When I first wrote this musing in 2005, I had been serving for a year-and-one-half a congregation whose religious school operates on Shabbat. That the religious school met on Shabbat (and on Wednesdays) was perhaps not as much a matter of choice, as it was a matter of circumstances, as the congregation has shared sacred space in a Presbyterian Church for 40 (and by now well over 50) years, and they use all the classroom space on Sundays for their school.
Working as a Jewish professional has always presented challenges to finding space and time for Shabbat. I recall times on staff at Jewish summer camps where mine was not a Shabbat of rest, but one of even more work, as I was a specialist. Often my Shabbat was spent in last minute finishing of materials the campers had been working on so they could take them home at the end of a session, or so they could be displayed or otherwise utilized on or right after Shabbat. The situation at this congregation just further complicated things.
It’s not that far a stretch to rationalize operating religious school on Shabbat. It is, after all, work that is Lashem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. And, for a liberal Jew, it shouldn’t be that difficult to accept that rationalization, right?
Yet we get into all sorts of blurry lines here. I did everything I could to avoid handling money – if pizza was coming for the confirmation class, I’d prepay using a credit card including the tip. I’d collect tzedakah boxes but won’t count the money. I tried to put paychecks in boxes before Shabbat. If a school event had an extra charge, I’d try to collect all payments in advance. And so on. The realities sometimes work out differently from the ideal.
So how is the example we adults are setting instilling within our students the importance of Shabbat as expressed in the words of 31:16-17, the words of the “v’shamru.” And especially in light of the preceding verses that condemn Shabbat violators to death, and that order the Shabbat to be a complete rest.
ויאמר יהוה אל־משה לאמר
And the LORD said to Moses:
ואתה דבר אל־בני ישראל לאמר אך את־שבתתי תשמרו כי אות הוא ביני וביניכם לדרתיכם לדעת כי אני יהוה מקדשכם
Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you.
ושמרתם את־השבת כי קדש הוא לכם מחלליה מות יומת כי כל־העשה בה מלאכה ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מקרב עמיה
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.
ששת ימים יעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי שבת שבתון קדש ליהוה כל־העשה מלאכה ביום השבת מות יומת
Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.
ושמרו בני־ישראל את־השבת לעשות את־השבת לדרתם ברית עולם
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time:
ביני ובין בני ישראל אות הוא לעלם כי־ששת ימים עשה יהוה את־השמים ואת־הארץ וביום השביעי שבת וינפש
it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day G”d ceased from work and was refreshed.
The rabbis went a long way to try and solve the practical issues of everyday living that were affected by the commandments (though I’d also suggest that they created some of their own problems and made matters worse in the ways they chose to define the “oral Torah” what provided the basis for what became halacha. There are many who still maintain that the “oral Torah” was given to Moshe along with the written Torah right there at Sinai, and handed down in an unbroken chain. While I find the workings of the rabbis fascinating, and find great value in studying Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, the many commentaries and midrashim, and later works like the Shulkkhan Arukh, there is not a bone in my body that is willing to accept the idea that the oral Torah was given along with the Torah by G”d – or even that it was created by Divinely inspired human hands at the same time as the sefer Torah. I’m enough of a mystic to remain open to the possibility of Torah mi Sinai, though I maintain my general position that the Torah is more likely the work of human beings – perhaps Divinely inspired or guided, perhaps not. In my worldview, what is known as the oral Torah was a product of later generations, and, while potentially as Divinely inspired as Torah, is not deserving of the directly given by G”d to Moshe status that (whether we believe it or not) that we ascribe to the Torah. And yes, we can go further down the rabbit hole here, down academic and scholarly paths that provide significant evidence that even the sefer Torah as we have it now is the result of a process of editing and redaction, so even if given at Sinai or written under Divine inspiration, what we have today has been altered from whatever the urtext was.
I admit to a certain inconsistency here, in allowing for Torah to be either direct from the Divine, or Divinely inspired, though likely of purely human origin, while insisting that the oral Torah is simply not a product of simultaneous origin with the sefer Torah. But that’s my position,a nd I’m sticking to it!
So, back to this matter of the rabbis approaching the commandments in general, and in the case of our parasha, these Shabbat-related commandments from a practical standpoint. While G”d may have provided a double portion of manna in the wilderness, in later years, we had to fend for ourselves. Animals still had to be milked, meals eaten, crops harvested, etc. So the rabbis used other pieces of text to help clarify what it meant to keep Shabbat.
We “shabbat” (cease?) on Shabbat for many reasons, among them that G”d commanded us to do so. And because doing so we act in imitation of G”d during creation. Yet, we are not G”d. So how can our “shabbating” be exactly like G”d’s – a truly complete “shabbating?” It cannot. Our “shabbating” is perforce less the “shabbating” that G”d did on the 7th day. We can, and should, strive for that complete rest, but we’ll never quite get there. Only G”d could and did (and can?)
In our tradition, learning has not been considered an activity prevented on Shabbat. If it were, we wouldn’t be reading from the Torah on Shabbat, because, in building a fence a round the Torah, the rabbis would want to prevent even the possibility of learning something when the Torah was read! (I know it’s a convoluted argument, but it works, sort of.) Therefore, I would conclude that learning is permitted on Shabbat. While some learning comes through experience, most learning requires some teaching, and someone to do the teaching. Torah, indeed, teaches, in an of itself, yet our own history and tradition have shown us that a little help with interpretation is required. And it is learned teachers-rabbis, educators, elders, parents, etc. that help provide this interpretation. (I may not believe the halacha to be based on some Divinely-given oral Torah, and I may not hold with a lot of the halacha, but it remains a useful way to try and understand the Torah,)
So, if learning Torah on Shabbat is permitted, teaching Torah on Shabbat must also be permitted. If it wasn’t, I know a lot of rabbis that are in big trouble. And I would venture that anything we teach in a Jewish religious school is teaching Torah. There’s a nice rationalization we can use. That I did use back then. Sort of.
The issues go on and on. Should a class go on a field trip on Shabbat? Should it visit a soup kitchen and make and serve food? Should it make sandwiches to be taken to shelters? Should it watch a video or DVD? We have many large assemblies and programs. Often, the sound system can’t be set up in advance before Shabbat. Is it OK to set it up and use it? Should we have our faculty meetings after school on Shabbat as has traditionally been done?
I am certain that for every one of these questions, a suitably acceptable modern liberal interpretative workaround can be formulated. Yet, still, for me, the rationalizations often fall short. My discomfort with “working” on Shabbat remains. (Never mind that my liberal sensibilities already permit me to use my musical talents on instruments on Shabbat in service to enhancing the worship experience of others and myself.) Never mind that I can’t afford to live anywhere near where I work, so I must drive to and from the synagogue on Shabbat.
At least, that’s where my head was at when I wrote that last paragraph back in 2005. Now, my perspective has grown. To begin with, in the almost 6 years I served that congregation with religious school on Shabbat, I came to observe a curious effect. For the families of that congregation, Saturday became the day when they “did Jewish.” Which meant that when we tried to have events on Sunday, or participate in community-wide Jewish events or educational activities on Sundays when most such events were scheduled to coincide with what most congregations were doing, it was difficult to get people from our congregation to come. The “this is when we do Jewish” effect is not unique, and exists in many of the liberal congregations I have been privileged to serve. Also, having been away from that congregation for many years, I am also realizing that having religious school on Shabbat is an idea worth reconsidering for almost any liberal congregation (at least ones that are open to the use of technology, electronics, etc.) There is something incredibly vibrant taking place in a congregation where all the kids are in the building learning at the same time their parents are in the building praying. The silo-ing that one sees in so many congregations between religious school families and regular service attendees often feels like it has created a huge chasm that is difficult to cross.
So, back to 2005. I had been searching for something to help me with this inner dilemma or “working” on Shabbat in service to Jewish education. I thought I might have found something, and it had been staring me in the face for a long time.
At the end of the v’shamru, the last words of v. 31:17 it says “Shabbat vayinafash.” The Hebrew construction of this verb root, which means “to be refreshed” is, in this case, reflexive, that is, it is to cause oneself to be refreshed. As the root, in noun form can also mean “soul” it is as if G”d were “re-souling” G”d’s-self. (Interestingly enough, and to acknowledge you Hebrew grammar wonks out there, this verb form, the niphal, is usually a simple passive form of a verb, and is only reflexive in some cases. It is a different binyan, hitpael, that is usually used to represent a reflexive usage. I won’t get into the weeds here and explain why the scholars dub this particular verbal form as being reflexive in this particular case, but if you want to understand it yourself, tze ulemad – go and learn! In any case, I find this fact doubly interesting, because while we might think of Shabbat as a time when we should be passive, it really is more a time for being reflexive! )
So, in our best efforts to imitate G”d and observe Shabbat, we are called upon to “refresh ourselves” or “restore our own soul to ourselves.” There is little doubt in my mind that the overall feeling I got when religious school was in session on those Saturdays, despite the exhaustion it produced, was refreshing and restorative. As tired as I may have come away from several hours of dealing with students, teachers, parents and more, I can say that I did come away refreshed, renewed, with a restored soul ready to go on into the week.
Now there’s an approach that worked for me. For that time in my life. What about you? What will enable you to refresh yourself, to restore your own soul, on Shabbat? Find it, and do it, whatever it is. If it is true rest, then rest. If it is study, study. If it is going to shul, then go to shul. If it’s a Shabbat walk and a nap, then walk and nap. There are other more secular things you can do that I won’t list here, as each of us must make a choice, and, for my part, I’d rather not encourage you to consider them-but, then again, if that is what accomplishes your “shabbating” who am I to judge?
U’vayom hashvi’i, shavat vayinash. And on the seventh day (G”d) “shabbated” and “refreshed G”d’s-self.” That is how we must each “guard” and “do” (“observe,” my foot! The word is la’asot, from the root meaning “to do.” Nu, how does one “do ceasing?” You figure it out.)
©2018 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha
Ki Tisa 5776 – It Didn’t Matter
Ki Tisa 5775 – Shabbat Is A Verb II
Ki Tissa 5774 – Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)
Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 – Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Redux and Revised)
Ki Tisa 5772 – Other G”d?
Ki Tisa 5771 – Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 – A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men’s Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan