March 17, 2015, is Election Day here in Israel. I’m looking forward to the date: it’s my once-every-four-years-or-so Sunday. When I came on aliya in 1982 I didn’t realize that I would never again have Sundays: a day to wake up late, go to shul at 8:30, stop at Goldstein’s on the way home for a raisin bun, go on a daytrip somewhere with the family (unless the Giants happen to be on TV), watch a movie and go to sleep feeling rejuvenated. The Israeli work week is from Sunday to Thursday. Our weekend consists of Friday and Shabbat. Friday is not a replacement for Sunday because we spend the day getting ready for Shabbat. Even if we do the Shabbat cooking on Thursday we still have a hard limit of returning home on Friday by sunset. And so the religious people in Israel have developed substitutes for Sundays: Chol Ha’Moed and Election Day. These days don’t come often but we make the most of them.

Sometimes I’m asked if I don’t envy my non-religious friends. While I’m stuck in my house keeping Shabbat they’re out there celebrating Sunday. I answer that I wouldn’t give up Shabbat for all the Sundays in the world, and my support comes from Parashat Ki Tisa. Before embarking on the construction of the Mishkan, Hashem warns Am Yisrael that their zeal to build an earthly home for the Divine should not come at expense of Shabbat [Shemot 31:13-17]: “Just keep My Shabbat! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations… The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat to make Shabbat throughout their generations an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel it is forever a sign that [in] six days Hashem created the heaven and the earth and on the seventh day He ceased and rested.” The Talmud in Tractate Beitza [16a] interprets the word Va’yinafash – “He rested”, as an acronym: “Vai avda nefesh” – “Woe, the soul is gone!” This “soul” is the Neshama Yetera, an “extra” soul that a Jew receives for the entire duration of Shabbat. When Shabbat is over the Neshama Yetera returns to its abode, leaving a palpable hole. It is the Neshama Yetera that keeps my Shabbat and Sunday forever separate.

What is the Neshama Yetera? What does it do? The Talmud really doesn’t say but we can get some (indirect) insight from two Tosafot[1], one in Tractate Beitza [33b DH Ki] and one in Tractate Pesachim [102b DH Rav]. Tosafot ask why Havdala recited after a Shabbat that is immediately followed by a holiday does not require spices (besamim). Two answers are given, and both are based on the premise that Havdala spices are used to ease the pain of the Neshama Yetera leaving the body at the end of Shabbat. The Rashbam explains that as a holiday is accompanied by copious amounts of food and drink, a Jew has a Neshama Yetera on a holiday just like on Shabbat. Tosafot disagree, because if the Rashbam is correct then after a holiday Havdala should be accompanied by spices, and we know this does not happen[2]. Rather, assert Tosafot, the food and drink that we consume on a holiday take the place of the spices of Havdala. Notice that both the Rashbam and Tosafot are saying that the Neshama Yetera somehow manifests itself in eating. Isn’t this counterintuitive? One would have thought that an extra soul should benefit the spirit, not the flesh. One would have thought that the Neshama Yetera helps us rest or daven or learn Torah.

Before we proceed, let’s note two difficulties in the verses alluding to the Neshama Yetera:

  1. The verses begin with the words “The children of Israel shall keep (v’shamru) Shabbat”. Usually the word “keep (shamor)” is relegated to the non-performance of the thirty-nine actions that are forbidden on Shabbat, while the word “remember (zachor) refers to positive actions that must be performed on Shabbat, such as making Kiddush. It would be expected that the Neshama Yetera, which is somehow connected with eating and drinking, would be introduced with the word “remember”.
  2. Why does the Torah allude to the distressing exit of the Neshama Yetera at the conclusion of Shabbat and not to its joyous entrance at the beginning of Shabbat?

For some insight we turn to the Or HaChayim HaKadosh, who proposes an alternate understanding of the word “v’shamru”. In Parashat Vayeshev, when Joseph tells his family of his dreams, his brothers are infuriated and accuse him of delusions of grandeur. His father, Yaakov, thinks otherwise [Bereishit 37:11]: “His brothers envied him, but his father awaited (shamar) the matter”. Rashi explains that “[Yaakov] was waiting and looking forward in expectation (metzapeh) of when [the fulfilment of his dreams] would come”. Similarly, when the Torah commands “V’shamru et ha’Shabbat”, it is telling us that we must always be “looking forward in expectation” to the coming of the Shabbat. What is it that we must look forward to?[3] The answer is clear: if the last words in the verse are referring to the departure of the Neshama Yetera, then the first words must be referring to its arrival. We spend the entire week looking forward to Shabbat and the Neshama Yetera that comes with it. But this just seems to make things worse. Is the sum-total of the Shabbat experience that we spend our week looking forward to limited to eating and drinking?

To answer this question we turn our attention to the first time the Torah discusses “looking forward in expectation”. At the end of Parashat Vayeshev, Yaakov is running away from his father-in-law Lavan. Lavan catches up with Yaakov and they have a family fight[4]. After they kiss and make up, Lavan wants to make a pact with Yaakov. He tells Yaakov [Bereishit 31:44] “Come, let us form a covenant, you and I, and it may be a witness between me and you”. Lavan and Yaakov erect a monument made of stones and they eat next to the monument. Lavan tells Yaakov [Bereishit 31:48-49] “This monument is a witness between me and you today… May [the monument] watch (yitzef[5]) between me and you when we are separate from each other”. The monument does more than just “watch” – it defines a covenantal relationship between Yaakov and Lavan, a relationship complete with mutual responsibilities, rights, and expectations. This explains why Yaakov and Lavan eat next to the monument. The Ramban teaches that “it is the way of people that join together in a covenant to eat from the same bread to demonstrate their mutual admiration and respect”[6].

Now we can tie everything together. The verses describing the Neshama Yetera refer to Shabbat as “an eternal covenant”. Once a week, every week, Am Yisrael and Hashem jointly reaffirm an eternal covenant. What a great honour! What a privilege! The Neshama Yetera is the glow that results from this privilege. While the covenant is spiritual, man is a corporeal creature, and so he ratifies this covenant like he ratifies any other covenant: by eating a meal. But this meal is different than all other meals. Imagine being invited to eat dinner with the President in the White House, to sit with him at the same table. The excitement begins the moment we get the invitation, long before we enter the dining room. Our Shabbat meal celebrates a relationship with the Creator of the World. We are, in some way, eating together with Hashem on the same table and drinking from the same bottle of wine.

I kind of feel sorry for the people who have traded in their Shabbat for just another Sunday.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzippora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] Tosafot are an assortment of glosses on the Talmud and on Rashi’s commentary, written by French and German Sages in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

[2] Havdala after a holiday requires only wine.

[3] The Talmud in Tractate Beitza [16a] tells how Hillel and Shamai would put food away during the week to eat on Shabbat. This can be used to answer our question, but I want to take more holistic approach.

[4] This fight kind of gets out of hand, as Lavan essentially tells Yaakov that he wants to kill him. Were it not for direct Divine intervention, Lavan would have done just that.

[5]Yitzef” has the same root (Z-P-H) as the word “metzapeh”.

[6] Another example of this is when Yitzchak and Avimelech, King of Gerar, sign a non-belligerence pact [Bereishit 26:30-31] “So he made a feast for them, and they ate and drank and they arose early in the morning, and they swore one to the other”.