as defined by Torah law, is a creative act. Bringing an object from a private home to the street, which is a public domain, effects a change in the object’s status. This is not allowed because on Shabbat, everything must rest; where it was, it should remain. Moving an object, no matter how heavy, within the same domain, such as up and down the stairs of a private home, though, does not change the object’s status, no matter how strenuous the task. Therefore, it is permitted…


For some people, life is a vicious cycle. If you ask someone, “Why do you work?” he’ll say, “I have to earn a living if I want to eat.” “Why do you eat?” “I have to eat, or I won’t have the strength to work.” What’s the point?

There’s a well-known tale about a man who was exiled to Siberia, where he was kept in solitary confinement. As part of his punishment, he had to spend his day turning a massive wheel that was attached to his cell wall. As the prisoner turned the wheel, he often wondered what it was attached to on the other side of the wall. He imagined all sorts of useful purposes for his forced labor. “Perhaps it is grinding wheat in a flour mill, or drawing water from a well to irrigate the fields,” he would muse.

After many years, he was released and allowed to leave the room. At that moment, he said to his captors, “After all my hard work, I’d like to know what I achieved these past ten years. What’s the wheel attached to?” When the guard said, “Nothing. You were just turning a wheel,” the man passed away on the spot. His whole life and all his suffering had been meaningless.

We ask ourselves the same question: What am I doing here? Those who eat to work and work to eat are just turning that wheel around. The true purpose of life is to realize that there is a Creator, and then to move closer to Him. Because the physical world pulls us away from the spiritual, God gave us one day out of seven when we can free our minds from the distractions of investments, real estate, business, the stock market, and all the rest. At least on one day of the week, we can clearly see our life’s purpose. Shabbat then becomes the day when we delve into the resources of our true life, our spiritual life. This, in turn, illuminates our lives for the whole week…

Shabbat is the source of all blessing. The sages teach us that the days of the week are not arranged one after another, but are like the menorah in the Holy Temple. Shabbat is the center of the week, with three days preceding it and three days following it. So, too, the menorah had one central branch, with three branches on the right and three on the left. When it was lit, the three flames on the right and the three on the left leaned toward the central flame. We wonder why the central light was the one that remained lit. What is the significance of the central light, and why do all the lights on the right and the left have to point toward the central light?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the menorah’s connection to Shabbat. To us, it seems that when a person closes his business and rests on Shabbat, he’s losing money. People in the retail trade say you can make as much as ten times the profit on Saturday as during the rest of the week. The Torah tells us just the opposite. Any success we experience during the six days of the week is part of the blessing that comes down on Shabbat. The one day of the week that seems to be unproductive as far as earning an income is concerned is actually the one day of the week that brings all blessing and bounty into your life. The flow of blessing spills over into the other days of the week and is acquired through hard work. But the source of that blessing is Shabbat, as it says, “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (Genesis 2:3).

That was the idea of the seven lights of the menorah. The central light, where the miracle took place, symbolizes Shabbat. The three days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday lead up to Shabbat. The three days after Shabbat — Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday — bring blessing into the week. The central point of our life is Shabbat. The workday week is not supporting Shabbat; Shabbat gives life to all the other days.

Reprinted with permission from