“The Sabbath: Meeting G-d”

A significant portion of this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, is devoted to the rules, regulations and observances of the Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays.

In Leviticus 23:2, G-d speaks to Moses saying, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, מוֹעֲדֵי השׁם אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ, אֵלֶּה הֵם מוֹעֲדָי, Speak to the Children of Israel and say unto them: “These are the L-rd’s appointed festivals that you are to designate as holy convocations–these are My appointed festivals.” The Torah then focuses on the various festivals and the rituals associated with them: Pesach, the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

But before any of the festivals are enumerated, the Torah in Leviticus 23:3, boldly declares the primacy of Shabbat: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, כָּל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, שַׁבָּת הִוא לַהשׁם בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, For six days labor may be done, and the seventh day is a day of complete rest, a holy convocation, you shall not do any work; it is the Sabbath for the L-rd in all your dwelling places.

It is fascinating to note that the Torah refers to all the festivals including Shabbat, as מוֹעֲדִים–“Moadim,” appointed times. On these special days, Jews “meet” with their Al-mighty Creator.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch brilliantly notes that just as the Tabernacle, the portable מִשְׁכָּן–Mishkan, is known as אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–“Ohel Moed,” the Tent of Meeting, so too, are the Sabbath and festivals called “Moadim,” meeting times.

Rabbi Hirsch writes:

That which the Temple is in space, is what the festivals are in time. Both have our union with G-d as their aim. The one [the Tabernacle] sets G-d’s Torah as the center point of our lives, down in the actual center of our world, and says to us: This is where you find your direction to the way to your G-d. The other [Shabbat and the festivals] call special attention to certain fixed times in the changing course of the year, which were marked by the revelation of G-d in special acts, and says to us: in these times G-d was at one time very near to you, at each anniversary G-d awaits you for renewed and refreshed union with Him.

There is, however, a significant difference between Shabbat and the festivals. The difference is highlighted by the fact that when a festival falls on Shabbat, as the festival of Passover did recently, the central blessing of sanctification in the Amidah prayer concludes with the words, “Blessed are You, G-d, Who sanctifies the Sabbath, Israel and the festivals.”

One would expect the order of the words to be, “Blessed are You, G-d, Who sanctifies Israel, the Sabbath and festivals.” The rabbis therefore deduce from the fact that the Sabbath precedes Israel, that the Sabbath is itself sanctified, and not dependent upon the People of Israel. Festivals, however, require the Jewish people to sanctify them. Thus, even if there were no People of Israel, the Sabbath day would still be sanctified. But, if there were no People of Israel, there would be no festivals.

The specialness of the Sabbath was poignantly underscored to me several years ago in a recording that I heard of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Carlebach related that he was in Cleveland giving a concert, and a woman, who sat in the front row, cried for almost the entire concert. He could not imagine why she was so emotional. Looking for an excuse to speak with her, he asked the woman and her husband if they could give him a lift to the airport.

During the conversation in the car, Rabbi Carlebach asked her husband why his wife was so emotional. The husband said, “It’s her story, let her tell it.” The woman proceeded to tell Rabbi Carlebach that both she and her husband came from wealthy, but very assimilated, Jewish backgrounds, to the extent that they never attended synagogue, not even on the High Holidays. After they were married they tried for years to have a child, but encountered terrible difficulties, experiencing nine miscarriages. When she finally had a successful pregnancy and carried into her ninth month, she went to the doctor who examined her and announced that the child would not survive, and that she should prepare herself for the harsh reality of losing the child. The doctor said to her callously, “You know, some people are just not destined to be parents!” Rabbi Carlebach noted that some doctors should have been butchers.

The woman left the doctor’s office dazed, despondent and determined to commit suicide by jumping off a local bridge. She felt, however, that she owed her husband an explanation, and decided to go home first and leave a note.

On the way to her home, she noticed, for the first time, a little synagogue near her home and decided to walk in. Although she had never been in a synagogue, she walked up to the Ark and started crying her heart out begging G-d to save the baby. After an hour or two of beseeching, she promised that if the baby survived she would light Sabbath candles every Friday night.

Instead of ending her life, she went home and called a distant cousin whom she knew had some religious background and asked her how to light Sabbath candles. The cousin told her that lighting candles would be more meaningful if she were to keep the Sabbath and have a Kosher home. The cousin offered to come right over to explain to her what it meant. By the time her husband came home, the woman had determined to throw out all the non-Kosher dishes, had ordered new appliances to make their home Kosher, and resolved to start keeping the Sabbath.

The woman explained to Rabbi Carlebach that his music evoked in her both tears of joy and tears of sadness. Now that she is a mother, the music, she said, reminded her that G-d had answered her prayers.

Several years later, Rabbi Carlebach was again in Cleveland and wondered how this woman and her husband were doing. When he called, they invited Reb Shlomo to come over to the house for dinner and to meet their three children. The woman insisted on giving Rabbi Carlebach a tour of their large and stately home before they ate. Going from room to room, one more elegant then the next, they finally reached the dining room.

It was Monday night and yet the table was fully set for Shabbat. The woman explained that in their home the Shabbat table is always set, because they begin celebrating the coming Shabbat immediately after the previous Shabbat concludes on Saturday night.

That is what Shabbat meant to that grateful family.

Rabbi Shmuel “Shmelke” Horowitz  the rabbi of Nikolsburg, was known as an “Ish Chessed,” a man of great benevolence.

On one occasion a poor person approached him, but he had no money in his pockets. He ran into his home and took out a brooch from his wife’s jewelry box and gave it to the indigent man.

Soon after, Reb Shmulke’s wife entered the room, noticed that her brooch was missing and informed her husband that he had given away a very valuable brooch. Reb Shmelke started to run after the poor man. Assuming that the rabbi wanted the brooch back, the poor person started running faster. When he could not catch the man, Reb Shmelke shouted out to him, “Reb Yid, I don’t want the jewelry back, I just want you to know how valuable it is. So when you exchange it for money in the market, make certain that you receive the full price and its full value!”

G-d has given the gift of Shabbat to His people, but they frequently fail to recognize its full value. The Sabbath is not only an opportunity for Jews to encounter G-d, it is in fact a vital elixir of life. Furthermore, the world never needed Shabbat more than it needs it now.

While the Sabbath can exist without Israel, the People of Israel cannot exist without the Sabbath. It has been said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” It is G-d’s greatest gift to humankind. Indeed, it is appropriately called a “Taste of the World to Come.” The Talmud (Shabbat 10b) states that G-d has declared, “I have a gift in my treasury. Its name is Sabbath. Go out and tell the Jews about it.”

May you be blessed.