“Shabbat as a Priority in Jewish Life”
(updated and revised from Kee Tisah 5765-2005

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although there are many dramatic moments in the latter parts of parashat Kee Tisah, the early parts of the parasha continue to dwell on the theme of building the מִשְׁכָּן–Mishkan–the portable Tabernacle that accompanied the people during their travels in the wilderness. It is in parashat Kee Tisah that G-d instructs Moses to fashion the כִּיּוֹר–kiyor, the Laver, provides the formula for the שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה–Shemen ha’Mishcha, anointing oil and the קְטֹרֶת–Ketoret, the incense, and designates Bezalel and Oholiyav to oversee the design and construction of the Tabernacle.

The Torah then recounts the fateful narrative of Moses receiving the tablets, and describes the unforgettable scene at which Moses breaks the tablets when he sees the people joyously worshiping the Golden Calf. Between the theme of the Tabernacle and the Golden Calf, however, the Torah, unexpectedly, enjoins the People of Israel to keep the Sabbath.

In Exodus 31:13, G-d instructs Moses to speak to the Jewish people and to say to them: אַךְ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי השׁם מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. However, you [the people of Israel] must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am the L-rd, who makes you holy. The Torah goes on to say that anyone who desecrates the Sabbath shall surely die. Jews, declares the Torah, may work for six days, but the seventh day is to be set aside as a sacred day to G-d in which no work shall be done. The Torah (Exodus 31:17), then affirms that the Sabbath day is an אוֹת–“oht,” a “sign,” between G-d and His people that He made heaven and earth in six days, and rested on the seventh day.

Throughout the five books of the Torah, the Sabbath is mentioned many times, and the penalties for violating the Sabbath are repeated not infrequently, underscoring the seminal importance of the Sabbath day. As would be expected, whenever the Torah mentions Shabbat, it is within an appropriate context. However, here, in parashat Kee Tisah, mention of Shabbat seems to be rather out of context. Shabbat, seemingly, has nothing to do with building the Tabernacle, and certainly nothing to do with the sin of the Golden Calf. Why then is the observance of the Sabbath cited precisely at this point?

Most people, even those minimally organized, set priorities and organizational lists for themselves. Many men and women constantly update their memos in which they spell out, in order of importance, the tasks that need to be done. They are forever arranging and re-arranging their schedules in the hope that they can get everything done, which, of course, is usually not possible. In reality, they aspire to attend to, at least, the most important matters!

At times, the choices that people face when setting priorities are challenging, but the immediate consequences are usually apparent. So, for instance, if a person has gone to great lengths to plan a special vacation, but suddenly feels persistent chest pain, he/she and his/her family will, in most instances, choose to forgo the trip in order to make certain that no one’s health is compromised. Oft times, the correct choice is rather vague. If the same person was planning a vacation and an unexpected lucrative business opportunity arose, that person may also choose to put off the trip, or decide to pass on the business opportunity.

But what do you do when you have two seemingly conflicting Divine commands, the first, to build a Tabernacle, a place in which the Jewish people are to focus on G-d, and the second to observe the Sabbath day by not doing any creative labor? Does the sacred opportunity to build a dwelling place for G-d override the Sabbath, or does the sanctity of the Sabbath override building the dwelling place for G-d?

With no guidance from the Torah, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to argue definitively in favor of fulfilling one Divine directive over another.

Now we see that there is a very cogent reason that the admonition regarding Shabbat was included at this point of the parasha– virtually mid-point in the instructions regarding fashioning the Tabernacle. It is clearly and boldly to underscore the paramount importance of Shabbat. Even though it means delaying the completion of the Tabernacle, Shabbat may not be violated.

This principle is spelled out even more definitively in parashat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:30, where the Torah exhorts the people: אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ, אֲנִי השׁם. You shall observe My Sabbaths, and My sanctuaries shall you revere, I am the L-rd. Sabbath comes before the sanctuary, and is infinitely more important than the Mishkan.

The issue of setting Shabbat as a foremost priority is not simply an ancient hypothetical construct, it is alive-and-well and particularly relevant today. Religious authorities, teachers, rabbis, outreach workers, are all faced with this challenging dilemma on a regular basis. May one invite a Jew to a join a family Shabbat meal or to attend Shabbat synagogue services, when it is known that that Jew will violate the Shabbat by traveling in a forbidden manner to the synagogue or to the host’s home?

Interestingly, this very question, on a grand scale, was faced by leaders of traditional Judaism in the 1950s. Urban sprawl had advanced to become suburban sprawl. Jews were moving to the “burbs,” cars were becoming more and more fashionable. Saturdays had become “family days” to drive to the supermarket, to movie theaters, and to beauty parlors, while the synagogue pews were left increasingly empty. The rabbis’ dilemma was formidable. Should a rabbi instruct his congregants to drive to shul on Shabbat, after all, they’re going to drive anyway? On the other hand, true, they’ll drive anyway, but may a rabbi encourage his congregants to drive in order to fulfill the “mitzvah” of being in synagogue on Sabbath?

At that time, faced with this imponderable conundrum, the non-Orthodox rabbis issued a position paper intended to strengthen Sabbath observance, recommending a number of actions. They stated that, although driving on the Sabbath is prohibited, if one is going to drive anyway, it is preferable to drive to a synagogue! Unfortunately, most people only remembered the “driving part” of the document and forgot the other suggestions intended to increase Sabbath observance.

The Orthodox clergy faced a similar dilemma. After all, many of their congregants were so-called “non practicing Orthodox Jews.” These were Jews, who, if they attended a synagogue, would insist on attending only an Orthodox synagogue, but they themselves were not fastidious regarding strict ritual observance. The Orthodox decisors looked long-and-hard for a loophole, but none could be found. In fact, when faced with the verses in Exodus 31 and Leviticus 19, the rabbis realized that there was no “wiggle room” at all, and were unhappily forced to state categorically that it is better for a Jew to stay home, rather than violate the sanctity of Sabbath. After all, they reasoned, if one may not violate the Sabbath even to build the Tabernacle or Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem, then how can a Jew violate the Sabbath in order to drive to a synagogue service in Syosset, Long Island? (No offense meant to Syosset.)

In reality, there was not much difference between many of those who attended the Orthodox synagogues and their non-Orthodox counterparts, after all, both drove on Shabbat. The non-Orthodox Jews drove on Shabbat, with the reluctant approval of their rabbis. Non-practicing Orthodox Jews drove on Shabbat, despite the strong disapproval of their rabbis.

More than seventy years have passed since those fateful decisions were made, and history can now be brought to bear on the wisdom of those respective decisions. In retrospect, it seems likely that the decision of the non-Orthodox leaders to give “unofficial” approval of driving on Shabbat, enabled more non-Orthodox Jews to move to the suburbs, where they relocated further away from the center of Jewish communal life–after all, they could always drive to the synagogue. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, remained more or less within the proximity of their traditional “ghettos,” in order to be within walking distance of their synagogues.

It could very well be, that the decision of the non-Orthodox leaders to allow driving on Shabbat is what really broke the back of Jewish communal life for the non-Orthodox. In retrospect we now know that community involvement is primary and essential for a strong Jewish life. Living within walking distance of a synagogue, within close proximity to major Jewish institutions and shopping centers, strengthens Jewish observance, and is an essential ingredient to Jewish growth. Having local synagogues and mikvaot, Jewish bookstores and kosher restaurants, Jewish learning centers and Jewish schools within a local community, surely serves as a source of communal strength and encouragement. When those institutions are spread about and not easily accessible, many Jews simply chose not to make the effort to travel, and fail, therefore, to attend or utilize these facilities. Perhaps, most important of all, is that the lack of mobility on Shabbat for traditional Jews results in intergenerational closeness, encouraging families to dwell near one another, thus strengthening the vital family bonds.

It appears that the Al-mighty, in His infinite wisdom, knew that this would be the reality of the 20th and 21st century. The Torah is, after all, a book of wisdom, and declares that Shabbat is an overriding priority for maintaining Jewish identity. That wisdom and insight is proving to be more correct, every single day, of every single year.

May you be blessed.