And God spoke to Moses: 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…Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest…” (Ki Tissa, Exodus 31:12-15)
The Torah often refers to the obligation to observe the Shabbat, frequently partnering the commandment with a reminder to perform six days of work first. In order to understand what it means to observe Shabbat, we need to look at the other six days of the week, Sunday through Friday.
The work we do on those days are, in one fashion or another, related to activities which are called in the Torah melachot, labors, referring to the 39 kinds of labors or their derivatives which were involved in the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle or sanctuary that our ancestors were instructed to build in the desert. The melachot included planting seeds, preparing foods by fire, washing wool to remove dirt, sewing, igniting or extinguishing fire, erecting or demolishing a building, and moving an object from one domain to another.
Even though we seldom if ever consider them “holy”, much of our weekday activities are very holy, because they are related to the work our ancestors were instructed to do to build God’s dwelling place. During the week we constructively and creatively engage in those actions. Thinking of our weekday as filled with sacred acts has the potential to transform Sunday through Friday from days of toil to days of holy ventures.
So then, if that is the weekday, what is Shabbat? Many people think of Shabbat as the day of prohibitions – the day with a long list of things we may not do. But Shabbat frees us of those workday responsibilities, giving us the opportunity to refresh ourselves, to reflect on our tasks, and to consecrate ourselves to begin anew. Shabbat represents an end-point. The week is a period of working, building, creating; Shabbat is the cessation of that building. It is not simply rest, inactivity. It is the celebration of the work which has been completed – the idea is that Shabbat occurs only after, because of, the work.
Whatever one’s level of Jewish observance, these freedoms are available to each of us. Consider Shabbat a day of freedom rather than a day of prohibitions.
May your week of holy activities be fruitful and may you be rewarded with a Shabbat of peace.