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Torah Commentary
B'reishit (September 28, 2013)

The Invention of Shabbat

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

WE ARE SO USED to living with a seven-day week that it is hard to remember it is not a natural cycle but an invention. The week is completely different from the day, the month and the year, which are rooted in the observable movements of the sun and moon and, therefore, have been more-or-less the same since ancient times. The week, by contrast, was eight days long in Rome in the time of Julius Caesar and was completely unknown to our prehistoric ancestors.

In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff writes:

Humans once lived without any concept of time at all. In this early, hunter-gatherer existence … people lived in an eternal present, without any notion of before or after, much less history or progress. Things just were… Many religions and mythologies look back longingly on this prehistoric timelessness as a golden age, or Eden … [for our ancestors] felt no pressure to succeed or to progress, to achieve or to improve. They had nowhere to go, since the very notion of a future hadn’t yet been invented.

For Jews in ancient Israel, however, time was marked by a weekly holiday, a cessation of work, Shabbat. As a day of rest, the Sabbath is a celebration of freedom, a reminder that unlike our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, we do not have to work endlessly. For the Israelite slaves, one day was indistinguishable from the next. It is only the Sabbath that enables us to pause to mark the passing of time and to recognize our accomplishments of the previous week.

According to the Bible, Shabbat is not a human invention but a Divine one. Our rest on Shabbat is in imitation of God, who completed the work of creation of heaven and earth over the course of six days. As the sun set, marking the end of the sixth day, God blessed the entire seventh day, and rested and made it holy.

In Hebrew, Shabbat is the only day of the week that has a name — the others are called simply Yom Rishon (“First Day”), Yom Sheni (“Second Day”) and so on. Each of these days is a countdown toward Shabbat. The six days of work effectively are interchangeable; our activities on those six days may vary, but only Shabbat is truly distinct among the days of the week because only Shabbat is holy.

Note that Shabbat is not intrinsically holy in the same way that nights are always dark or winters are cold. In the biblical story of creation, it is only after God decides there is no more work to be done, and it is time to rest that God recognizes the uniqueness of the moment. Only then does God bless the day and declare it kadosh, holy.

At Emanu-El, we call our family service Shabbat Kodesh or “Holy Sabbath” in recognition of our potential to mark time as sacred. As humans, we are created in the Divine image. We are the culminating act of creation. All week long, we imitate God by continuing the work of creation. On Shabbat, we have the prospect of ceasing our labors, of taking stock of all we have accomplished and of celebrating our efforts. We can choose to create moments that are distinct from the other moments of the week. We can pause, as God did and as our enslaved ancestors could not, and through our rest recognize the preciousness of the passing of time.

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