“The Preeminence of Shabbat”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we learn, among other things, of the preeminence of Shabbat, the Sabbath Day.

Although the major focus of parashat Kee Tisah is not the Tabernacle, but the sin of the Golden Calf, parashat Kee Tisah is itself surrounded in the Torah by four parashiot that deal with the building of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and the vestments of the priest. Two of the parashiot, Terumah and Tetzaveh, precede Kee Tisah and two parashiot, Vayakhel and Pekudai, follow Kee Tisah.

In fact, parashat Kee Tisah itself contains several significant references to the Tabernacle furnishings and appurtenances: the laver, which the priests use to wash their hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-21), and the anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-33), that is used to sanctify the priests, the Tabernacle and the Tabernacle furnishings. We also find in Kee Tisah instructions regarding the preparation of the incense (Exodus 30:34-38), and we learn of the designation of Betzalel and Ohaliav as the architects of the Tabernacle.

As if continuing the parasha’s discussion of the Tabernacle, immediately following the references to the Tabernacle, we find a bold admonishment concerning the observance of the Sabbath day.

In Exodus 31:13, G-d speaks to Moses and says, “V’ah’tah dah’behr el B’nai Yisrael lay’mor, Ahch et Shahb’toh’tai tish’moh’roo, kee oht he bay’nee oo’vay’nay’chem l’doh’roh’tay’chem, la’dah’at kee Ah’nee Hashem m’kah’dish’chem,” You shall speak to the children of Israel saying: However, you must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who makes you holy.

The Torah then warns that the Sabbath Day must be kept holy, and that desecrators of the Sabbath shall be put to death. This is then followed by the well-known verse from Exodus 31:16, that is also recited as part of the Sabbath Kiddush, “V’sham’roo v’nai Yisrael et ha’Shabbat,” The children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is a sign forever, that in a six day period, the L-rd made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, He rested and was refreshed.

The Biblical commentators feel that it is certainly no accident that the admonition to observe the Sabbath is found in parashat Kee Tisah, smack in the middle of the extensive instructions for the design and building of the Tabernacle.

Rashi forcefully explains that when G-d speaks to the people, in Exodus 31:13, and says to them, “However, you must observe my Sabbaths,” He means that, although I [G-d] charged you concerning the work of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), do not view the Shabbat so lightly as to push it aside, because of that [the Tabernacle] work. This verse, says Rashi, serves to exclude Shabbat from the work of the Mishkan, and to not allow the Shabbat to be pushed aside because of this work, even though the people are eager and enthusiastic about it.

A similar message is repeated in Leviticus 19:30. There the Torah exhorts the people of Israel, “Et Shab’toh’tai tish’moh’roo oo’mik’dah’shee tee’rah’oo, ah’nee Hashem,” My Sabbath, shall you observe, and My sanctuary shall you revere, I am the L-rd. Says Rashi, even though I warned you of the sanctity of the Tabernacle, you must observe My Sabbaths. The construction of the Temple does not override the Sabbath day.

In 1950, the committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement was faced with the issue of driving on Shabbat. At that time, the Conservative movement of Judaism was the largest and strongest of all the movements in America, with more than two million members. Throughout the length and breadth of North America, temples of extraordinary beauty and size were erected. With “Suburban Sprawl” gaining momentum, congregants were abandoning the cities en masse and moving out to the suburbs. The Conservative movement was faced with a serious dilemma. In theory, the Conservative Jewish movement was committed to the observance of Jewish law, and therefore, driving an automobile on Shabbat was prohibited. As Jews left the cities and moved to the suburbs, the automobile began to dominate life.

The leaders of the Conservative movement were well aware that many of their members already drove on Shabbat–to the supermarkets, to the beauty parlor, even to the movies, and they were faced with the issue of massive Sabbath desecration.

When The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met, they issued the following decree: It is prohibited to drive an automobile on Shabbat. However, if you already drive, drive to the synagogue or the Temple, rather than the supermarket or the beauty parlor. The committee was loathe to openly permit driving on Shabbat to go to the temple, but their left-handed approval of using a car on Shabbat, opened the floodgates. Virtually all Conservative temples soon had large parking lots that were open on Shabbat.

In the early 1950s, the post-Holocaust Orthodox community was a greatly weakened community. It did not have the resources to build large temples, because whatever funds available were designated to be used for building an educational network of Day Schools and Yeshivot. To be truthful, many of the constituents of the Orthodox synagogues were not that much more observant than those of the Conservative movement, and they also drove their cars on Shabbat. The Orthodox leaders were faced with the same daunting issue, but, citing the verses in parashat Kee Tisah and in Leviticus, they declared that driving on Shabbat was forbidden. They argued: If it was forbidden in ancient times to violate the Shabbat even to build Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, how can it be permitted today to drive a car in order to attend services in a temple in Syosset, Long Island?

In practice, there was no real difference between Conservative and Orthodox constituents. A popular joke regarding the Orthodox practices rapidly circulated: What is the difference between an Orthodox Jew and a Conservative Jew? The answer–two blocks! Conservative Jews park in the temple’s parking lot, while “Orthodox” Jews park two blocks away, and walk to the synagogue from where they parked.

Those “two blocks,” however, became very significant, because, by parking two blocks away, Orthodox Jews were basically admitting, “We know that we shouldn’t be driving.” Whereas, Jews who parked in the parking lot, regarded driving as being fully permissible.

Because Orthodox constituents were frequently reminded by their rabbis not to drive on Shabbat, as they became more informed, learned and educated, many of them stopped driving on Shabbat. On the other hand, increased use of the car on Shabbat in the Conservative movement caused great harm to the movement, allowing its membership to move further and further away from the synagogue. No longer was there a cohesive and intimate Jewish community. The supportive community that had previously existed in the inner cities could not be replicated in the suburbs. And, just as parents, grandparents and grandchildren no longer lived together, now, Jews in general, no longer lived together in the suburbs.

With that support system gone, the level of observance and commitment diminished profoundly. In November 2003, Professor Ismar Schorsch, then Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, publically stated that the decision of The Commission of Jewish Law and Standards to permit driving on Shabbat was “a big mistake.”

According to our sages, when she was chosen to be the Queen of Persia, Esther desperately tried to secretly maintain her Jewish identity. The Book of Esther relates that Esther had seven female attendants. The commentators explain that Esther had a different attendant for each day of the week. Of the seven attendants, one was designated to work exclusively on Shabbat. This was done so that no one would be aware that Esther lived a different lifestyle on Shabbat.

It was the fervent commitment of the Jewish people to Shabbat throughout the ages, not only in the time of Esther, but through all of Jewish history, that preserved the Jewish people. This is what motivated the famous Jewish philosopher, Achad Ha’Am (Asher Zvi Hirsh Ginsberg, 1856-1927), to say about the Sabbath day, that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath day, the Sabbath day has kept the Jews.”

It is an eternal sign between G-d and the Jewish people.

May you be blessed. Happy Purim.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 7th, from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 7th-8th , 2012. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.