Subscribe to a Weekly Series

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

How Shabbos Works1

Use a word often enough and you can convince yourself that you know what it means. The Torah employs the word “kedushah” so often in regard to Shabbos, that we can easily lull ourselves into accepting it just so.

At least until we start thinking about it. Then we realize that we are more comfortable associating kedushah with objects than with time. 1 How are we to understand the Torah’s designating Shabbos as kodesh – and its multiple repetitions of that designation?

We could offer a suggestion. When the Torah tells us that Hashem blessed Shabbos and made it holy,” it does not mean just that He turned it into a special or elevated time. Rather, it means that He made Shabbos the root and source of all blessing, and the wellspring from which all kedushah flows. From this understanding we will be able to make sense of many other phenomena about Shabbos.

Kabbalistically, there is a ready explanation for seeing Shabbos as the source of all kedushah. On Shabbos alone, the light of the three most elevated sefiros is allowed to radiate to the other seven. This light is the spiritual substance of all the kedushah we experience – and it makes its way into our world specifically on Shabbos.

Some works explain the special quality of kedushah on Shabbos in terms of greater resistance to forces of evil that dilute or mask kedushah at other times. We understand that as a consequence of Hashem’s insistence on creating balance between the good and evil (and therefore leaving room for our choosing between them), any display of kedushah is met with resistance from its opposite. Kedushah attracts its foil, which masks and mutes it. Consequentially, we must view good and evil as a single continuum. Where good leaves off, evil immediately begins, in the form of the ten negative sefiros of tumah. On Shabbos, writes the Pri Etz Chaim, Hashem creates a buffer between the good and the evil. Good can be manifest without being set upon, as it were, by the forces of impurity.

Alternatively, we can simply view Shabbos as a presence of kedushah (coming as it does from the three most elevated sefiros) with which tumah simply is unable to coexist, and is banished from its presence.

As the source of all kedushah, Shabbos can provide us with the beginning of a framework to solve an enigmatic problem. Meor Eynayim questions how humans can ever imagine themselves connected to Hashem. Even in our puny understanding, we realize that there should be no way for this to occur. Hashem is infinite and limitless. We are stuck in limitation and dimensionality – not just different from G-d, but in a sense the polar opposite. We might yearn for connection to Him, but such attachment should be impossible. It can be poetry, but not real.

He answers that our devekus comes through something that is intermediate between the two end points, which acts as a kind of binding agent between us. This intermediate is Shabbos itself. It is not, of course, a divine being, but its kedushah does come from Him. On the other hand, it is accessible enough that we can bind to it, and through it, to Hashem.

The Torah begins a listing of holidays with a restatement of the mitzvah of Shabbos. (We pithily make reference to this in the siddur, in speaking of Shabbos as techilah l’mikra’ei kodesh – the first among holy days.) People have long puzzled over this. In what way does Shabbos belong to the special, seasonal observances of the holy days, of the yearly circuit around the calendar? Our thinking thus far may provide a satisfying answer to the question. Shabbos is first and primary in the list of holidays, because all of the kedushah resident in the special days of the calendar derive from what is made available to us on Shabbos. Remove Shabbos from the picture, and you are left with a blank. There simply cannot be any holidays without drawing from the kedushah that Hashem makes available to us on Shabbos.

We could stop at this point, having found a deeper meaning to the kedushah of Shabbos, and content with the pleasure of enriched understanding. There is fulfillment to be found simply in comprehending things properly, even when those things are abstractions. We would be selling ourselves short, however. The surfeit of kedushah on Shabbos translates directly into a different experience of Shabbos. The dividends to us are practical, not just theoretical.

Toras Avos explained the difference between Shabbos and Yom Tov with a mashal. Yom Tov is analogous to a king, who decides to leave the regal comforts that ordinarily surround him, in order to visit his impoverished son and spend time with him in his humble abode. Shabbos, however, can be likened to the king finding the son and transporting him to spend time together in the royal palace. In other words, on Yom Tov, Hashem illuminates the lives of Jews on whatever spiritual plane they inhabit. He comes to us, and spreads kedushah within our flawed, corrupt world. On Shabbos, on the other hand, he enables us to escape our limitations and to join Him in His inner chambers.

When we say that Shabbos is a bit of Olam Habo, we do not just mean that we find so much happiness and contentment in it, that we sense that it comes to us from a very great distance. What we really mean is that Shabbos takes us to a different world, that it transports us back to Gan Eden, where we function on a plane superior to that of ordinary existence! (Chumash alludes to this. We are aware of the tension between the Names of G-d in the story of Bereishis. Creation takes place with the Name Elokim, or din, alone, signifying the establishing of lawful and predictable Nature. With Man’s formation, unvarnished judgment is an insufficient characteristic to sustain a world in which he would commit many sins. Rachamim, compassion, needed to be added; the Four-Letter Name thus appears. Looking at the text more carefully, however, we realize that the Name of Havayah is not used immediately after the creation of Man, but shows up only after Shabbos is described. Havayah, in contradistinction to the Nature implied by Elokim, refers to transcending Nature, rising above it. This happens only through the creation of Shabbos itself.)

Shabbos is very much part of the system of holidays, of the mikra’ei kodesh. As we explained above, that system would fail without it, since it supplies the kedushah to all the other special days. This is why the list of holidays includes Shabbos. Shabbos, however, is treated to a designation that the other days are not. It is called “kodesh,” without any modifiers, because it is the source of all kedushah. The other days are appropriately referred to as mikra’ei kodesh, days called to kedushah. They achieve their holiness only by our calling to them, by our preparations and readying ourselves, by our isr’usa d’lesasa. The kedushah of Shabbos inheres in it. It is fully there, brought to us through isr’usa d’l’eila.

Because Shabbos does not function in this world, but takes us to a place above it, Man can achieve on Shabbos accomplishments that are beyond his ordinary grasp, above Nature. Chazal 2 describe Hashem’s instructions to Moshe about relating the laws of Shabbos to Bnei Yisrael. “I have a wonderful gift in my house of treasures. It’s name is Shabbos. Go forth and make it known to them!” Why is Shabbos called a wonderful gift, while other mitzvos are not? Because only Shabbos takes us elsewhere – to the house of treasures, which exists not here, but in Gan Eden.

1So much of the Torah concerns itself with the Bais HaMikdosh and its attendant levels of holiness. There, we encounter holy space, holy utensils, and materials that become sanctified to Hashem. We may be conscious of the fact that the word “kadosh” means set aside, and could see kedushah as merely a description of specialness, of the way we treat something, be it objects, space or time. Our knowledge of halachah, however, has gotten us used to seeing kedushah as something substantive, as a quality that is resident in an object. It is hard to then see kedushah as applying to time.
2 Shabbos 10A

Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and